Rep. Jay Lawrence wants to create criminal penalties for protesters who wear masks to hide their identity while committing crimes, and likened those modern day protesters to the Ku Klux Klan.
The Scottsdale Republican took to Facebook on August 23 to announce he’s working with staff at the Arizona House of Representatives to draft a bill that would be similar in nature to “unmasking” laws in other states. States like Alabama and Ohio adopted various mask bans in the 1940s and 1950s in response to Klan activity.
Lawrence said he “absolutely” sees similarities in today’s protesters to the Ku Klux Klan.
“The thugs wearing masks and throwing things at police officers and breaking windows and robbing and pillaging while wearing masks and hoods are the equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan,” Lawrence said. “Now, there are no hangings of white people, yet.”
His announcement comes the morning after President Trump’s rally in downtown Phoenix ended with city police using smoke, pepper spray and flash bangs on crowds protesting the rally, a use of force on what were reportedly “largely peaceful crowds.” The Phoenix Police Department will investigate, according to Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams.
After speaking with police who have been on duty at protests, Lawrence said banning masks could deter violence, or at least make it easier to identify those who commit violent acts against officers or property. Lawrence wrote that, while “the right to anonymity is sometimes desirable in healthy political discourse … too many who wish to act violently hide behind hoods or masks in an effort to intimidate or conceal their identity from law enforcement.”
The bill would focus on masked protesters at political parades or demonstrations “involved in acts of violence” or “interfering with those at the scene trying to maintain order,” Lawrence wrote.
First Amendment attorney Dan Barr said such an effort would likely run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, and that wearing a mask can be protected as free speech.
“Wearing a mask can be an act of expression, if you’re wearing a certain mask to send a message or simply to hide who you are so you can express political views without being retaliated against by your employers, coworkers or whomever,” Barr said. “And, obviously, if you were to commit a criminal act and they arrest you, they would unmask you. When you have your mugshot taken at the police station, you’re not wearing a mask.”
Barr compared violent protesters to a bank robber – the robber wears a mask to conceal their identity, but when they’re caught, they’re charged with the robbery, not over wearing a mask.
Lawrence said it’s too soon to tell if the bill would conflict with the First Amendment. But he’s disgusted by scenes of masked protesters committing violent acts, a trend that’s recurring more and more, he said.
He referenced the violent protests in February at the University of California, Berkeley, where university officials cancelled an appearance by right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos after “150 masked agitators” set fires and smashed windows. He also mentioned violent protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man shot to death by a white officer.
Police officers are being pelted with rocks, urine-filled bottles and other objects at these protests, Lawrence said.
“I am offended by those people at these demonstrations wearing masks so they can’t be identified, hurling things, running away. I’m offended,” he said.
After the anti-Trump protests in Phoenix turned violent, Lawrence singled out Antifa, which he said threw rocks and bottles at police. But generally, Lawrence said he wants to unmask any group that commits acts of violence.
“A hate group by any other name, or a hate group by any other identity or any other color, is still a hate group. Whether they be a white supremacist hate group or a Antifa or Black Lives Matter, they have been violent and worn hoods and masks,” Lawrence said. “Whoever they are, I don’t want them wearing masks and hoods.”
If Lawrence is successful, Arizona could join the ranks of other states with unmasking laws on the books.
In Alabama, police were able to force anti-fascist protesters to remove their masks at a protest of an April speech by white supremacist Richard Spencer thanks to a 1949 law declaring it’s illegal to wear a mask in public places in the state, except for certain occasions like Halloween and Mardi Gras. That law, The New York Times reported, was approved in response to the Ku Klux Klan, as were others adopted around that time.
West Virginia has a similar ban on wearing masks in public except for holidays or as winter sports attire.
Ohio’s law makes it illegal for two or more people to wear “white caps, masks or other disguises” while committing misdemeanor crimes.
Even California had an anti-mask law on the books for years, until it was struck down following a lawsuit from Iranian-Americans in 1979. California lawmakers replaced that law with a new statute similar to Ohio’s, and made it illegal to wear a mask while committing a crime, the Times reported.