Chances are, if you tell a group of activists that you want to ban them from wearing masks in public places, they will show up at a City Council meeting wearing masks.
That’s what happened Monday, as Councilor Tim McCarthy’s proposal for a city ordinance prohibiting “wearing a mask to conceal one’s identity on public property” was met with strong opposition from advocates who argued that the law would infringe on their free speech rights and compromise public safety.
Several advocates brought masks, their attempt to poke fun at what they called the “absurdity” of the proposal. And although City Hall security said masks wouldn’t be allowed during a council hearing, Alex Marthews kept his on anyway.
“Do you feel threatened right now?” Marthews, of Belmont, asked councilors, during the public input session.
McCarthy’s proposal was in response to the public outcry that followed the Aug. 31 so-called Straight Pride Parade in Boston during which dozens of counterprotesters were arrested for allegedly turning violent and unruly.
McCarthy argued that protesters shouldn’t be allowed to use masks to conceal their identity while they carry out violent crimes, especially against police officers.
“Let’s be honest, this counterprotest was not a peaceful protest,” he said, singling out Antifa, the movement of antifascist groups who have been known to engage in violence. “What they’re doing is not speech, they’re using force and violence, and that is not acceptable.”
The counterprotesters at the parade have argued that Boston police were hostile and used overly aggressive tactics, such as pepper-spraying the crowd and strong-arming peaceful activists.
Last week, WBUR reported that the police officers at the protests were not wearing body cameras, which were recently approved for use. Councilors plan to hold a separate hearing on the failure to use body cameras at the protest.
On Monday, McCarthy called for a “common sense” prohibition that would allow people to wear masks for religious or other justifiable reasons, but would ban them in large protests where there is a possibility of violence or unruly demonstrations. His proposal was welcomed by the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association.
“This is not free speech; This is lawlessness, and the council can and should deter it,” said Larry Calderone, the association’s vice president.
But the proposal drew pause from some city councilors who noted the state already has laws that call for tougher punishments when a mask is used in the commission of the crime. City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George questioned whether the council would be looking to duplicate a prohibition already addessed by state law. Councilor Lydia Edwards questioned whether an outright ban is necessary.
Boston police Superintendent William Ridge, head of field services, said police on Aug. 31 confronted an organized movement that seemed determined to turn violent and unruly. He said the existing law failed to deter the use of masks by people who grew disorderly, though he could not say whether anyone was charged with the enhanced penalties.
Several advocates, who said they attended the protests and accused police of overreacting with aggressive tactics, said police overlooked one of the key reasons for them wearing masks: Their own safety. The advocates argued that they, or their associates, have been harassed and threatened by right-wing groups after they were identified as speaking out against them.
“I did not attend the protest looking for a fight,” said one woman, 60, who did not provide her name. “I wore a mask to keep me safe,” she said.