The police chief of Portland, Oregon, is calling for legislation banning masks worn by demonstrators after violent street clashes between rival protesters last weekend left eight people injured.
“In other states, you’ll see that it’s illegal to wear a mask during the commission of a crime,” Police Bureau Chief Danielle Outlaw told reporters Wednesday, according to CNN affiliate KOIN. “I understand and we wholeheartedly support individuals’ first amendment right to free speech, but we cannot allow … people to use the guise of free speech to commit crimes.”
Outlaw was referring to violent demonstrations that erupted Saturday, when, she said, masks worn by some protesters hindered officers’ ability to identify suspects. Clashing protesters included anti-fascist — or Antifa — demonstrators and members of right-wing groups, such as the Proud Boys, according to CNN affiliates KOIN and KATU.
“Legislation would really be helpful — prohibiting the wearing of mask during the commission of a crime,” she said, referring to steps the city could take to head off such violence in the future.
“If you knew that you can be easily identified, do you think you would be as inclined to commit that act of violence or commit that crime?” Outlaw asked. “A lot of people are emboldened because they know they can’t be identified.”
Other jurisdictions have tried, some successfully, to outlaw the donning of masks in public or at public protest events, though opponents argue the act is protected by the First Amendment.
‘We can all become anonymous’
Antifa members say dressing completely in black, sometimes with faces covered by masks — a tactic known as “black bloc” — aims to unify demonstrators’ efforts and hide their identities for their own protection.
“People put on the masks so that we can all become anonymous, right? And then, therefore, we are able to move more freely and do what we need to do, whether it is illegal or not,” Scott Crow, a former Antifa activist, told CNN.
Under a bill introduced last year in Congress, Antifa activists would have faced up to 15 years in jail for wearing masks. HR 6054 would have punished anyone wearing a mask or disguise who “injures, oppresses, threatens, or intimidates” someone else exercising a right guaranteed under the Constitution
The bill’s title — “Unmasking Antifa Act of 2018” — made it clear that Antifa activists were its target, but the text of the bill, sponsored by US Rep. Dan Donovan, R- New York, never mentioned them. The bill did not make it out of committee; Donovan is no longer in Congress.
Andy Ngo, who works for a conservative website, was among those caught up in the recent violence in Portland, and he blames Antifa protesters for the attack, he told CNN.
Ngo was hurt when he was beaten by a group of demonstrators — some wearing masks — and video from the scene shows him being kicked, punched and sprayed with a liquid.
A post on a website for the Rose City Antifa group earlier this month had called on its supporters to “defend” Portland against a planned Proud Boys demonstration. When reached by CNN via email, Rose City Antifa would not comment on allegations that its participants were involved in the attack against Ngo.
Antifa activists, who operate without any centralized leadership, previously have told CNN that their goal is peace and inclusivity. They often denounce racism as well as capitalism and government.
Their methods are often violent. Antifa activists admit they’re willing to physically attack anyone who employs violence against them or who condones racism — as long as force is used in the name of eradicating hatred.