The Unmasking Antifa Act: Behind the Mask of History

On the 86th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street where anti-fascist Londoners fought and stopped fascists marching through the primarily Jewish section of East London, it’s important to know the history of anti-fascism and the current surge in fascism.

In a recent interview with author and organizer scott crow on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson accused Antifa of being “committed to violence” failing to mention that far right-wing violence, bomb making, and murders have been on the rise.

crow responded:

“You’re conflating people who are trying to stop people who are calling for genocide and the murder, wholesale murder of huge populations of people, immigrants, women, calling for rape, and so these people want to stop that physically in some instances but largely behind the scenes.” crow continued, “They [antifa] just confront fascism and neo-Nazis where they’re at. If neo-Nazis come to the street then antifa shows up there to stop them.”

On June 8, 2018, the Unmasking Antifa Act of 2018 was introduced into Congress by Republican New York Representative Daniel M. Donovan, Jr. and co-sponsored by three others including Republican Representative Ted Budd who represents North Carolina’s 13th District where Greensboro is located. The historical significance of Greensboro is it’s where the first lunch diner sit-ins took place in 1960 during the Civil Rights Movement and also the Greensboro Massacre in 1979 where five Communist Workers’ Party members were murdered and 10 more injured at an Anti-Klan rally. The massacre was seen as a turning point in far right-wing violence because it was when neo-Nazis and the KKK came together with police collusion, drawing further outrage when the suspects were acquitted.

The bill’s name ostensibly gives a nod to the right-wing while its details state, “penalty enhancements for committing certain offenses while in disguise, and for other purposes.” Margot Kaminski, Associate Professor of Law at Colorado Law told Freedom Press, “The biggest Constitutional flag about this bill is not its topic but its title. The Supreme Court has made abundantly clear that laws cannot discriminate on the basis of viewpoint or content. A law that targets leftist organizations in its very name is suspect as viewpoint discrimination. And the Supreme Court has found that where the government targets even unprotected speech in the name of going after particular content or viewpoints, that is unconstitutional (see RAV v. City of St. Paul).”

When asked why the bill was directed at leftist or anti-authoritarian organizing opposed to right-wing groups Mark Bray, political organizer, historian and author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook told Freedom Press: “Because the bill’s authors are right-wing. They are trying to play to their constituencies. Bills like this are not based in fact or evidence but rather fear-mongering. I see it as really just the latest twist in a long series of anti-anarchist laws and provisions. The bill’s authors don’t actually have the slightest clue what ‘antifa’ means or who they are.”

Kristian Williams, author and scholar on policing and state violence told Freedom News, “The state, and law enforcement in particular, at least in the US, has a permanent bias against the left.  The threshold for acting against the left is much lower than for acting against the right. Police are far more likely to view left-wing activity as illegal, dangerous, or violent, even though all evidence (including FBI statistics) show the right to have been consistently more violence-prone than the left, now and throughout history.” A recent example of police targeting anti-fascist protesters was seen at the Patriot Prayer Rally on August 4, 2018, in Portland, Oregon. The ACLU filed a complaint for excessive force used on counter-protesters and A.C. Thompson, journalist for ProPublica and correspondent for the documentary Documenting Hate: Charlottesville stated on Democracy Now! that “from what I saw, it seemed like the group that was getting the harsher police treatment seemed to be the leftist faction, the anti-racist faction.”

When asked where this disparity in treatment comes from Williams commented, “The difference, I think, is that the job of the police is only secondarily connected to questions of law or public safety and primarily about preserving the existing distribution of power. The left by definition aims to alter that distribution, while the right seeks to reinforce hierarchies of power.  The police tend to view the left, even in its most law-abiding forms, as an existential threat. They view the right more neutrally, or even sympathetically, and thus more tolerantly.”

Regarding historical comparisons to the Unmasking Antifa Act, Bray stated, “Perhaps the most obvious would be the anti-mask laws passed against the KKK which have apparently been used against leftists recently. There have also been quite a few anti-anarchist laws in the US and abroad over the past 150 years though they did not address masks.” Kaminski added that “an 1845 New York anti-mask law that was enacted in response to anti-rent protestors who protested in disguise as ‘Indians’.” Kaminski emphasized that, “Just because these laws are on the books, however, does not make them constitutional. Courts have come down on both sides of the issue, protecting the First Amendment right of protesters against the Shah of Iran to cover their faces to prevent reprisals against their families (Aryan v. Mackey), and refusing to find that wearing a KKK mask constitutes “expressive conduct” (Ku Klux Klan v. Kerik).”

On the Time Talks Podcast, Andrea Pitzer, journalist and author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps said “I think we have to be very vigilant and dangerous as sort of consumers of news and people thinking about history just as the general public needs to be as well as scholars and suspicious of anytime there’s this blanket term used for people to lump them into some identity.” Pitzer explained that these type of laws can lead to a two-tiered legal system with an Orwellian outcome where “all people are equal but some are more equal than others.” Pitzer concluded stating, “I’m not for legislation that specifically targets particular groups, I think we do much better as a society when we have sets of laws that focus on very specific behaviors and have penalties for those behaviors, not penalties of association, because penalties of association is how you get to camps. Many people were put in camps by race or ethnicity but just as many have been put in because of their political affiliations, because of their religious affiliations. Anytime you are prejudging or preemptively sentencing a group of people based on association it usually means that you’re being very lazy with your law enforcement.”

Regarding what precedent this bill would set, Bray said, “It would contribute to the efforts of the state to make militant, direct action resistance impossible. I see it as part of the same trend as the laws proposed in various states to make it legal for motorists to run over protesters in roadways,” Bray continued, “In an age of nearly complete surveillance, if it becomes impossible to demonstrate anonymously (perhaps this has already been achieved) that would have significant repercussions for who fights back and how. This bill should be understood in the context of the failed J20 prosecutions. This seems like a way to make sure that the next J20-style dragnet actually works.”

Concerning free speech and surveillance Kaminski said, “The Supreme Court has, in a number of cases, recognized a First Amendment right to anonymous speech and to privacy in one’s associations (McIntyre v. Ohio, Watchtower Bible, Talley, NAACP v. Alabama).” Kaminski continued, “The question raised by both existing laws and this proposed law is how far this right to anonymity extends beyond protecting speech as words on a page, to protecting anonymity in the context of freedom of assembly and related expressive activity. People who are in fear of increased government surveillance, or even just fearing reprisal by their communities for expressing controversial views, may need anonymity as a ‘shield from the tyranny of the majority’ (the Court’s words in McIntyre)– otherwise, their expressive and associative activity may be chilled.”

H.R. 6054: Unmasking Antifa Act of 2018 was referred to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations on July 30. 2018. If the Act passes the committee it will first be voted on by the House.

Chris Steele


Photo: It’s Going Down