Police in Georgia arrested a handful of anti-racist and antifascist activists counterprotesting a rally of about two-dozen Nazis on Saturday, using a law written to combat the Ku Klux Klan to jail marchers who wore masks.
Many such activists choose to go masked at public events to make it harder for opposing internet sleuths to weaponize their politics with employers or fellow right-wingers. But Georgia banned masks at public rallies in 1951 in hopes of stripping KKK members of their anonymity in public.
“We were peacefully protesting, yet they put guns in our faces and told us to take our masks off,” 19-year-old Jeremy Ortega told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Ortega was one of the people charged with a misdemeanor for wearing a mask Saturday in Newnan, a town about 40 minutes from Atlanta where members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) had gathered. Another counterprotester, 36-year-old Daniel Hanley, told the paper he believes police targeted him for arrest because he was leading chants with a megaphone.
“They were trying to find any pretext to shut us down,” Hanley, who was charged with obstructing foot traffic, said. “The moment we stepped foot there, they intimidated us and strategically tried to target people.”
Later that night, NSM members burned a large wooden swastika and other neo-Nazi symbols in a field 40 miles northwest of Newnan.
Masks are becoming a flashpoint for the justice system’s evolving attempts to handle potentially volatile encounters between a white supremacist movement emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump, and a larger opposing camp of loosely organized activists.
Federal prosecutors have sought lengthy prison terms for anyone who joined a so-called “sea of black masks” on Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. last year, arguing that hundreds of people who kept marching and sought to make themselves hard to identify that day were culpable for the more violent actions of a small handful of protesters. As antifascist groups have mobilized to deny racist right-wing speakers a platform to give speeches in public parks and on college campuses in recent years, legal questions about mask-wearing have popped up in a variety of states.
If masks provide a throughline connecting events in Newnan to a national narrative, the character of the police response there Saturday marks a break from that pattern.
Video captured by the Huffington Post’s Christopher Mathias shows one of the encounters between counterprotesters and a unit of police in the drab olive fatigues, body armor, and tactically harnessed military-style rifles.
“State law requires you to remove your masks right now. You will do it right now or you will be arrested,” the unit’s leader told the crowd as members of his unit with both hands on their rifles fanned out to flank the group. “This is your last warning.”
Someone in the clump of protesters began clapping out a rhythm, leading the group in a chant in response to the warning: “Cops and Nazis sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” the group shouted back at him.
— Christopher Mathias (@letsgomathias) April 21, 2018
The group was funneled in the direction of another, similarly outfitted group of police on foot and in armored vehicles, Mathias reported, effectively trapping them. In at least one instance captured in the reporter’s videos, a police officer points his weapon at a masked protester standing still a couple of feet in front of him.
The military character of the police action here was probably inevitable. Newnan’s been sitting on a million dollars’ worth of remaindered Pentagon equipment distributed through the notorious “1033” program that ships the military’s leftovers to domestic security services – even tiny ones in places that have no realistic need for such gear. The Obama administration had sought new checks on that program on the grounds that a militarized police force is a dangerous police force, but Trump rescinded the changes last August.
Police responses to public rallies by white supremacist groups that also draw large crowds of opponents have varied widely since the deadly chaos in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August. Mistakes made by officials there prompted police elsewhere to apply very different tactics to such events. Police in Newnan reflect a third approach, avoiding the outgunned passivity that ThinkProgress reporters witnessed in Charlottesville but also going far beyond the preemptive pragmatism other agencies have employed since.
Police in Charlottesville found themselves stuck between two large, heavily armed opposing groups in a setting they could not control, watching haplessly as the groups bloodied one another. For more than an hour of skirmishes, hundreds of police were outgunned by a few dozen militiamen, and armed bands roamed the city for hours after the melee was dispersed.
A few weeks later in Massachusetts, cops opted for a quite different approach at a similar but much smaller rally in Boston. Police there used barricades to cordon people into two entirely separated spaces based on their affiliation, giving them the kind of control over crowd interactions that Virginia officials never achieved. Other rallies and speeches in Michigan and Colorado have produced violence between opposing camps of civilians, but never to the same level of chaos.
Georgia’s aggressive approach Saturday put law enforcement leaders there on the same page as the militiamen in Charlottesville: Out in front, with long guns, focusing attention on forestalling a perceived threat from counterprotesters.