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Georgia police invoke law made for KKK to arrest anti-racism protesters

Protesters wearing masks were tackled and arrested by police in Newnan, Ga., on April 21, during a rally hosted by the National Socialist Movement. (Video: Ryan Guillory Sr., Photo: Spencer Platt/Ryan Guillory Sr.)

The neo-Nazis were running late, so the counterprotesters began without them, lining the streets of Newnan, Ga., on Saturday afternoon.

The target of their counterprotest was the National Socialist Movement, the neo-Nazis who had planned a public rally. But things quickly went awry for the counterprotesters who were wearing masks or bandannas that concealed their faces — a problem in the eyes of some police officers. About 2:30 p.m., police began to point their guns at a crowd of the anti-racism protesters gathered on a sidewalk.

“State law requires you to remove your masks right now,” one SWAT officer told the crowd, according to video footage from the scene. “You will do it right now or you will be arrested.”

Within minutes, several counterprotesters were in handcuffs. Video footage from the scene showed SWAT officers pulling some counterprotesters off the curb and throwing them to the ground. One man wearing a bandanna over his face was arrested as counterprotesters chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” The officers continued to yell, “Remove your masks!”

More than 700 officers had swarmed the town because of the rally, many of them in full riot gear carrying military-style weapons.

As it turns out, the state law police cited before arresting those protesting racism in masks has a rather ironic origin: It was passed in Georgia in 1951 to combat those promoting racism in hoods.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, throughout the latter half of the 20th century, police enforced the Anti-Mask Act against members of the white-hooded Ku Klux Klan in an effort to quell their public gatherings. In more recent years, however, it has been used against masked counterprotesters at white supremacist rallies.

Jeremy Ortega, a 19-year-old charged with a misdemeanor for wearing a mask, told the Journal-Constitution that people were trying to hide their identities to avoid being targeted by the white-power groups. He is among at least 10 counterprotesters arrested Saturday, although not all were arrested for wearing masks. Some were arrested for obstructing a roadway, the Journal-Constitution reported.

The neo-Nazis marched into town wearing all black, bearing flags and yelling “white power,” the Newnan Times-Herald reported. There were no arrests.

Ortega said he is considering a lawsuit against the police.

“They were trying to stop us, and we were trying to dial down the racist stuff,” he told the news outlet. “We were peacefully protesting, yet they put guns in our faces and told us to take our masks off. It made no sense.”

As of Sunday night, all the arrested counterprotesters had been released from jail on bail, according to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which provides financial support to those who get arrested while protesting.

The Coweta County Sheriff’s Office reported no injuries to officers or protesters, saying the rally was “very peaceful for the most part,” despite a “handful of arrests.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the United States, anti-mask laws were passed in at least 18 states by the end of the 20th century, most between the 1920s and 1950s. In Georgia, the Anti-Mask Act was enacted two years after a Klan parade in Wrightsville, Ga., on the eve of an election that reportedly kept 400 black people from going to vote, among the incidents that lawmakers cited in pushing for its passage.

The law has been challenged multiple times on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment’s protection of free speech — but the Georgia Supreme Court rejected that argument in 1990.

At that time, Shade Miller waltzed into a Georgia town dressed in full Ku Klux Klan regalia and was quickly arrested. He argued that wearing the white hood was protected symbolic speech. But the justices, in a 6 to 1 opinion, focused on the intimidating nature of “masked vigilantes.”

“We know that ‘public disguise is a particularly effective means of committing crimes of violence and intimidation. From the beginning of time the mask or hood has been the criminal’s dress. It conceals evidence, hinders apprehension and calms the criminal’s inward cowardly fear,’ ” the court said. “A nameless, faceless figure strikes terror in the human heart. But, remove the mask, and the nightmarish form is reduced to its true dimensions. The face betrays not only identity, but human frailty.”

But the Anti-Mask Act, the justices wrote, “is content neutral,” and therefore isn’t intended to apply only to Klansmen.

Across the country, over the past decade, anti-mask laws have been applied to Occupy Wall Street protesters wearing Guy Fawkes-style masks in New York and Antifa protesters in Alabama at an event hosted by Richard Spencer, a leader of the white nationalist movement. In Georgia in 2016, eight counterprotesters in masks were arrested while protesting white supremacists.

Like the protesters Saturday, they found little reason for the police to consider the masks threatening.

“It was just a tool for them to suppress the crowd,” one counterprotester told the Journal-Constitution then.

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