Picture credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Banning masks from protests is a bad idea

Anonymity can be essential to dissent against tyrannical regimes

Police should be given powers to ban face coverings at protests, the government’s independent advisor on political violence has recommended.

Former Labour MP John Woodcock, now Lord Walney, recently confirmed that the proposal was included within the 100,000-word review into countering political violence and disruption that he submitted to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak just before Christmas.

The report is to be published shortly, with the government set to respond to its recommendations later in the year.

Lord Walney was initially asked to lead the wide-ranging review in 2021 by the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, amid claims that extremists had infiltrated various protest groups, including Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. “We must be vigilant against … the prospect of progressive extremism,” Lord Walney said at the time.

Fears over the introduction into the UK of “black bloc” style protest tactics first pioneered by radical anarchist groups in the US have intensified in recent months, with activists intent on causing violence and criminal damage now donning sunglasses, ski masks, sunglasses and motorcycle helmets to hide their identities.

Since Hamas’s 7th October terrorist attack on Israel’s southern kibbutzim, and Israel’s subsequent military response, London and many other major UK cities have regularly been convulsed by pro-Palestine marches, in which a sizeable minority of protesters have clashed with officers, shouted antisemitic slogans, or brandished antisemitic placards, while wearing face or ski masks, or scarfs, to obscure their faces.

Speaking to the Home Affairs Select Committee in December last year, Met Police Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist described this as “the greatest period of sustained pressure on the Met since the Olympics in 2012”.

“We have more than 800 open hate crimes and over 6,000 hours of officer time will be needed to investigate them all,” he added.

At present, if a Section 60AA (Criminal Justice Act 1994) order is in effect in a specific area, a police officer can demand that any item a person is wearing to conceal their identity is removed. Failure to comply with that request can result in an arrest.

Lord Walney’s proposals would go beyond these existing provisions, granting the police powers to make a ban on masks an explicit condition before a march could go ahead. If the organisers refused to agree, police would be able to ban the march — and bar future demonstrations if they failed to abide by the conditions.

Former Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick has already backed the idea. “The impunity for extremists on our streets must end,” he said in an interview with the Sun, adding: “A ban on face coverings will drive up arrests and successful prosecutions, ensuring extremists face the full force of the law.”

Former Home Secretary Priti Patel agreed. “With the threats our country faces,” she said, “it is vital that our law enforcement are given all the tools and powers to tackle protesters and terrorism to keep the public and the country safe.”

Lord Walney himself approvingly re-tweeted an article outlining his proposal, and made a point of emphasising the headline: “What would peaceful demonstrators have to fear from a ban on masks to tackle intimidation and violence?”

The answer is “quite a lot”, as it happens. 

That’s principally because ours is a global, digital, and increasingly interconnected world in which “the law of the land” (or lex loci to borrow the old English common law term) is no longer necessarily coterminous with the territorial borders of any given nation-state — and nowhere is that more so than when the mechanisms of government fall into the hands of repressive, authoritarian regimes.  

In other words, British coppers, bound as they are by this country’s law, regulations and rules, are not the only, or indeed the primary, concern for a sizable minority of protesters based in the UK.

Writing for Spiked, Georgia Leigha Gilholy from the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation points out that although the mask ban may have been proposed with pro-Palestine protests in mind, its application will extend well beyond them, and will likely prevent UK-based dissidents protesting against repressive states like Iran and China.

Both countries are of course known to operate on British soil, intimidating and plotting against UK-based critics.

So when Hong Kong activists based in the UK wear face masks at protests in London, they do so not because they’re intent on breaking the law and hope to avoid arrest, but because they need to protect themselves (and their families) from China’s global network of surveillance systems.

The Chinese Special Administrative Region’s draconian national security law, passed in 2020, contains an extraterritorial clause criminalising support for Hong Kong independence anywhere in the world. Inevitably, this provision is now being used as a justification for the Chinese state to surveil and intimidate Hong Kong nationals abroad, often with consequences for their families back home.

Simon Cheng, founder of the community organisation Hongkongers in Britain, recently said the group had heard of at least 10 cases in which Hong Kongers were pressured by police upon returning to the territory for political activities abroad, and even more cases where relatives back home had been harassed.

“The police question them about which activists and organisations they’ve met while abroad. They consider the crime of ‘collusion with foreign forces’ to include meeting with any groups they consider anti-China, not just foreign governments,” Cheng said.

The Iranian regime has also long demonstrated that it is ready, willing and able to threaten the lives of Iranians living in Britain, with agents from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps orchestrating a Europe-wide campaign of harassment, surveillance, kidnap plots and death threats, targeting political activists who protest against the regime.

The Guardian, for instance, has spoken to 15 Iranian campaigners, all of whom have been targeted in similar acts of repression across the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Sweden. In most of the cases, the activists had been warned by western police or security agencies that Iran is behind credible threats to their life in retribution for their activism on European soil.

Unmasked journalists and citizen journalists that report on the ongoing protests against the Iranian government, either in Iran or outside the Iranian embassy in London, have repeatedly been threatened and found hostile Iranian surveillance teams outside their homes and offices in the UK.

Speaking in Parliament last year, Bob Blackman MP (Con: Harrow East) noted that the Met had written to one London-based journalist warning that Iranian journalists working from the UK had been lured back to countries near Iran, then abducted by the Iranian Government and sentenced to death.

Few will sympathise with the anti-Israel protesters in London and other major European cities currently committing antisemitic hate crimes and hoping to get away with it under cover of a face mask or other, similar facial accoutrement. But a total ban on face masks risks curtailing the freedom to protest of émigrés who fear the long, repressive reach of their totalitarian homeland.

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