Face Masks

Masks are everywhere: at street festivals, carnivals, masquerade balls, and of course street protests against the world’s elite, their meetings, and their parties. The autonomous indigenous community in Southern Mexico known as the Zapatistas wear masks to be faceless — to identify with the faceless victims of neo-liberalism and corporate globalization. Masks are also worn here in the US for anonymity and solidarity as we struggle for a more human existence. This article addresses the wearing of masks in the context of the demonstrations during the Republican National Convention (RNC) to be held in New York City this summer.


In 1845, the State of New York passed a law which forbade the wearing of masks. It authorized the pursuit and arrest of anyone who “having his face painted, discolored, covered or concealed, or being otherwise disguised, in a manner calculated to prevent him from being identified, shall appear in any road or public highway, or in any field, lot, wood, or enclosure.” It was originally adopted to thwart armed insurrections by Hudson Valley tenant farmers who dressed and painted themselves as Native Americans to attack law enforcement officers over rent issues. The law was then shelved for most of the 20th Century until 1965, when it was used to criminalize transvestites and drag queens who wore too much make-up for the authorities to bear.

More recently, the law has resurfaced in two contexts: At a KKK rally in 2001 and during the large-scale protests of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in January 2002. In the last year, through efforts of the Church of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the New York Civil Liberties Union, the mask law was temporarily overturned as a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression. Since then, the mask law has been reinstated.

Shortly before the WEF came to New York, but only a few months after 9/11, the New York Police Department announced that they would be enforcing the mask law at the scheduled protests at the Waldorf Astoria. Despite the pledge of nonviolence signed and given to obtain the necessary permits to march, sections of the march were repeatedly cordoned off from the main body of the march and brutalized (with batons and pepper spray) without provocation — even before leaving the rally point! What was the NYPD’s justification? Some people were masking up. Some people had shields. Every attempt at defense is spun as an act of aggression.

The Situation Today

This leaves us to speculate on what the NYPD/Secret Service’s position will be on masks during the RNC. More likely than not, their position will be one of Zero Tolerance. Thus, the RNCNotWelcome Collective has concluded that it is unwise to wear masks at permitted marches where there are always interlocking steel barricades and rows of cops on either side of the street. Open battles with police in the gridded streets of New York City is almost always a losing battle (the exception being the Draft Riots of 1863, when demonstrators took to the rooftops). If the cops attack, it is best to run and regroup. In a march where the NYPD has total control, there may be nowhere to retreat — we saw this at the WEF protests and at the antiwar protests of 2003. On March 20, 2004, the one-year anniversary of the beginning of Gulf War II, the permitted march was flanked on both sides by interlocking steel barricades, creating a vast pen running from 42nd St. to 23rd St., and down the side streets from Park to Fifth Avenue. We are opposed to these so-called “Free Speech Zones;” we take our Free Speech Zones with us wherever we go.

A call for decentralized, autonomous actions instead of Black Blocs

New York City is a heavily surveilled city. From the thousands of surveillance cameras installed in public places to the thousands of tourists with cameras, those engaging in direct action have it in their best interests to remain anonymous. Even those participating in permitted marches and rallies have reason to hide their faces. A near-secret NYPD intelligence unit called the Technical Assistance Resource Unit (TARU), successor to the infamous “Red Squad” of the 1950’s and 60’s, has been filming demonstrators despite the Handschu Consent Decree of 1980 (787 F. 2d 828), which forbids such unwarranted surveillance. So, we propose making their surveillance (and their threat of making 1,000 arrests per day) more difficult.

If we are diffused throughout the city, we will have a much better advantage. After all, the real target is not Madison Square Garden, the stage of the spectacle, but the various events where deals are made — where the lobbyists wine, dine, and bribe Bush & Co. The RNC has promised to stage events and photo ops in every borough of the city, not just in Manhattan. If we are truly everywhere in this very big city, the police cannot be concentrated in one area, their communications will be hampered by their hierarchical process, their steps will be slowed by their pounds of body armor and fatigue from forced overtime.

Outside of marches, all-black clothing is rather conspicuous (even in NYC where black clothing is king), so our dress code should be “business casual.” [Or how about avoid a dress code and just try to fit in?] Sunglasses are suggested, the bigger the hipper. And hats are always in. Would you make the small sacrifice to cut your hair or take out your septum ring to stay out of jail? Racial and political profiling are commonly practiced here and we need you in the streets! When it is time to act, and if it is necessary, then mask up and perform. After your escape, the thing people will remember about you is the color of your kerchief (or your Yankees cap). Swap some clothes if that makes you feel more comfortable, then you’re ready for Plan B.

Our tone here is light, but our message is serious — the use of masks is a tactic — one that should be used strategically. When making this decision, which ultimately is an individual one, time and place are important variables — especially in NYC where the state’s position is cut-and-dry on the books. Be wise, be safe, stay strong. Peace in our lives.