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Banning masks on protests is a terrible idea

We won’t beat the Hamas sympathisers with knee-jerk authoritarianism.

Georgia L Gilholy

Topics Free Speech Politics UK

Those of us who live close to a British city centre have recently come to associate Saturday afternoons with anti-Israel demonstrations. These protests have frequently featured displays of anti-Semitism, pro-Hamas propaganda and no shortage of vitriol.

What’s more, a sizable minority of those protesting have been photographed wearing face coverings. Some of these grimly evoke the balaclavas worn by Hamas and the other Palestinian terror groups that murdered, raped and tortured Israeli civilians on 7 October last year.

As a result, some in government policymaking circles are calling for a ban on face masks at protests. Chief among them is the UK government’s official adviser on political violence and disruption, former Labour MP John Woodcock, now Lord Walney. He has recommended giving police the powers to make mask bans an explicit condition for the approval of certain protests.

While few will sympathise with those protesters cosplaying as Hamas, or those trying to get away with law-breaking, a ban on face masks would be very bad news. It would do little to tackle the extremists in our midst, and it would have a very damaging effect on everyone’s freedom of protest.

As Charles Moore writes in the Telegraph, the justification for a blanket ban is weak. Existing legislation already allows the police ‘to order the removal of masks while a demonstration is in progress’. ‘The Public Order Act also allows them to set certain conditions for a protest’, he notes. The police would be better off actually enforcing the law, using the powers they have, rather than being gifted more sweeping ones.

This proposal seems driven by the PR concerns of the British state rather than any actual need. After all, it comes at a time when the police are coming under fire for what looks like two-tier policing, arresting gender-critical feminists over their tweets while turning a blind eye to the blatant anti-Semitism on these anti-Israel marches.

But while this mask ban might have been proposed with the anti-Israel protests in mind, its application will extend well beyond them. Indeed, it could prevent UK-based dissidents protesting against repressive states like Iran and China. Many of those who stage demonstrations outside Iranian and Chinese consulates and embassies wear face coverings in order to protect their own and their families’ identity. And with good reason – both the Iranian state and Chinese state are known to operate on British soil, intimidating and plotting against UK-based critics.

The two-tier policing of protests is a serious problem that is eroding citizens’ trust. It is little wonder increasing numbers of people don’t believe that the police are capable of enforcing the law impartially. But giving the police new powers won’t help to reverse this decline in trust. And it certainly won’t address the spiralling anti-Semitism in our midst. All it will do is impede our own right to protest. A ban on face masks needs to be resisted.

Georgia L Gilholy is a freelance journalist living in London.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech Politics UK

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