Black leaders support reinstating ban on masks at demonstrations

Hamas supporters near Columbia University in New York City, May 23, 2024. Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images.

by Mike Wagenheim

(JNS) — A coalition of faith and civil leaders is demanding that New York State reinstate its law banning wearing masks in public places after months of violent anti-Israel protesters wearing face coverings.

The campaign, called Unmask NY, has garnered the support of Eric Adams, the mayor of New York City.

“New York City will always defend your right to free speech and will continue to protect public health, but we are increasingly seeing masked protestors using anonymity to intimidate, threaten and break the law,” Adams said on June 27. “This behavior is unacceptable, and we will not tolerate it.”

The mayor spoke outside of Columbia University’s campus, which was the site of a pro-Hamas encampment this spring where protesters, many of them masked, intimidated and harassed Jewish students and other members of the Columbia community.

Also attending the press conference were New York State Assembly members from three of the city’s five boroughs; National Urban League president Marc Morial; Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of Anti-Defamation League; Mount Neboh Baptist Church pastor Johnnie Green; representatives of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York; and the UJA-Federation of New York.

Several black leaders supported the measure — a notable development after some American Jewish leaders have remarked on what they called a lack of support for U.S. Jews from black Americans since Oct. 7.

“Black communities know all too well that individuals who hide their identities with intent to terrorize, intimidate or harass are a threat to all of our safety and have no place in New York,” said Hazel Dukes, a former NAACP president and current president of its New York State conference.

“Reinstating New York’s masking laws will protect New Yorkers from some of the most terrifying periods in our history, when the Klan menaced black Americans, faces covered, without accountability,” Dukes added. “We can’t let history repeat itself.”

Morial said that “in the dark days of Jim Crow, those who carried out racial intimidation and violence felt no need to hide behind masks because they knew there would be no repercussions.”

Green, who pastors a black congregation in Harlem, said “many of us have roots in the South.”

He continued, saying “our community knows what it means to see individuals who hide themselves in order to harass and menace. It reminds us of the darkest, racist chapters of American history.”

Eric Dinowitz, a prominent Jewish member of the New York State Assembly, introduced a bill in the last session to reinstate an anti-masking law that was canceled during the pandemic.

“Once we saw more and more protesters openly target Jews, fully masked up, fully hidden, as the threats got more and more violent, and I heard from more and more Jews that the terror and the sense of targeting was real, I knew we had to get our mask laws back on the book,” the Jewish lawmaker said.

The final draft of the bill will account for health and religious concerns, Dinowitz said.

New York’s mask ban stood for 175 years before its cancellation in 2020, when the state required people to wear masks in public spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, cited masks obscuring the identities of protesters who occupied a Columbia building when he said that his office would not press charges against most of the alleged offenders.