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An Oregon legislator seeks to increase the judicial penalties for rioters who conceal their faces, saying masks make it more difficult for police to adequately respond to out-of-control protests.
Following a string of contentious protests in Portland, Oregon that included intense clashes between far-right protesters and anti-facist demonstrators, a state lawmaker is calling for stricter penalties for people convicted of rioting while concealing their faces with masks.
The bill “does not outlaw protesting,” Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, a Republican from Scio, said in a statement. Rather, she said the proposal is a response to the “alarming increase of violent riots in Oregon.”
Portland has been a magnet for political protests that have escalated into fights and brawling, including last year at a June rally and another in August. At both events, far-right groups faced off against anti-fascist activists, with police in August declaring a "civil disturbance" and arresting 13 people.
At a press conference following the June protest, former Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw called for a law to ban masks at protests during the commission of a crime. Sprenger agreed, saying that people who wear disguises during such events make it difficult for law enforcement officers to easily identify the people responsible for violence.
“As a former sheriff’s deputy, I know how important it is for law enforcement to be able to accurately and swiftly identify those who are involved in inciting these riots and committing crimes,” she said.
As written, the legislation does not outlaw masks, but increases potential penalties for people who conceal their faces with “intent to facilitate commission of riot.” Under current law, rioting—defined as “tumultuous and violent conduct” involving five or more people—is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $125,000 fine. The bill ups the possible sentence for people convicted of wearing masks during a riot to a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, or some combination of the two.
At least 12 other states have anti-mask laws in place, which often ban people wearing masks in public. Some prohibitions in southern states, such as the one in Tennessee and another in Florida, were imposed decades ago as direct responses to the Ku Klux Klan.
Oregon’s legislative session begins Feb. 3.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.