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Anti-mask legislation defies logic

Gut reaction is a dangerous way to make a law. It has a tendency to catch hapless bystanders in its dragnet


 

Graham Hughes/CP Images

Shoddy justice masquerading as logical

Mark Blinch/Reuters

On June 15 last year, just after Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo let in his fourth goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins, he looked up at the camera through the bars of his goalie mask with a vapid expression on his long and handsome face, one that was about to launch a thousand thugs. When the game ended a few minutes later in a humiliating 4-0 loss to the Bruins, Vancouver hockey fans laid siege to their own city. The streets were a sea of blue and green jerseys and broken glass; storefronts were demolished and police cruisers toppled; at least four people were stabbed, 140 injured, and more than 100 arrested. The vast majority of those responsible for the damage were not masked, kaffiyeh-clad boys spouting anarchist slogans, but drunk sports fans in their hometown sweaters, the names of their fallen hockey heroes printed across their backs in plain sight.

You would think, in light of the now notorious Vancouver riot, that if the federal government was committed to outlawing an item of clothing that was dramatically linked to violent protests, they’d seriously consider banning Canucks jerseys. But the piece of apparel that was implicated with the Conservative majority’s endorsement last week of Bill C-309 was that classic bogeyman of accessories: the mask.

The proposed law would make it a criminal offence to wear a mask during an “unlawful assembly,” punishable by a maximum 10-year prison sentence (which the Conservatives increased from the five-year maximum included in the bill when it was originally introduced in October of 2011). It was a special moment in Canadian history, with a dazzling illogic all its own, especially considering that this year’s mask-heavy Occupy protests were as peaceful as the Vancouver riots weren’t. Unfortunately though, logic of any kind probably didn’t factor very much in the vote. As Andrew Lokan of Paliare Roland Barristers (external counsel to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association) explained, it’s unlikely that Bill C-309—being a private member’s bill—was based on a substantive body of factual research, the kind, for instance, that might link personal anonymity to a violent herd mentality. So what was the mission in the first place? My best guess is the bill was driven by a visceral adverse reaction to cowardice (refusing to put a face to your convictions), by cynicism (the assumption that masked protesters are more likely to smash in a storefront than riled up hockey fans), and basic creepiness (the Richard Nixon mask in the movie Dead Presidents and Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street.) Hence the hatching of a good story—that people wearing Guy Fawkes masks are a dangerous menace to society. If only it were true.

What’s strange is that anti-mask legislation isn’t even new. Section 351 of the Criminal Code already stipulates a 10-year maximum prison sentence for “wearing a mask through the commission of an indictable offense”—apparently a stipulation that Conservative backbencher Blake Richards, the man behind Bill C-309, didn’t think went far enough. According to Huffington Post Canada, one of Richards’s major objections to the current anti-mask legislation is that it can “only be applied after an incident occurs.” In other words, under Section 351, police can only arrest a masked man if he has committed a crime, not because he is wearing a mask in the vicinity of which a crime is being committed.

Bill C-309 would fundamentally change that. Under Richards’s bill, which still must pass third reading and the Senate, you could be wearing a mask in the midst of a violent Black Bloc riot, twiddling your thumbs and minding your own business as the guy next to you takes a crowbar to a cop car, and end up in prison—for 10 years no less—by mere masked association. “The key thing is the intent requirement,” says Lokan, noting that it’s the very thing Richards’s bill has done away with. Richards argues that his legislation is preventative; that it will allow police to arrest violent rioters before they riot violently, or as unlawful events are “unfolding.” This suggests he is extremely fond of the movie Minority Report.

Unfortunately for Richards and the Conservatives, this is the real world, not a science fiction movie. You can’t fight crime before it happens, and when you try, you end up accusing innocent people of serious misdeeds. I am not a fan of the Black Bloc. When I saw photos of them burning and looting Montreal in their masks, I wouldn’t have minded heaving them into a prison cell myself—for 10 years or more. More than once I’ve found myself nodding yes when a right-wing pundit or politician says the recent student protesters in Montreal “don’t know how good they have it.” Nothing is as fundamentally satisfying as the gut reaction to swift justice meted out to yahoos and hooligans. But gut reaction is a dangerous way to make a law. It has a tendency to catch hapless bystanders in its dragnet. Whether they’re the kind of bystanders you’d want to invite to dinner is not the point. The point is that they’re bystanders.

So when someone says—as one angry commenter did recently to an online article about the May Day protest in Quebec—“Round ‘em up and throw ’em on a plane to Syria,” by all means raise your thumbs up Don Cherry style and say “right on” if you can’t help yourself. Just bear in mind those you banish may include the suspicious-looking people over there: the ones wearing masks and minding their own business. Hey, they might even be heroes. Consider The Avengers.


 

Anti-mask legislation defies logic

  1. Had you bothered to view the VPD photos of wanted Stanley Cup rioters (https://riot2011.vpd.ca/), you would know that a substantial number masked their identity, mostly with tightly closed hoodies or pulled up t-shirts. Why not make that grounds for arrest and charge? There is no such a thing as a right to conceal one’s identity while participating in a criminal act, a riot in this case.

    • As you say, “There is no such a thing as a right to conceal one’s identity while participating in a criminal act”. This was specifically stated in the article, where it says:
      “Section 351 of the Criminal Code already stipulates a 10-year maximum prison sentence for “wearing a mask through the commission of an indictable offense”.”

      • Yes you can wear it, you just dont have the right to. Nor should you, like so many say ” you make your bed, lie in it”. Stop making excuses for the people who are in the wrong, they don’t make them for the people in the right.

        • If I wear a mask and someone next to me does something wrong, I am NOT in the wrong. I commited no crime. I wore a mask. I have no way of knowing when a people next to me might turn a lawful assembly into an unlawful one. Should all kids at holloween go to jail if one of them suddenly throws an egg at a window?

          Also, who determines when a assembly has changed from lawful to unlawful?

          • Yes, you are in the wrong. You are helping provide the criminal with plausible deniability.

            This is a key bit of ethics we need to get straight in our brave new world of pervasive terrorists, guerrilla and assorted war criminals.

          • Yes, you are in the wrong. You are helping provide the criminal with plausible deniability.

            This is a key bit of ethics we need to get straight in our brave new world of pervasive terrorists, guerrilla and assorted war criminals: when you shelter a militant, you cease to be a civilian.

          • The hell? Do you even understand what the words you’ve typed mean?

            Hint: My choice in clothing has nothing to do with the actions another person commits.

          • Yes, you are in the wrong. You are helping provide the criminal with plausible deniability.

            This is a key bit of ethics we need to get straight in our brave new world of pervasive terrorists, guerrilla and assorted war criminals: when you shelter a militant, you cease to be a civilian.

        • Apparently, I should have expressed myself more clearly. I do not believe that people have a right to wear a mask while commiting a criminal act. SInce this happens to be against the law already, I do not believe that a second law is required. And, I do believe that wearing a mask should not, in itself, be unlawful. Better to enforce the laws that we do have than to add redundant, unenforceable laws to the books.

    • The basic facts are this: The VPD had not enough boots on the ground to deal with the situation. No city would have. Do you really think that passing a law prohibiting the wearing of a mask will stop rioters?? Nope it won’t. Perhaps you should buff up on crowd psychology, then follow up on the true effects this law will have (along the lines of police officers not arresting people under these charges because of the harness of punishment attached to it; meaning this law is absolutely useless before it is even passed), and finally spend some time truly thinking about the 10 years penalty for wearing a mask in public within a gathering… Repeat this a few times in your head and think about it for a second. The rational answer is that it is excessive. I see the purpose it attempts to fulfill (give a better tool to police officers to potentially stop crimes) but policing is reactive, and like it was mentioned, there are only few very specific crimes that can be stopped before it is actually perpetrated and this should not be one. I do not agree with the riots nor support the acts that were done that night. What happens was unfortunate but I do not believe it warrants such an arbitrary response form our government/justice system. It is important to think about the impact of blind-full acceptance of laws such as this, and wonder what the benefits are behind it, and if it outweighs the negative aspects without infringing on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
      And oh, make sure you travel in small groups next Halloween!

  2. What sort of a spoiled self centered sense of entitlement disfunctional world do you think you live in? If someone is a bystander observing a protest, why would they need to wear a mask? Who are they afraid of? Someone they know recognising them on the TV coverage of the protestors that might take retaliation on someone they know for NOT supporting their protest? It seems clear to me that the point of the legislation is to discourage the kind of protests Quebec students have made continued to participate in. One last point I’d like to make, it is apparent the student majority are more interested in protesting and skipping class. no wonder they don’t want to pay for a education, they aren’t present to receive it!

    • The point of the legislation is irrelevant in comparison to what it actually does.

    • imagine a Carnivale or Mardi Gras or Pride Parade where a window got smashed and the police decide it’s now an ‘unlawful assembly’. Everyone would be criminalized!!!

      Given how Canada usually f—s up its first application of laws (i.e. anti-porn legislation being first used to target gay bookstores) I would bet money that the first charge would not be a rioter in a balaclava, but some woman in a burqa nearby.

  3. I think in a nutshell this is stating that if police intervene its become a violent protest, in that situation the protesters should leave, remove masks and go home as it’s gone too far. I don’t believe someone would be arrested holding a mask while leaving, but someone who stays amongst wrondoers wearing a hoody, mask or concealing clothing while riot police are actively trying to keep the peace and disperse a violent crowd is obviously meaning to or already has committed a crime. We have effectively tied the hands of police officers in the past by charging them for wrongful________ when they are mearly trying to deal with dangerous and hostile situations. Maybe sometimes it does go too far, but maybe thats the proper message, go home or face the consequences, who needs to be on the streets taking pictures or “minding their own business” when cop cars are being set on fire?

    • The G20 has shown us that your entire thought has little relation to reality.

  4. “You can’t fight crime before it happens…” Yes, actually, you can – this is the thinking behind a lot of government and operational policy in criminal justice. Crime occurs when a motivated offender and a suitable target intersect in a time and space in which capable guardians are not present. Disrupt any of these elements and no crime occurs. Sounds like the best way to do things in my humble opinion.

    • Except that this law doesn’t change any of that, because the very applicability of it requires that “capable guardians” be present *before* the incident arises. They’re already there. Giving them carte blanche to arrest people because of an article of clothing they are wearing and not because of any criminal action is simply another step toward government mandated oppression and fascism.

  5. I actually agree with this new proposal…reason being: You have a right to protest peacefully, but you do not have the right to conceal who you are when you are acting outside of the law.

    • Except of course that you’re not acting outside the law when you protest. The wearing of a mask is irrelavent in fact unless that person commits a crime, and when they do there’s already a law on the books to handle it.
      This is political gamemanship, nothing more, but it appears they’ve fooled you with it at least.

  6. If you are brave enough to stand up for what you believe you should be brave enough to show your face.

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