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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Community Relations Advisory Committee supports petition to enforce anti-Klan law against the Proud Boys

Members of the Proud Boys at a February meeting of the New Hanover County Board of Education.
Benjamin Schachtman
Members of the Proud Boys at a February meeting of the New Hanover County Board of Education.

The Community Relations Advisory Committee, composed of members appointed by New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington, voted to support a community petition asking for law enforcement to enforce a 1953 law that banned wearing masks and hoods for the sake of anonymity while on government property.

During its bi-monthly meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 28, theCommunity Relations Advisory Committee (CRAC), tasked with addressing prejudice and discrimination, approved a resolution supporting the petition, filed by a group of concerned New Hanover County residents under the name Citizens for Public Safety in New Hanover County. It was written by Dr. Kyle Horton, a physician and former Democratic candidate for Congress and the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

As an advisory body, the committee can pass recommendations to the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, and other local government bodies, but does not directly make policy.

1953 law against masks and hoods (i.e. the Klan)

The petition approved by CRAC cites the 1953 North Carolina law designed to thwart the Klu Klux Klan from intimidating people on public property by banning the use of masks and hoods for the sake of anonymity. While the petition does not mention the Proud Boys, and organizers have said the goal is to protect the “rule of law,” they’ve also been clear they see a direct parallel between the neo-fascist group and the KKK and have called on local officials to enforce the relevant law against them.

“My concern is based on the Proud Boys, but what I want folks to understand is this is really an issue of the rule of law and transparency in our county, and in a county that's had a history of political and racial violence in particular, I think it's really important that we take a stand against hate groups period,” Horton said.

“This particular concealment statute was passed as part of a wave of anti-masking, anti-hooding legislation that was in response to KKK violence. So I think we have reason to be concerned, when a group that has white nationalist ties and ties to January 6, who's showing up at meetings, presumably to threaten folks, to be concerned that they're basically allowed to skirt the rule of law, and not be transparent, which is creating an unsafe environment at our public meetings and on public property here," she added.

The Proud Boys have repeatedly argued they are not a hate group and supporters have challenged definitions like ‘terrorist,’ ‘fascist,’ or ‘hate’ group.

But it’s worth noting that the law doesn’t hinge on those types of terms. Instead, it simply outlaws the act of masking to conceal your identity. And the desire for anonymity is why, in the Proud Boys’ own words, they wear their signature gators, bandanas, sunglasses, and long-sleeve shirts; group members have frequently claimed they’re protecting themselves from retaliation from left-wing groups.

Nor is the law legally complicated by Covid-related mask requirements, despite what many have argued.

The 1953 law was cited by anti-mask protestors during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic when local counties and health departments began rolling out mask mandates. But contrary to what many, including the Proud Boys, have said, mask mandates did not invalidate the anti-Klan law.

In the summer of 2020, a bi-partisan state law created several lasting exceptions to the mask ban, most notably for “[a]ny person wearing a mask for the purpose of ensuring the physical health or safety of the wearer or others.” Legal experts say Session Law 2020-93, which updated state statute §14-12.11, did not reauthorize the use of masks (or hoods) to disguise a person’s identity.

The 'mask debate'

District Attorney Ben David provided his own legal analysis to New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon, essentially stating that law enforcement had every right to enforce the 1953 law and confirming that mask mandates in no way invalidated that law. David also noted that if someone was masking for anonymity and not health reasons, law enforcement officers had the discretion to disregard a disingenuous claim of ‘wearing the mask for Covid’ and ask that person to take their mask off. David was clear that his office’s interpretation of the law would apply to anyone masking for anonymity, regardless of political or other affiliation.

Sheriff McMahon has chosen a different path, saying through a spokesperson that from the Sheriff’s Office point of view, it’s “all or nothing,” meaning McMahon will not direct officers to distinguish between types of masks — or to police the motivations for wearing those masks.

And that’s where the petition attempts to intervene, asking that “any individuals in violation of [the 1953 law] shall be denied entry to relevant public meetings and removed from public property until that which time they come into compliance with state law through the removal of any devices that conceal their identity.”

Most CRAC members supported, one respectfully dissented

The petition is aimed at local government bodies, including the County Commissioners, the county Health and Human Services board, Wilmington City Council, and local law enforcement, namely the Wilmington Police Department and the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office.

During its meeting last week, CRAC approved a resolution to support the petition as written.

Of the voting members who were present, only New Hanover County appointee Dr. Kaari Snook was the only dissenting vote.

“This is going to back law enforcement into a corner… I think it might provide the opposite effect,” Snook said during the meeting. “There may start to be social media campaigns where if we insist that they’re arrested because of the mask, and there’s some time in the future where people have to wear masks for health, [the Proud Boys will] be like ‘why aren’t you arresting these guys?’”

Other CRAC members noted that this situation is covered by state statute, David’s legal guidance, and the petition itself.

The Proud Boys in fact did post a defense of their masking on social media, citing CDC guidelines for masks and writing. They also wrote an open letter to David’s office, disputing his legal reasoning and arguing that David’s guidance to McMahon “could potentially move local law enforcement agencies closer to politically selective prosecution and a resulting civil rights lawsuit.”

For their part, New Hanover County Board of Education members are slated to discuss the district’s mask policy — which would likely impact how the Proud Boys are treated — but not until their April meeting.

You can find the full petition here.

Editor's note: The New Hanover County Board of Education's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee had a brief CRAC update during its Monday meeting, but it did not include a discussion of the petition.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.