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June 6 saw another bad bill roll off the General Assembly bad bill line, specifically HB237, which is now the Various Criminal and Election Law Changes Act, having become so long and packed with various and sundry political amendments and conservative Christmas items that the original name (the Unmasking Mobs and Criminals Act) just wasn’t adequate anymore. Following the Cop City protests in Georgia, where Democrats and Republicans are locked in a battle to win the Most Repressive Political Party award from the policing and security industry, the quick and astute authoritarians in the NC legislature saw an opening to pass a new law aimed at quelling protest not in line with their far-right views.

The element of the law that has received the most attention is the prohibition on masks. The GA’s problem with this goes all the way back to 2018, when masked protestors pulled one of the GA’s revered racist symbols, Silent Sam, from his pedestal at UNC Chapel Hill. The protests following the assassination of George Floyd further alarmed the hard right, who wanted the protestors jailed at a minimum for daring to oppose the militarized police forces that kill minorities, the poor and the indigent without consequence. The recent protests against the Zionist genocide against Palestinians were the last straw. Something had to be done.

The assembly line managers found inspiration in the persecution of the protestors of the Cop City project in Atlanta. With a little retooling and the addition of few features, the GA saw an opportunity for a truly repressive piece of legislation. Authoritarian fascists would be pleased.

Of course, the first issue to be addressed in the bill had to be the creation of an exception for “Any person or persons, as members or members elect of a society, order or organization, engaged in any parade, ritual, initiation, ceremony, celebration or requirement of such society, order or organization, and wearing or using any manner of costume, paraphernalia, disguise, facial makeup, hood, implement or device, whether the identity of such person or persons is concealed or not, on any public or private street, road, way or property, or in any public or private building,… “

The KKK, the John Birch Society, the League of the South, the Proud Boys and many other such upstanding civic organizations, by claiming masks as part of their ritual paraphernalia, may parade around free of interference from law enforcement or individuals who may want to ‘identify’ the participants in such activity.

However, anyone participating in a protest, demonstration, or just wearing a mask for health reasons, has no expectation of freedom from interference. Any law enforcement, officer, business owner, or annoyed jerk on the street can demand you remove your mask. In particular:

“a person wearing a mask …… in accordance with subdivision (a)(6) of this section shall (i) remove the mask upon request by a law enforcement officer or (ii) temporarily remove the mask upon request by the owner or occupant of public or private property where the wearer is present to allow for identification of the wearer.”

The purpose of this is to establish that no person that the state could possibly charge with a crime of one sort or another, including peaceful protest, has any expectation of concealing their identity. So if you go to a protest against genocide, or the disaster of fossil fuel extraction and use, or any one of the thousand things that are done on a daily basis in the US that threatens life and limb in the pursuit of profit, and your face is exposed so that your employer can fire you, or your school can kick you out, or some religious fanatic can reveal your identity to the world, well, that’s just too bad.

And of course, if you happen to charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, and you happen to be wearing a mask, then your charge is automatically raised to the next higher level misdemeanor or felony. If you are charged with multiple offenses, then each offense is raised to the next higher charge. And if you are convicted, there is no community service or house arrest. You will go to jail. A convenient addition protects mask wearers whose concealment is “… needed to prove an element of the underlying misdemeanor or felony.” I guess if you are a masked informant, you just need to whisper your special status to people challenging you to remove your mask. Could be awkward though around the people you are spying on. Or maybe you can appear in full mask and other concealing regalia as a witness.

Along the way, the GA took a break from criminalizing protestors and attacked the powers of the governor’s office again. They never tire of this, and before long the governor won’t really have anything to do in office, beyond the burden of having to do whatever the GA says, even if that is morally and ethically repugnant. And of course, this exemption is to the benefit of religious institutions. The text reads as follows:

“No religious institution shall be subject to an executive order, secretarial declaration, municipal or local government prohibition or restriction, or a rule or regulation by a political subdivision of this State that distinguishes between religious institutions and other public or private for-profit or nonprofit entities that are subject to or affected by the same or similar emergency in a way that imposes additional limitations on the religious institution. For the purposes of this subsection, the term “religious institution” has the same meaning as in G.S. 131F-2.”

What makes a religious institution fundamentally different (for the time being) from any other “public or private for-profit or non-profit entities” in the course of daily activities? Congregational assembly for the purpose of worship at some specified time, for one. In the pandemic, the worst fights between governments trying to prevent the pandemic from spreading and the people resisting basic public health measures were the fundamentalist churches. God would protect their congregations from this virus, if it existed, and the worship of a god at pre-determined times on a regular basis was far more important than the lives of their parishioners, or of anybody in the general public. So when the next pandemic comes around, if you are an pastor or preacher intimately acquainted with the Old Testament, but not up on basic public health measures, well those worldly things aren’t important anyway. You are free to employ your weapons-grade ignorance to kill off as many of your congregation and the general public as you like. No North Carolina governor can make you behave any differently.

Having accomplished this, the GA returned its attention once again to protests. One of the more effective forms of protest is blocking streets and highways with groups of people. Of course, no matter how dire the issue being opposed, this has the possibility of inconveniencing drivers and, more importantly, might jeopardize profits. So any form of protest that inconveniences drivers is now at least a misdemeanor, and could be a felony if repeated, or if an emergency vehicle is delayed.

Finally, not content with the infusion of unaccountable and untraceable floods of dark money that already permeate our elections, this bill adds a section that opens up a new source of dark money expenditures prior to the election. Somehow this was sold as “leveling the playing field” between Democrats and Republicans, although the law does not make clear what advantage was eliminated. I suspect the newly free political action committees are more often found in the green fields of cash grazed by conservatives.

The first element of the law intends to implement in North Carolina a new avenue of prosecution pioneered by the state of Georgia against protesters. Ever inventive in the pursuit of repression perfection, Georgia decided that raising bail funds for protestors was a violation of the state’s version of the RICO Act. This chain of reasonithing says that if a crime was committed during a protest, and you or anyone you associate with raises money to bail that person out of jail, then you have participated in the commission of the crime via conspiracy. The language of the North Carolina bill doesn’t quite allow a RICO prosecution, but it opens the door for similar prosecutorial license by allowing that action to be prosecuted as money laundering.

The second element of the law increases the penalties for commission of a crime while wearing a mask. Since the bill’s authors sided with people that literally assaulted other people for wearing N-95 masks during the pandemic, and could not agree on a health exception.

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