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Police use anti-KKK law to arrest people protesting neo-Nazis

Faced with hundreds of demonstrators rallying against a crowd of neo-Nazis in Newnan, Georgia, authorities turned to a little-known Georgia law adopted in 1951 to combat the Ku Klux Klan.

>> Tension, arrests at neo-Nazi rally in metro Atlanta

The law, which makes it illegal to wear a mask at most public events, was cited in several of the arrests of counterdemonstrators who joined a protest Saturday against white supremacists.

And the irony was not lost upon the organizers of the counterdemonstration, who were fuming Sunday that a law aimed at weakening white supremacists was used to arrest protesters who opposed a neo-Nazi rally.

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“They were trying to stop us, and we were trying to dial down the racist stuff,” said Jeremy Ortega, a 19-year-old who was among the counterprotesters charged with a misdemeanor for wearing a mask.

He said many of the demonstrators wore masks to avoid being identified and threatened by white power groups.

“We were peacefully protesting, yet they put guns in our faces and told us to take our masks off,” said Ortega, who added that he is considering filing a civil lawsuit. “It made no sense.”

State and local authorities did not comment on specific allegations of abuse on Sunday. But Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan said the overwhelming security – nearly 700 law enforcement officers were on hand – helped prevent the clashes from escalating.

“Making arrests in a volatile situation is never going to be pretty,” Keenan said.

No one from the white supremacist group was arrested on Saturday, and they largely avoided confrontations with police or the counterdemonstration group. The two dozen white supremacists who attended the rally were separated from the group by an 8-foot fence – and hundreds of armed officers.

‘Remove your mask’

On Sunday, a coalition of counterprotest groups planned a vigil at the Coweta County Jail to criticize what they said was excessive violence by police.

The Huffington Post reported that a contingent of officers approached a group of 50 counterdemonstrators before the rally and demanded they remove their masks or face arrests. The news outlet wrote that officers then “grabbed those who were still masked, tossing them to the ground and handcuffing them.”

A video posted on social media by freelance journalist Daniel Shular appeared to show authorities scuffling with counterdemonstrators. Authorities demanded that the counterprotesters remove their masks, and the footage showed an officer raising his rifle at demonstrators.

“Remove your mask, or you will be arrested,” said an officer in the video, which shows a ring of demonstrators standing with their hands raised aloft. Several are chanting “hands up, don’t shoot.”

A counterprotester kneels with his hands up in front of law enforcement officers during a neo-Nazi rally at Greenville Street Park in downtown Newnan on Saturday, April 21, 2018. ((HYOSUB SHIN / AJC)) (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC)

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who attempted to report on the confrontation during the rally was obstructed by authorities.

Several other counterdemonstrators faced violations that have nothing to do with the anti-mask law.

Daniel Hanley was charged with obstruction of a pedestrian roadway after he said he nonviolently resisted a police officer who confronted him. He said he believes he was arrested because he was wielding a megaphone and leading chants against the white supremacists.

“They were trying to find any pretext to shut us down,” Hanley, 36, said of the authorities. “The moment we stepped foot there, they intimated us and strategically tried to target people.”

‘Absolutely satisfied’

State law bans the wearing of masks, hoods or other devices that conceal a person’s identity if they’re on public property or on private property where the owner has not consented. It includes exceptions for holidays, theatrical productions, civil emergencies and sporting events.

The laws have been adopted by about a dozen states, most aimed at weakening the KKK in the middle of the 20th century. The Georgia Supreme Court in 1990 upheld the state’s ban after a Klansman donned a hood on the Lawrenceville Square, citing his First Amendment rights.

The law has mostly been used to target KKK demonstrations, though it has also been employed before to arrest demonstrators who are objecting to white power groups. At a 2016 rally, the law was used to arrest eight demonstrators protesting a white supremacist rally at Stone Mountain Park.

Barricades and fencing are in place around a city park in Newnan as police prepared for Saturday's rally by a neo-Nazi group on Saturday, April 21, 2018. The neo-Nazis expected a turnout of 50 to 100, but only a couple dozen showed up. They were well outnumbered by counterprotesters and law enforcement officers. ((HYOSUB SHIN / AJC)) (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC)

In a strange turn, it also was invoked ahead of a press conference last year at the Gold Dome, when supporters of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle threatened to hire performers in circus masks to interrupt a rival’s event. The clowns never showed up.

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Authorities said they were intent on enforcing that law and others as they studied how law enforcement officials handled white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 to prepare for the Newnan event.

In Charlottesville, officers remained largely passive as bloody clashes raged around them, and the event soon spiraled out of control. One person was killed and dozens more were injured in the violence.

“You have to have adequate resources and the intent to enforce the law,” Keenan said. “We had both.”

He said officers made clear to both groups that masks and some weapons were not allowed. He said authorities found an abandoned backpack with smoke bombs at one checkpoint. State law allows demonstrators to carry firearms if they are licensed; on Saturday, several were spotted sporting firearms.

“We maintained security. We would not let there be disorder. We didn’t have civil disorder, property damage. And we had just a few arrests,” Keenan said. “We are absolutely satisfied.”

MORE COVERAGE FROM AJC.COM: 

>> Reports from Newnan as the rally and counterprotest were underway

>> How social media reacted

>> In-depth look at how protest was contained 

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