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Why Pro-Palestinian Student Protesters Wear Masks On Campus

Above photo: Pro-Palestinian students protest at an encampment on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles on Friday. Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images.

An intense and organized effort to bring down personal and professional repercussions on participants is playing out online.

As demonstrations over the war in Gaza have surged on campuses, around cities and in offices across the US in recent weeks, a visible tension has emerged between the desire for public protest and a fear of professional reprisals.

On the Columbia University campus, where the latest spike in protests began on 17 April, demonstrators have worn masks and used blankets to block counter-protesters from filming students. Protesters at a tent encampment at the University of Michigan handed out masks upon entry, and students there refused to give reporters their full names in case the school took punitive action against them. At Harvard, the Palestine Solidarity Committee told the Guardian it had suspended doing press interviews out of regard for student safety.

Concerns over retaliation and harassment have permeated the protests, as an intense and organized effort to bring down personal and professional repercussions on demonstrators has played out online. Counter-protesters and pro-Israel activist groups have attempted to post demonstrators’ faces and personal information to intimidate them, an act known as doxing, and demanded that pro-Palestinian protesters remove their masks at rallies. The professional threat is not theoretical: employers have terminated workers over their comments about the Israel-Gaza war, and CEOs have demanded universities name protesters so as to blacklist them.

The result is that the public face of a nationwide student movement is often a covered one. Photos and videos from demonstrations show swaths of students either wearing keffiyehs – headdresses that have become a symbol of Palestinian solidarity – or medical masks that obscure their identity. During Yale’s protests, a 21-person choir sang This Little Light of Mine with masks over their faces.

Administrators have admonished students against wearing masks, in at least one case citing anti-mask laws from the 1950s originally intended to deter the Ku Klux Klan from holding rallies. At the University of North Carolina, the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine said that it was alarmed to receive an email from a university official citing campus policy and state law against wearing masks. The university did not dispute the email, telling the Guardian that an administrator was reminding an organization with a history of wearing face coverings about the policy.

At the University of Austin, Texas, the dean of students sent a letter canceling a campus demonstration and said that an organizer’s Instagram post telling protesters to bring masks would be a violation of school policy against obstructing law enforcement. The protest took place anyway, leading to state and local police arresting dozens of people for trespassing, including a local Fox journalist who was photographing the event.

Pro-Israel activists have similarly called for demonstrators to take off their masks during heated counter-protests, while head of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, recently called for some coverings to be outlawed entirely.

“Masks that cover the entire face have no bearing on Covid or free speech and should be banned on all college campuses effective immediately,” Greenblatt tweeted.

While protesters are covering their faces to prevent harassment and retaliation, they also cited Covid concerns as an additional reason to mask up while attending mass gatherings. The ubiquity of masks, according to one organizer, was representative of a general concern for everyone demonstrating and the potential harm they face as a result.

“I don’t see it as coming top-down from organizations but more from within protest communities about how to keep each other safe,” said Liv Kunins-Berkowitz, a media coordinator for the activist group Jewish Voice For Peace. “That includes keeping yourself safe from surveillance and from having your photo posted all over the internet.”

Doxings, Firings And Harassment

Since the start of the Israel-Gaza war in October last year, many pro-Palestinian demonstrators have had their personal information posted online and faced firings, suspensions and harassment. While some protesters have had their names, occupations and social media profiles posted after being filmed expressing blatantly antisemitic rhetoric or statements supporting Hamas, organized doxing efforts have also swept up people who have peacefully attended rallies, signed letters calling for a ceasefire or publicly criticized Israel.

As arrests at protests have surged and some lawmakers have called for sending in the national guard against demonstrators, the amount of surveillance at protests has also increased. The New York police department has deployed drones to monitor demonstrations, track movements and capture video footage, with the department saying it would use those recordings to help make arrests.

“At least in New York City, there’s a very big concern around police surveillance,” said one protester, who asked not to be named out of fear of personal and professional harm. They added that some organizers specifically told demonstrators to cover their faces and handed out masks at protests.

In the early weeks of protests against the war, the conservative group Accuracy In Media launched a campaign at Harvard that posted the names and faces of students who signed a pro-Palestinian open letter on the side of a billboard truck and branded them “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites”. It later expanded to other universities and created individualized websites branding students as antisemitic, leading to a lawsuit from one student and Columbia forming a Doxing Resource Group. Several other pro-Israel organizations, such as StopAntisemitism, have similarly dedicated websites and social media accounts to posting the personal information of protesters. People have described receiving death threats, harassment and being fired from their work after being featured in StopAntisemitism’s posts.

Another anonymously run site features hundreds of profiles of people who have been critical of Israel’s actions or taken part in protests, posting their social media profiles, occupations, home towns and photos of their faces. The site has specific lists for students and faculty, accusing them of antisemitism and supporting terrorism for signing open letters calling for ceasefire, affiliation with pro-Palestinian groups or being in attendance at anti-war rallies. These profiles now show up as top Google results when searching for the names of many of the people listed on the site, especially students with a smaller online presence.

Israeli authorities have also used information from that doxing website when making decisions to bar political activists from entering the country, Haaretz reported.

Concealing identity while protesting has a long history in the United States, and in recent decades has been a tactic commonly associated with anticapitalist activists at government summits or antifascists counter-protesting far-right rallies. Mask-wearing became enough of a hallmark of leftist protests that, in 2018, Republicans attempted to pass a vague anti-antifa bill that would have punished anyone protesting in a mask and acting in a threatening manner with up to 15 years in prison.

Several major events in recent years have additionally changed the way that people protest and their ability to remain anonymous. The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic vastly changed the ubiquity of masks, as well as provided a loophole for many anti-mask policies and state laws around protesting with a concealed identity. The January 6 Capitol riots and subsequent search for perpetrators also highlighted how video footage and facial recognition technology can be used to easily identify people online. Self-appointed citizen investigators combed through videos for months after the attack, coordinating online to identify rioters and refer them to law enforcement officials.

Protesters Mask Up In The Office

The desire for anonymity has extended beyond college campuses to other pro-Palestinian demonstrations. When Google employees held a sit-in to protest against the company’s $1.2bn contract with the Israeli government and its military, many covered their faces out of fear of online harassment.

“Doxing is the main reason that people chose to conceal their identity in relation to this protest,” said a former Google worker who was fired for taking part in the demonstration.

Pro-Palestinian protesters at Google had been concerned for some time about other employees harassing them or leaking their personal information online, two former workers told the Guardian. Google fired more than 50 people over the course of several days for taking part in the protests against its Project Nimbus program.

Several fired workers continued to obscure their identities during a press conference in the days after the firing, out of worry that it would threaten future job prospects.

Google said in a statement that some fired employees “took longer to identify because their identity was partly concealed – like by wearing a mask without their badge – while engaged in the disruption.”

Nick Robins-Early is a journalist based in New York. He reports on extremism, disinformation, tech and world news.

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