Georgia cops were slammed by leftist groups and several media outlets after arresting numerous anti-fascist demonstrators who allegedly refused to remove their masks at a neo-Nazi rally Saturday.
Authorities in Newnan justified the arrests as the application of a state law making it illegal to wear a mask at public events, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The law was adopted in the 1950s to combat Ku Klux Klan gatherings, and had been used as recently as 2016 during a white supremacist rally. Masks were also one of the items listed as being prohibited during Saturday’s rally, according to USA Today. But some critics said police were out of bounds.
“We were peacefully protesting, yet they put guns in our faces and told us to take our masks off,” Jeremy Ortega, 19, told the Journal-Constitution.
Ortega, who was charged with a misdemeanor for breaking the no-mask law, said he and his fellow protesters were only covering their faces to avoid threats from the neo-Nazi groups. Instead, Ortega said, it was police who disrupted the peaceful protest -- a narrative picked up by some news outlets.
"Militarized Cops At Tiny Georgia Neo-Nazi Rally Arrest Counterprotesters For Wearing Masks," a Huffington Post headline blared. The Washington Post, meanwhile, sought to highlight the irony of the situation: "Georgia police invoke law made for KKK to arrest anti-racism protesters."
But among the myriad counter-protesters, USA Today reported police also encountered members of ANTIFA, a group known for wearing masks during its demonstrations and one that's instigated brawls and violent disruptions in the past.
A video posted by freelance journalist Daniel Shular appeared to show police officers pushing and yelling at non-compliant anti-fascist demonstrators to remove their masks before raising his rifle at them.
“Remove your mask, or you will be arrested,” the officer said.
Ultimately, police said about 10 counter-protesters were arrested.
Meanwhile, around two dozen members of the National Socialist Movement attended the rally, wearing black clothing and performing the Nazi salute. The organization gained a permit last month for the rally, The New York Times reported. It was unclear why the group chose Newnan to stage the gathering.
Newnan police Chief Douglas “Buster” Meadows said he was “very relieved” no injuries or property damage were reported.
There were nearly 700 law enforcement officers on hand at the rally, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Keenan said he was “relieved” the violence didn’t escalate.
“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,” he said. “We are absolutely satisfied.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.