The bill, introduced by Republican Representative Dan Donovan, imposes penalties on anyone who “injures, oppresses, threatens, or intimidates” another person while wearing a mask or disguise.
While the text of the bill itself does not mention anti-fascist activists, the name is more explicit: “The Unmasking Antifa Act of 2018.”
“Antifa” is shorthand for a loosely organised group of left-wing protesters who track and protest neo-Nazi organising in their areas. Occasionally, the activists dress in black and cover their faces to conceal their identities.
Passing a bill to criminalise these tactics, some antifa activists said, could jeopardise their safety and embolden right-wing protesters.
“This bill explicitly targets the tactics used by anti-fascists to protect themselves against the violence and harassment of the far-right groups who routinely target them,” said Janine Renee Cunningham, a member of New York’s Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, in a statement to The Independent.
She added: “As a result, it should be considered tacit support of not only fascism, but also dangerous alt-right groups in this country.”
Anti-fascist organising gained notoriety last year, after activists showed up to counter-protest a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. One counter-protester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was killed by an attendee at the event, who acquaintances have identified as a Nazi sympathiser.
President Donald Trump condemned Ms Heyer’s death at the time, but also blamed violence at the rally on “both sides”. He later singled out the “far left” for criticism, accusing them of violently charging at the rally attendees.
Walter Shaub – the former head of the US Office of Government Ethics, who resigned in protest under Mr Trump – tweeted about Mr Donovan’s bill on Tuesday.
“Two groups go to Charlottesville. A big group chants racist filth, wields semi-automatic assault rifles, fires a gun into a crowd & murders a woman with a car. A small group wears masks,” he wrote. “It’s the small group these Congressmen want to lock up for 15 years. Authoritarianism rises.”
Ryan Patrick, a spokesperson for Mr Donovan, told The Independent that the bill was not intended to target any one group in particular. He noted that the bill simply would simply update existing civil rights statutes to add a penalties for wearing a mask.
But a fact sheet sent out by his Mr Donovan’s office highlighted alleged acts of violent violence by antifa activists – including a rally in Berkeley, California, where protesters threw Molotov cocktails before an appearance by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
“Americans have the natural right to speak and protest freely; it is not a right to throw Molotov cocktails and beat people while hiding behind a mask,” Mr Donovan, who represents New York, said of the bill in a statement.
Domestic extremists of all kinds killed at least 372 people in the US between 2007 and 2016, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Of those deaths, approximately 74 per cent were at the hands of right-wing extremists. Two per cent were carried out by left-wing extremists.
Michael Loadenthal, a professor of sociology and social justice at Miami University, said he did not think Mr Donovan’s bill was designed to protect Americans from violence, but instead to discourage protest.
“Even if this bill never gets passed … it’s designed to show people that there could be very severe consequences for what is seen as a self-defensive manoeuvre,” he said, referring to the tactic of wearing a mask.
“It seems like this law is designed to make resistance to organised fascist assemblies more difficult.”