Ski Mask Bans in Cities like Philadelphia Will Criminalize Black and Brown Youth

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The ski mask “is a fashion statement. This item is a lot of things to a culture,” 19-year old youth advocate, Saud Salahuddin, testified at a Philadelphia City Council Meeting arguing against the passage of an ordinance banning ski masks on public transit and in other public spaces. “I think it’s an attack on culture,” said Salahuddin, who spoke wearing a ski mask. “I have a ski mask on. I didn’t cause any harm to anybody. I don’t plan on causing harm to anybody.”

Philadelphia City Council’s ski mask ban is just the next in a series of tough-on-crime policies that disproportionately affect Black and brown youth. As narratives about youth crime continue to get play in the media despite evidence that crime, including violent crime, is plummeting almost everywhere in the country, and data showing that adults commit the vast majority of crime, politicians use harsh policies like the mask ban to show they are doing something. Other similar policies include expanded curfews and harsher penalties for a range of offenses. Performative policies like these are not evidence-based practices that reduce crime generally or among youth.

Mask bans are not new, but many were historically enacted with a more benevolent intent. Following a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980s and 1990s, states and municipalities banned the wearing of hoods and masks in connection with anti-Black and antisemitic terrorism. Yet these anti-hooding laws were written so broadly that police could interpret them to justify stops, pat downs, and charges for a range of fashion accessories including hoodies and ski masks. As a result, the very laws intended to protect Black communities were instead weaponized against them and disproportionately used to justify police harassment of Black and brown youth.

Prohibiting fashion trends popular among youth of color is also not new. From the 1943 Los Angeles ordinance banning zoot suits, a fashion trend particularly popular among Mexican and Filipino youth, to efforts starting in the early 2000s banning sagging pants and hoodies, city councils and legislatures have long used alleged associations between fashion trends and crime to justify racist laws. Today’s ski mask bans come as rapper Pooh Shiesty and other hip-hop artists popularize ski masks as a fashion accessory among Black and brown youth. As Salahuddin’s testimony makes clear, ski masks are a cultural fashion statement and laws banning them are an attack on culture. In stark contrast, there have been no similar efforts to ban the neck gaiters, khaki pants, and polo shirts prominently worn by far-right neo-fascist groups like the Proud Boys and the Patriot Front. Whatever the justification, by dictating what young people can wear, fashion bans may violate the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

Ski mask bans enable unnecessary and harmful police interactions because they provide an excuse for police to stop youth. As Jetson Cruz, another youth advocate speaking in opposition to the Philadelphia ski mask ban testified, “I got to worry about going out there and getting stopped and harassed by the police for wearing something that I choose to wear. I got tattoos and I’m already a person of color. So now my choice of clothing, I get stopped and harassed too. That scares me. That scares me.” Even though Philadelphia’s ban carries a civil fine rather than a criminal penalty, it allows police to stop, question, and frisk youth without reasonable suspicion that the young person is engaging in criminal activity — the level of suspicion the Constitution requires for police to justify a stop. Police interactions cause and exacerbate trauma, especially for youth of color. Further, police interactions with youth can go from 0 to 100 in a second. Youth who experience or witness excessive or aggressive police contacts in their community may become anxious, evasive, and even defiant towards the police. An officer who misinterprets a child’s fear, attitude, “back talk,” or physical resistance as a threat may tackle and restrain the youth, handcuff them, and charge them with a crime far more serious than wearing a ski mask.

Like the fashion bans that preceded them, ski mask bans apply an additional layer of assumed criminality to the profiling and racism youth of color already experience from police, lawmakers, and members of the public. Contrary to the assumptions of criminality, youth may wear ski masks for warmth or to conceal their identities from peers who mean them harm, or even just to follow a fashion trend and fit in with their peers.

No matter why young people wear a ski mask, ski masks do not cause crime and banning them will not prevent it. Even where a small percentage of individuals wear ski masks to commit crimes, bans traumatize large numbers of young people to regulate the harmful behavior of very few. As Salahuddin told the City Council, “everybody else should not be affected by something that a specific group of people chose to do.” If we really want to reduce crime, Iet’s invest in children, families, schools, and communities instead of criminalizing teenagers and their fashion.

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue

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