Are Balaclavas Illegal in NYC?

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 17 2012 4:17 PM

Are Balaclavas Illegal in NYC?

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Supporters of the Russian punk band 'Pussy Riot' outside of the Russian Embassy.

Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/GettyImages

In a Times piece covering today’s demonstrations to support the jailed members of Russian pop group Pussy Riot, an unnamed organizer of the event is quoted as saying that wearing balaclavas—one of the band’s signature sartorial expressions—is illegal in NYC. If you don a balaclava or ski mask on a snowy New York City day, will you be arrested for it?

No. However, according to the New York Penal Law 240.35(4), it is illegal to congregate in public with two or more people while each wearing a mask or any face covering which disguises your identity. The law has existed since 1845, when tenant farmers, in response to a lowering of wheat prices, dressed up as “Indians” and covered their faces with masks in order to attack the police anonymously. There are exceptions for masquerades and other entertainment events that are deemed appropriate by the city (such as Halloween).

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The organizer quoted in the Times piece was technically wrong that balaclavas or ski masks alone are illegal—a call to Paragon Sports, located in the city, informed me that while their store does not have them at the moment, ski masks will be in stock once winter season grows nearer. (For now, you can find them only on their website.)

The law has been notably enforced a couple of times in the past few years—at the peak of the Occupy Wall Street protests last fall, and in 1999, when members of the KKK were prevented from wearing their signature attire during a rally in Manhattan. That latter decision case was later overturned, however; a judge subsequently ruled that the KKK members must be allowed to wear their masks.

Thanks to Peter Moskos of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

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