• D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG
rotating globe
  • D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
Semafor Logo
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG

In this edition: Why so many protesters mask up, what’s at stake in Pennsylvania’s primaries, and wh͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
thunderstorms Indianapolis
cloudy Washington, D.C.
cloudy Annapolis
rotating globe
April 23, 2024


Sign up for our free newsletters
David Weigel

The rise of the masked Israel-Gaza protester

Selcuk Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images


The first thing you see are the masks — the N-95s, the surgical masks, the patterned cloth masks, the bandanas — which largely vanished from American life over the last two years but are a defining feature of America’s swelling left-wing protest culture.

Faculty members at New York University link arms to protect a “Gaza solidarity encampment,” most of them wearing face masks. Activists block travel across the Golden Gate Bridge, all of them in masks. Members of the March on DNC 2024 coalition show up to their Chicago press conference in face masks, removing them only when it’s their turn to speak.

Nearly one year after the official end of the federal COVID-19 emergency declaration, the regular use of face masks for non-immunocompromised people has faded from American life. Outdoor masking, mandated in many states during the peak of the pandemic, became even rarer after a 2022 CDC advisory scaled it back.

But that gradual return to barefaced life never reached left-leaning protests, where face masks are widely used and encouraged.

Part of the reason, say organizers, remains an attempt to make a point about exposure to COVID-19 and other health risks, which some in the left-wing protest movements believe remain dire. And part is the threat of a different kind of exposure — from being captured by facial recognition technology or becoming doxxed (their personal information being shared online) by counter-protesters.

“To us, the optics are communicating that we deny the Biden administration’s narrative about COVID — that it’s no longer a big deal,” said Olan Mijana, a spokesman for the March on DNC 2024 coalition. “It’s about collective safety, and it’s also about connecting this COVID neglect to the very issues that we’re marching on the DNC for.”


The return to masking has confused and irritated critics. “Notice the horde standing behind their masks,” wrote a counter-protester this week, next to footage of his non-masked wife standing walking into a Yale University pro-ceasefire protest.

“No masks on campus!” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the president of the Anti-Defamation League, in a video posted after he surveyed protests at Columbia University. “This isn’t Fallujah. This is Morningside Heights.”

Before the pandemic, this level of masking wasn’t common — or legal. For more than 150 years, New York prohibited masks in public places; other states adopted similar laws, which made it easier to break up Ku Klux Klan gatherings and aided prosecutors as they built cases.

Thirteen years ago, when the NYPD broke up Occupy Wall Street protests, some of the activists there were charged under the anti-mask law. At the start of the Trump presidency, face masks at protests were identified with “black bloc” tactics that anonymized anarchists; in 2017, some left-wing counter-protesters of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville faced felony charges for violating anti-mask laws.

“You saw the mentality around masking shift after the street-level clashes around Trump’s election,” said Sean Summers, a reporter with Unicorn Riot, a nonprofit news organization that tracks the far right. “People started to see far right figures coming out with full body armor, and livestreamers working to capture people’s identities. In some cases, that translated into people being doxxed.”

Anti-mask laws complicated that response, but many were felled by the pandemic, which also saw millions of Americans become engaged in public protests against police brutality. In May 2020, after New York began mandating face coverings in public places, Attorney Gen. Letitia James convinced the state legislature to repeal it. First Amendment activists took note and began encouraging protesters to use face covering as a defensive measure against unwanted attention, helping to spread the practice beyond the fringes of the left.

“Before the pandemic, it used to be illegal to protest in masks in many places. You weren’t allowed to cover your face,” said Ría Thompson-Washington, a progressive organizer and attorney, in a September 2023 National Lawyers Guild training video. “Being able to mask is not only a safety consideration, but it’s a consideration to protect your anonymity.”


A college student who’s spending part of finals week at a Gaza Solidarity camp has never known a world without social media. A senior, who arrived on campus in the fall of 2020, was mandated to wear a mask; the 150-year regime of anti-mask laws died before they got there.

The anonymity of these protests, and of other pro-Gaza protests around the country, grew out of that reality — and out of the worry that being identified could ruin their lives. Those fears were exacerbated last year after a top law firm rescinded job offers to Ivy League students who signed onto a statement holding Israel “entirely responsible” for the 10/7 attack, while other business leaders pledged to do the same.

Fear of reprisal has colored the protests, and made them cautious about identifying themselves. Reporters from national news outlets, even friendly ones, have recorded their annoyance at how hard it’s been to get the name and full story of someone participating in direct action. (Students who’ve participated in news stories, like Rep. Ilhan Omar’s daughter, Barnard student Isra Hrisi, are rare and usually have the full support of family members.)

As these students graduate and become active in politics and government, you can already see the same expectations and norms filtering upward. White House and Capitol Hill staffers organizing against the war have not only worn masks at their protests, but signed onto anonymous letters in support of their cause, annoying older political veterans who argue they should either keep complaints in-house or resign in protest. The semiotics that used to be associated with anarchists, whose masks stood out at rallies, are now popular with activists participating in non-violent civil disobedience.


In 2017 and 2018, some Republican legislators introduced state and federal legislation to increase penalties on masked protesters. It largely failed, and there is no effort to bring it back yet, but the sentiment is still there.

“Masked protestors undermine their accountability,” Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, a co-sponsor of the federal Unmask Antifa Act, told Semafor in a statement. When protesters wear masks, he added, it “enables them to commit acts of vandalism, assault and destruction of property without fear of identification or consequences for their illegal and violent behavior.”


  • In The Columbia Spectator, Gabriella Gregor Splaver photographs the protesters, protests, and aftermath.
  • In The Philadelphia Inquirer, Will Bunch praises the student journalists covering campus protests: “The reporters at the Spectator, using their on-scene access and doing some shoe-leather reporting, produced a piece that analyzed the alleged incidents, where they occurred and, where possible, who was involved.”
  • In The Washington Post, Pranshu Verma followed what happened to people who ripped down posters of Hamas hostages and were caught on camera without masks: “Nearly three dozen people… have been fired or suspended from their jobs after being featured by StopAntisemitism,” a pro-Israel organization and X account.
State of Play

Pennsylvania. It’s primary day, with a few competitive races for House seats and statewide offices.

At the top of the ballot, Democratic voters will nominate a successor to Attorney Gen. Michelle Henry, who was appointed by Gov. Josh Shapiro and isn’t running for a full term, and pick their nominees for auditor general and treasurer — two offices they narrowly lost in 2020. The first race has the most competition, with every Democrat wrestling over how they’d handle Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. Republicans created a new special prosecutor’s office to take cases away from the progressive Krasner, and while Henry never filled it, most candidates to replace her, including former state Auditor Eugene DePasquale, say they will.

In the Pittsburgh-based 12th Congressional District, Rep. Summer Lee is facing her first primary challenger as an incumbent: Bhavini Patel, a local municipal official who’s attacked Lee for not siding more with President Biden, and aligning with protest voters who disagree with Biden’s support for Israel. In the Bucks County-based 1st Congressional District, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick has run ads to fend off Mark Houck, an anti-abortion activist challenging him from the right. (Fitzpatrick is the only Pennsylvania Republican in a Biden-won district.)

In Harrisburg’s 10th Congressional District, six Democrats are competing to face GOP Rep. Scott Perry, a perennial target. In the Lehigh Valley, one of three Republicans will face Rep. Susan Wild, a Democrat who’s won three close races against weak opponents. State Rep. Ryan Mackenzie got the support of Americans for Prosperity Action, after its pivot from the GOP presidential primary; Vivek Ramaswamy campaigned for local university trustee Maria Montero. Polls close across the state at 8 p.m. eastern time.

Washington. Republicans endorsed veteran and recalled ex-school board member Semi Bird for governor, after ex-Rep. Dave Reichert pulled out of the endorsement process. “It was a broken system and a deceitful system,” Reichert told the Seattle Times, after the convention disqualified, then re-qualified, Bird as a candidate for their support. “I have no patience for that kind of crap.” Conservatives down the ballot rolled up endorsements at the Saturday convention, but Reichert has polled close to Attorney Gen. Bob Ferguson, the Democratic frontrunner. In Washington’s all-party primary system, every candidate will compete in June for two lines on the November ballot.

One Nation

Campaign for Democracy, “Fugitive.” Term-limited in 2026, California Gov. Gavin Newsom keeps buying ads outside California to warn red states of what their Republican governors are doing. This one, for Alabamians, dramatizes an escape from the state that’s foiled by a traffic cop, holding a pregnancy test, ready to prove that two women are leaving to get an illegal abortion. To help stop “Trump Republicans,” viewers can go to the PAC’s website and sign up to help Newsom.

Protect Freedom PAC, “Bob Good.” Rand Paul isn’t on a ballot again until 2028, and his super PAC is spending its resources to help like-minded conservatives. Paul himself narrates this endorsement of Good, the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, vulnerable in a June primary because he endorsed Ron DeSantis for president over Donald Trump. Paul’s mission: Explain just how conservative Good really is, and how Virginians can trust him to “stop sending our taxpayer dollars overseas.”

One Nation, “Promising.” This is the first immigration-focused attack ad against a Democratic senator since his party dismissed impeachment charges against Homeland Security Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas. That drama doesn’t make it in. More powerful, according to this Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC; footage of migrants pushing through a line of CBP officers, images of border wall construction, and pictures of Montana Sen. Jon Tester smiling next to President Biden as he votes for “amnesty for 11 million illegals, even criminals.” Those were votes for bipartisan immigration packages that combined border security money with citizenship reforms — once popular, now fodder for attacks.


The Liberal Patriot teamed up with Bluepoint for a lengthy poll, shared exclusively with Semafor, with questions on dozens of possible policy shifts that either Joe Biden or Donald Trump could pull off. Their conclusion: There was plenty that Biden could talk about to convince voters that he could be trusted to treat their economic woes. He either wasn’t doing it enough, or he was being drowned out by other news. “The only way you can really break through with a consistent set of issues is to talk about it incessantly,” said Ruy Teixeira, the newsletter’s co-founder. “It’s not clear to me that the Biden campaign has focused on the ideas that could give him an advantage over Trump.”

The president’s slight recovery in post-State of the Union polls continues here, with an assist from Kennedy. The Trump campaign hasn’t criticized Kennedy apart from a few statements and Truth Social posts; the Biden campaign has gone after Kennedy as a Trump cut-out, arguing he is on the ballot to help Republicans win. That may be paying off now. When given more candidates to pick between, 15% of Trump voters peel off and support Kennedy, and 2% support either West or Stein. Just 7% of Biden voters go for Kennedy, while 4% support Stein and 1% support West.

In the six weeks since North Carolina’s primaries, Democrats have unloaded on GOP gubernatorial nominee Mark Robinson, and he hasn’t responded with paid media. It’s been costly. Robinson, who was already less popular than Donald Trump with independents, hasn’t made gains; Stein has, picking up support as non-Republicans learn who he is.

On the Trail
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

House. Texas Rep. Tony Gonzales is getting a visit and some fundraising help from House Speaker Mike Johnson this week, infuriating conservatives and House Freedom Caucus members upset with Gonzales over his gun safety and Ukraine funding votes. Gonzales hit back at them in a Sunday CNN interview, calling Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz one of the “real scumbags” he has to serve with; Gaetz campaigned with Gonzales’s GOP primary opponent, Brandon Herrera, last month.

  • 14 days until primaries in Indiana
  • 21 days until primaries in Maryland, Nebraska, and West Virginia
  • 83 days until the Republican National Convention
  • 118 days until the Democratic National Convention
  • 202 days until the 2024 presidential election