Masks popularized by "V for Vendetta" film worn by protesters worldwide
Guy Fawkes sentenced to death for trying to blow up Parliament in 1605
Mask is international symbol for rebellion and anonymity, says Anonymous protester
Masked march on Parliament in London planned for Guy Fawkes Night on Saturday
Generations of Britons have grown up pledging to “Remember remember the fifth of November: Gunpowder, treason and plot” – the figure of Guy Fawkes linked forever with fireworks, bonfires and childhood fun.
Now – more than four hundred years after the gruesome death of the man who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament with barrels of gunpowder – members of the Occupy and Anonymous movements are hoping to provide their own reason to remember Guy Fawkes Night.
On Saturday, November 5, hundreds of protesters wearing the sinister black and white Guy Fawkes masks plan to march on Parliament in central London.
“It will be a night our government never forgets,” Malcolm, a member of hacker group Anonymous, said with a smile. “Our government should be expecting us.”
The march will recreate one of the final scenes of “V for Vendetta,” a film based on the comic books by Alan Moore about a mysterious masked revolutionary who brings down a totalitarian regime, succeeding where Fawkes failed by blowing up parliament.
The Guy Fawkes mask, worn by V, the film’s protagonist – with its diabolical grin, devilish black moustache and thin goatee on a porcelain white background – has become the talisman of a new generation of activists as an unprecedented wave of disgust and anger with establishment figures has swept the world.
While the mask has been spotted in Occupy protests from Oakland to Hong Kong in the past month as people rally against what they perceive as growing corporate greed and rising social inequality, the mask was first embraced by international hacker ring Anonymous in 2008.
The group of hackers, notorious for their online attacks on high profile banks and government agencies, first wore the masks to conceal their identities in public protests against the Church of Scientology in 2008.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange recently wore one to a rally at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where Occupy protesters and members of Anonymous have been camping in tents since the demonstration began three weeks ago.
Malcolm, a 44-year-old Anonymous member and camper, says the mask has become “an international symbol for rebellion and anonymity.”
“The point of wearing the mask is to be able to go to a protest without fear of retribution or aggression from the establishment,” he said, his mask perched on the crown of his head.
“I have no problem with anyone having my identity, but I like the fact I can choose not to.”
Joshua Whitfield, 19, is a fan of the Vendetta books but says it doesn’t matter why people choose to wear it.
“Some people wear it to make a fashion statement, others because they know what it’s about,” he said. “I thought I would show my support for the book and for Anonymous by picking up a mask and being part of the movement.”
The popularity of the mask – an estimated 100,000 were sold last year – has created a bit of a conundrum for activists who are trying to undermine, not support, businesses owned by the establishment.
Time Warner (which also owns CNN) owns the rights to the masks, meaning every mask sold puts more money, albeit a small amount, into the corporation’s coffers.
Rather than continue to give money to a company they say they don’t support, activists are now having their own replica masks mass-produced and shipped in from Asia, according to several Anonymous members.
Rather than buy an officially licensed mask at a shop in central London, Whitfield said he was able to purchase his mask from an Anonymous member for £3 ($4.80).
“We don’t really want people putting money into corporate pockets, and this is one of our solutions,” explained Anonymous’s Malcolm.
In the four centuries since Fawkes was sentenced to death – by the brutal punishment of being hung, then drawn and quartered – for his treason, there has been much debate in Britain over whether he was a terrorist or a freedom fighter.
Ironically Fawkes, far from being the anti-establishment hero he has come to be seen as in the years since his death, was a monarchist who merely wanted to replace the Protestant king with a Catholic queen. He lived in an age when Europe was split along religious lines, and in England, any sign of allegiance to the pope and Rome could result in imprisonment or even death (indeed, under the later 1701 Act of Settlement, no Roman Catholic or anyone married to a Catholic could be crowned king or queen, a law whose repeal was announced last week).
But it is perhaps Fawkes’ “man of action” persona that most intrigues anti-establishment activists today, and Malcolm is quick to repeat the age-old adage about Fawkes.
“As they say – Guy Fawkes was the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions,” he said with a grin.