Masks in the history and culture of our resistance.
It’s good to wear a mask. Because the system is trying to erase the memory of our resistance, here are some examples from history or popular culture in which people covered their faces to fight back against tyranny. The protestors of Tahrir Square.
They often wore masks to protect themselves from tear gas or from being identified by the police as they took to the streets to topple the Mubarak dictatorship. Contrary to the media, they have not won or given up yet, and they continue struggling against the new democratic government (because let’s be honest, we all know that living in a democracy doesn’t mean we have any real power over our lives). The pacifists claimed they were nonviolent, but in their revolt they burned down dozens of police stations and government buildings, they threw thousands of rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police and government thugs, and they fought tooth and nail to seize the streets and defend them.
In 2012 in Asturias, Spain, tens of thousands of miners, along with their family members and supporters took to the streets to defend their jobs in the face of neoliberal cutbacks. Because they knew that peaceful protests have never accomplished anything, they also blocked highways and trainlines, carried out sabotage, and fought with police who inevitably came to evict them. And because they had brains, they wore masks. There was also broad popular support for the miners and against the police.
The strike in 2012 was not nearly as large or combative as the Asturian miners’ strike of 1934, an important precursor to the 1936 revolution, and one that was ultimately crushed by future fascist dictator Francisco Franco. The 1934 strike developed into a revolutionary uprising, and while many of the strikers that time did not wear masks, we should also take into account that in those days the police did not often take photos of protestors and arrest them later. The sabotage, lawbreaking, barricading, street-fighting, and property destruction of the miners in 2012 is part of the legacy, part of the same struggle, as the uprising in 1934, and even though the people ultimately lost (and can never win as long as they only fight for their jobs and not for their own lives), what little safety and security we have, we have thanks to these struggles. Only a scab, a snitch, or a cop could denounce these struggles.
The Mapuche, an indigenous nation from South America, were never defeated by Spanish colonizers. The Mapuche are a decentralized or “circular” society and fought back against colonization much more effectively than the hierarchical Inca. In fact, after beating the Spaniards, their territories were recognized in perpetuity. This treaty was only broken in the 1880s when Chile and Argentina, backed by Great Britain (the greatest military power of the time) invaded the Mapuche lands simultaneously. The Mapuche continue to resist forcefully and they use direct action to recover their lands from timber companies and white landlords who have usurped them. The Mapuche often wear masks to protect their identities during protests and actions. The Chilean state often uses antiterrorism laws against them. Riots recently broke out in Santiago, Chile’s capital, as masked Mapuche attacked Spanish banks, highlighting the history of colonialism, in revenge for the murder of a Mapuche youth by police. (Note that in the BBC video, the British journalist mistakenly says that Mapuche lands were “allegedly” stolen 500 years ago, when in fact the British helped steal the lands just over a century ago, in a process of colonization by multinational companies that continues today).
Robin’s hood may have been to hide his identity. In some popular portrayals, he is masked, in others, he simply hides in the forest. In any case, this lower class bandit, who fought against the greed of the Church and the landlords, who robbed the rich and gave to the poor, has inspired people—including a number of bank robbers—up to the present day. His original identity has long been disputed, but the idea that he was a dispossessed noble rather than a commoner was only introduced into later versions of the telling.
In the forests of England in the 18th century, commoners blackened their faces with ash to hide their identity when they trespassed in the King’s forest to hunt or gather firewood (and for them, hunting wasn’t a posh sport but often a matter of survival). The government responded by applying the death penalty for “blacking” or painting faces.
In Chile, people in the streets celebrate the Day of the Combatant Youth every March 29, the anniversary of when police, in 1985, killed two brothers, Rafael and Eduardo Vergara Toledo, participants in the resistance against the Pinochet dictatorship. Their mother bravely began protesting and organizing events to keep their memory alive, and to celebrate all the young people who were fighting against oppression.
In addition to protests, speeches, and concerts, people commemorate the day every year by erecting barricades, taking the streets, and fighting with police. And that means masking up. “Encapuchados”, or masked ones, are a common feature in the riots of March 29.
Slaves plotting revolts against plantation owners and colonial governments often used codes, secret meetings, and masks to protect their identities as they organized, carried out revenge attacks, or rose up and fought for their freedom.
The popular outlaw and his gang of bank robbers became folk heroes for fighting the law and robbing from the rich before they were killed off by Pinkerton detectives and the federal government. They often covered up their identity when holding up trains and sticking up bankers.
Anti-authoritarian anti-capitalists who arose in Italy and Germany in the ’70s and ’80s, squatted abandoned buildings to create collective housing and social centers, fought against fascists, resisted the anti-immigrant deportation regime developed in the European Union, obstructed gentrification and sabotaged companies like Shell Oil in response to their support for apartheid, police states, and ecocide, the autonomen invented the Black Bloc as we know it today.
All throughout the end of the ’90s and the early ’00s, shipyard workers in ports across Spain, from Cadiz to Gijon, blocked highways, occupied their worksites, and fought with police, in response to massive layoffs. It was one of the strongest labor struggles in Spain since the transition to democracy, and inspired the Javier Bardem movie, Mondays in the Sun.
Palestinians fight for their very existence against a state that has stolen most of their lands, killed thousands, forced hundreds of thousands into exile, and forces hundreds of thousands more to live in what are essentially concentration camps under the eyes of missile-laden drones, prohibited from certain areas even if they are Israeli citizens. They face a racist regime that is worse than South African apartheid, and an armed occupation, funded by the US to the tune of billions of dollars a year, that constitutes a laboratory for the development of military tactics and technologies. When they go to the streets to defend their homes, they frequently mask up to avoid being identified and sent off to an Israeli prison for a dozen years.
In 1990, Mohawk warriors masked their faces, took up arms, and defended their lands against the Canadian military. From Warrior Publications, “The Oka Crisis of 1990 involved the Mohawk territories of Kanehsatake/Oka & Kahnawake, both located near Montreal, Quebec. The standoff began with an armed police assault on a blockade at Kanehsatake on July 11, 1990, which saw one police officer shot dead in a brief exchange of gunfire. Following this, 2,000 police were mobilized, later replaced by 4,500 soldiers with tanks & APC’s, along with naval & air support… The armed warriors at both Kanehsatake & Kahnawake inspired widespread support & solidarity from Indigenous people throughout the country. Protests, occupations, blockades, & sabotage actions were carried out, an indication of the great potential for rebellion amongst Indigenous peoples.
“This manifestation of unity & solidarity served to limit the use of lethal force by the government in ending the standoff. Overall, Oka had a profound effect on Indigenous peoples and was the single most important factor in re-inspiring our warrior spirit. The 77-day standoff also served as an example of Indigenous sovereignty, and the necessity of armed force to defend territory & people against violent aggression by external forces.”
The Zapatistas, an indigenous army in southern Mexico, rose up on January 1, 1994 to protect their territories and communities from the damaging effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement and capitalism in general. They have fought with guns, with protests, with their words, with solidarity projects, with radio stations, and more. And through nearly all of it, they have worn masks, not only to protect themselves from death squads or government soldiers, but also to express their otherness, that they could be anyone.
“The mountain told us to take up arms so we would have a voice. It told us to cover our faces so we would have a face. It told us to forget our names so we could be named. It told us to protect our past so we would have a future.”
Many people in North America were woken up to the growing social war by the Black Bloc attacks on Niketown, Starbucks, and the Gap during the November, 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. The property destruction was extremely controversial, even among anarchists, but at the time few of the pacifists thought to claim police infiltrators were involved, at that point still thinking they could win a fair debate about tactics. In the subsequent Hollywood rendition of the “Battle of Seattle,” it is suggested that some rioters were undercover cops, but the history is clear: police were totally unprepared for this direct attack on some of the leading institutions of capitalism, these attacks woke people up and let everyone know about the WTO and what it was doing, and the attacks were carried out by committed anti-capitalists.
Although disguising themselves as Mohawk–perhaps a symbol of resistance and insubmission–was a serious act of indecency, given the colonialists’ role in the genocide against the Mohawk and other indigenous nations of North America, their defiance of the British East India Company and the British government was well founded, and their decision to mask their identities was wise, given the harsh consequences that would follow. Interestingly, m0st of the Independence movement, including George Washington, the richest colonialist, denounced this massive act of property destruction. Why? They said it gave the movement a bad name, or that it justified harsher British repression. Sound familiar? If the internet existed at the time, surely some blogger would have spread the theory that the tea party was the work of provocateurs.
In May, 1968, hundreds of thousands of French workers and students rose up in the biggest wildcat strike to ever halt the economy of a Western country. Fewer people wore masks in those days, as the police were less likely to use cameras to track down rioters, although the massive crowds themselves granted everyone anonymity. That struggle, against capitalism and the State, but not controlled by Left or communist political parties, almost led to a revolution, and the memory is still alive in struggles against capitalism today, in France and elsewhere.
In the original comic book, V is an anarchist, and when he dies the people mask up and start fighting against the state. When Hollywood got their hands on it, they turned him into a liberal and the mass of people at the end just march peacefully, like spectators, to watch the fireworks, while the military, somehow, loses its nerve (have they ever, in history, had problems with shooting unarmed, peaceful civilians?).
This folk hero, originally from the comic books, takes the side of the poor peasants and fights against wealthy landlords and the soldiers and mercenaries working for them. He has to wear a mask to protect his family from retribution.
“When freedom is a memory and justice is outlawed, the just must become outlaws.”