Image:A protester with the "Occupy Seattle" movement wears a mask and takes a photo with a mobile phone.
Ted S. Warren  /  AP
A protester with the "Occupy Seattle" movement wears a Guy Fawkes mask and takes a photo with a mobile phone as he demonstrates, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011, in downtown Seattle.
updated 11/4/2011 9:36:49 AM ET 2011-11-04T13:36:49

Look at a photo or news clip from around the world of Occupy protesters and you'll likely spot a handful of people wearing masks of a cartoon-like man with a pointy beard, closed-mouth smile and mysterious eyes.

The mask is a stylized version of Guy Fawkes, an Englishman who tried to bomb the British Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605.

"They're very meaningful masks," said Alexandra Ricciardelli, who was rolling cigarettes on a table outside her tent in New York's Zuccotti Park two days before the anniversary of Fawkes' failed bombing attempt.

"It's not about bombing anything; it's about being anonymous — and peaceful."

To the 20-year-old from Keyport, N.J., the Fawkes mask "is about being against The Man — the power that keeps you down."

But history books didn't lead to the mask's popularity: A nearly 30-year-old graphic novel and a five-year-old movie did.

Story: Occupy protesters disavow Oakland violence

"V for Vendetta," the comic-based movie whose violent, anarchist antihero fashions himself a modern Guy Fawkes and rebels against a fascist government has become a touchstone for young protesters in mostly western countries. While Warner Brothers holds the licensing rights to the Guy Fawkes mask, several protesters said they were using foreign-made copies to circumvent the corporation.

Yet whether the inspiration is the comic, the movie or the historical figure, the imagery — co-opted today by everyone from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to the hacker group Anonymous — carries stronger connotations than some of the Occupy protesters seem to understand.

'The real power of it'
While Fawkes' image has been romanticized over the past 400 years, he was a criminal who tried to blow up a government building. It would be hard to imagine Americans one day wearing Timothy McVeigh masks to protest the government or corporate greed.

Lewis Call, an assistant history professor at California Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo, said the masked protesters are adopting a powerful symbol that has shifted meaning through the centuries.

"You can seize hold of it for any political purpose you want," he said. "That's the real power of it."

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Fawkes was a Catholic insurrectionist executed for the bombing attempt. In the years immediately following his execution, Nov. 5 was England's official celebration for defeating Fawkes, said Call, who has written about the nexus of Fawkes, "V for Vendetta" and modern-day protests.

Call said over the next three centuries, people in England started using Fawkes' image in different ways. Some used Fawkes as a symbol for putting limits on state power. Others held him up as a freedom fighter.

Then came the comic book, a nihilistic story set in a futuristic England. And the movie. People began thinking of him as a libertarian or even anarchist hero.

"Gradually over the centuries, the meaning of Guy Fawkes has dramatically changed," said Call. "The reputation of Guy Fawkes has been recuperated. Before he was originally seen as a terrorist trying to destroy England. Now he's seen more as a freedom fighter, a fighter for individual liberty against an oppressive regime. The political meaning of that figure has transformed."

Nearly two years after the film "V for Vendetta" was released, the hacker group Anonymous wore the Guy Fawkes masks depicted in the movie during protests against the Church of Scientology. Then came Wikileaks and the Occupy movement.

Masks selling out
At Zuccotti Park in New York, the Guy Fawkes masks have been worn over the past month by Occupy protesters ranging from self-proclaimed anarchists to drummers to those impersonating "zombie" bankers. Few wore them Thursday afternoon because of the arrests of masked activists. But they weren't gone — just hidden.

One was in the left hand of 32-year-old Jason J. Cross — right under a protest sign. He had 20 more stashed in his tent, to be sold at $5 apiece.

"I had 10 here yesterday, and I sold out!" he said.

Image: Demonstrators wearing Vendetta masks sit outside tents at the Occupy London camp outside St. Paul's Cathedral.
Facundo Arrizabalaga  /  AFP - Getty Images
Demonstrators wearing V for Vendetta masks sit outside tents at the Occupy London camp outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London on November 1.

Cross said he'd purchased 100 of the Chinese-made masks online.

"The origins of this mask comes from the idea of rising up against the government," he said. "Guy Fawkes represents the fact that the people have the real power."

A man at the Occupy London protests on a recent day said the mask has become a potent symbol.

"It's unifying the world under one symbol," said the 33-year-old man who asked not to be named because he claimed to be a member of a group accused of hacking into government and corporate computer systems.

"People hide behind the masks, put the masks on and their identity is hidden. Therefore they can do a lot more than they would if they didn't have the masks," he said, after emerging sleepy-eyed from his tent.

The London protester said his brethren are trying to counter Warner Bros.' control of the imagery.

He claims that Anonymous UK has imported 1,000 copies from China, and the distribution goes "straight into the pockets of the Anonymous beer fund rather than the Warner Brothers. Much better."

Hudson Williams Eynon, a protester in Seattle's Westlake Plaza, said the mask is not the only corporate product the Occupy movement is using. Smart phones, cameras and Internet service are used to organize. It is something unavoidable, he said.

"There's a lot of inherent ironies in protesting corporations in a corporate world," Williams Eynon said in early October.


Lush reported from Tampa, Fla. Associated Press writers Cassandra Vinograd in London and Manuel Valdes in Seattle also contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Oakland port reopens after pre-dawn violence

  1. Transcript of: Oakland port reopens after pre-dawn violence

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Back out West we go. In Oakland , California , it was early this morning before dawn that police in riot gear moved in, broke up a protest that had been peaceful all day long even when it shut down the nation's fifth largest port, but then at the end took a violent turn. NBC 's Miguel Almaguer is in Oakland for us again tonight. Miguel , good evening.

    MIGUEL ALMAGUER reporting: Brian , good evening. Tonight the port is reopened, the city of Oakland is cleaning up after a violent morning. It was a sour ending to what was for the most part a peaceful day. It was the confrontation Oakland wanted to avoid. A small crowd of vandals threw Molotov cocktails and chunks of concrete at police.

    Unidentified Man #1: Today was a peaceful day. This could jeopardize people's lives right now.

    ALMAGUER: Officers fired back with tear gas and bean bags to clear away the rioters. More than 80 were arrested.

    Chief HOWARD JORDAN (Oakland Police Department Interim Chief): We consider them anarchists and provocateurs, people intent on causing problems, damage.

    ALMAGUER: The clash shattered what had been a noisy, but mostly peaceful citywide strike. Some 7,000 demonstrators marched and successfully shut down the nation's fifth largest port.

    Unidentified Man #2: Go home!

    ALMAGUER: At nightfall most left. The port reopened this morning.

    Mr. JOE JOHNSON (Truck Driver): I understand them trying to make a point or whatever, but it seems to me that they're hurting, you know, the little guys.

    Protesters: Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!

    ALMAGUER: In Seattle , Occupy protesters blocked hotel doors where the CEO of JPMorgan Chase was scheduled to speak. Police used pepper spray to move them.

    Unidentified Man #3: I'm sick and tired of the wealth inequalities in this country.

    Protesters: All day, all week, occupy Wall Street !

    ALMAGUER: In New York today, 17 were arrested when protesters blocked the entrance to Goldman Sachs . Back in Oakland , yesterday's demonstrators helped with today's cleanup.

    Ms. HADAS ALTERMAN (Occupy Oakland): They do not represent what Occupy Oakland or any movement in Occupy -- in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street is about.

    ALMAGUER: Vandals shattered bank windows, defaced walls and even stormed a Whole Foods store.

    Mr. DAVID McCOY: (Whole Foods Cashier): Went from a good, peaceful march and they went haywire when they came down here and started throwing paint, they attacked some of our customers that came out of our store.

    ALMAGUER: The Occupy Oakland protesters remain camped out on the steps of city hall . They say they are re-energized by yesterday's citywide strike. And despite this Bay Area rain, Brian , they say they have plans to go nowhere.

    WILLIAMS: Miguel Almaguer in the Bay Area for us tonight. Miguel , thanks.

Data: Occupy Wall Street


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