Why I don’t mask up
During the protests over the last year and a bit certain trends have cropped up amongst both those newly radicalized and those old hands that have been involved in protest movements for many years. One in particular has been singled out by both protesters and the law as one to watch; wearing masks.
More protesters are wearing them and the law has responded by using undercover police snatch-squads to arrest people wearing masks. Under s.60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act the police can require you to remove a mask and arrest if you refuse to do so, they may also use “reasonable force” to remove your mask. But as the police become more and more oppressive, protesters are becoming more radicalized.
I do not, nor will I wear a mask on a protest. For me, the power of protest comes from being accountable for my actions. Those actions that inspire me the most are those where people say, “Yes, I did this, I’d do it again because I am right”.
In 1996 four women broke into a BAE Systems factory in Lancashire and took hammers to a Hawk fighter jet destined for Indonesia. After smashing the jet beyond use, they didn’t leave the scene; in fact they waited nearly 2 hours before a security guard arrived. They even had to call a journalist to call the security to come and get them. They spent 6 months on remand and were eventually found not guilty as by their actions they prevented the use of the jet against Indonesian citizens protesting against the government.
This is, obviously, a very different situation to the recent protests that have seen masked-up black blocs smashing the windows of high-street shops, banks and obscenely posh hotels. But what it demonstrates is the power of accountability.
A friend recently posed me the question “why should we be accountable to a state and a police force that isn’t accountable to us?” For me, it is not the state that I am being accountable to it is the people with whom I stand in solidarity.
If I refuse to be accountable for my actions, I cannot justify them openly and defend them in the light of open criticism. If I am not acting in solidarity with others then I am acting unilaterally, the equivalent of telling someone that I know better than they do.
The amount of support I have received after my conviction over the Fortnum & Mason protest in March has been almost overwhelming. People who would never have questioned the police and judiciary before have seen how corrupt it is, how biased against dissent. This is because they see us as the same, they can recognise their friends, children, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers in us. And they support us because we are accountable to them.
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I thought this phrase “the sense of a common identity they give to people at a protest is quite valuable” was really quite interesting because, of course, it may well boost the sense of belonging to those wearing masks (although actually I think the V masks help people maintain a distance from their fellow protesters) it actually boosts a sense of alienation among others. I think it’s important to have a wider sense of community than the small if growing minority who like wearing a mask because they find the experience liberating.
I’ve worn face coverings twice on protests – both times in Europe when I was being tear gassed and I wore a scarf for the eminently practical reason that I didn’t want to spend the entire protest blind and throwing up.
For me I think the experience of protesting alongside people who wont show their faces and some of whom are undoubtedly police officers is pretty unpleasant and creates an air of distrust.
Our strengths lie in our numbers, our collective democracy and the fact we do all the useful work in society. Covering your face is a supremely selfish act that is about the fear the individual feels (often unwarranted incidentally) despite the fact it cuts against what makes us powerful.
Obviously there are exceptions to this when talking about specific actions – but mask wearing has become normal and acceptable at demos where there should be (and usually is) no trouble with the police. It heightens the fear of violence and discourages people with kids in particular from coming to future protests.
That’s my view anyway.
As a specific observation, I think most people agree that V masks being popular at Occupy protests (and other recent protest movements) largely grew out of the wearing of same at anti-Scientology protests – where it does make very good sense to hide your identity, given that organisation’s enthusiastic approach to harassing people who disagree with it. It might be worth reassessing their use now, although I think the sense of a common identity they give to people at a protest is quite valuable – particularly people who aren’t normally inclined to be at a protest.
More generally… personally I often wear a scarf over my face at protests on cold days (i.e. not in summer). I’ll show police my face if they ask but then I’ll put the scarf back over my face before I walk off. I’m sure the police have a tidy file on me given the number and variety of (peaceful, on my part) protests I’ve attended over the last decade, but I don’t see any reason to make it easier for them to bulk that file up with more sightings and photos taken while I’m just wandering around at a protest, not doing anything that is immoral or illegal. If policing of a protest is light-touch, and they aren’t ostentatiously filming people, I generally won’t cover my face. If a protest gets kettled or is being filmed by FIT then I always will. Sliding scale applies between the two.
As a last point… I tend to think it’s worthwhile to offer protective cover for those taking more radical action, by being someone who doesn’t do so but who does cover my face, and I’m often inclined to do so as long as those taking more radical action aren’t doing something I actively disagree with – e.g. hurting people. The jury is out on whether my definition of people here includes riot police, given that they tend to be the ones initiating the violence in my experience.
I think that is an interesting point you bring up, about privilege. I can certainly see how, when used as a tactic rather than a habit, anonymity can be a very empowering and liberating device. I have masked-up in the past for the exact reason you state, I didn’t want to be in the media. The point I wanted to make, which perhaps didn’t come across very well, was that as a matter of habit, as a default, it isn’t a helpful method for building solidarity. There tends to be certain trends in protest movements that become fetishised, wearing of masks is one of those things that is very in vogue right now. These trends are often associated with the more macho aspects of the protest movement and are often isolating for those not involved, but who are still part of the wider movement.
I am not demanding people not wear masks, nor am I saying people should martyr themselves. I do, however, always think that we should question why we do something. Wearing masks has become an issue in that both protesters are doing it more and the police have started arresting people for it. There was no critique of this culture of mask wearing that I had seen and I wanted to present an argument against it. Ultimately what people do on a protest is up to them, but I don’t think it should be because of unquestioning obedience to a trend.
I rarely mask up at a protest, but I have done it in the past, and I probably will do it again. It has nothing to do with being ashamed of my opinions – I blog openly under my own name – but for me it is about control. I’ve seen how photographs from protests are used by some sections of the media, and have no desire to see my face splashed across the pages of a tabloid paper with no right of reply.
Not everyone is in a position to “come out” as an activist. For a lot of people, it can create difficulties with family members, or at work, even if you only go on peaceful, organised A-to-B marches. Knowing that your job and family relationships would be secure if you were spotted at a controversial protest is a privilege, and those who have it should be aware that anonymity is a necessity for some people.
I think that’s a very valid point Alyson. We’ve seen the press go after a number of people in the last year, and we’ve seen more than a few arrests on sometimes absurd charges – not all of which (like Pete’s or mine) results only in a fine. People have been sent to prison for quite considerable periods of time for protest actions I entirely support. If we demand people not mask up we’re asking them to either stop those actions the state – not our friends – deems unacceptable or increase the risk of serious repercussions. It’s all very well to say we should be willing to defend our actions, but do we really want more anti-cuts and anti-war activists in prison? I don’t see much advantage in creating more martyrs. And I’m certainly not going to suggest others should martyr themselves for the cause.
I agree with you. I have never hidden my identity on protests and those who feel their only battle is with the state do the rest if us great harm. There is huge support for change across all of the UK and it now permeates all social classes and regions. Government and others would divide and weaken protest. Mask wearing allows people to distance themselves from their behaviour but also distances them from the rest of us.
Most people don’t want to burn the barricades they just want a fairer and more just society. A better capitalism! Now we may think that is not enough but ignoring that reality will never win hearts & minds.