by Kasey McKee
I was leaving Great Waters in Downtown St Paul last Sunday afternoon and couldn’t help but notice a group of people gathered at the other end of the plaza. I decided to see what was going on.
It was November Fifth and about a dozen Anonymous demonstrators, most of them wearing Guy Fawkes masks, were staging a protest. From the faces that were visible, most appeared to be in their late teens and early twenties. Some of the protesters were waving yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, some held placards with messages written, and a boombox was playing counterculture hits like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”.
Much has been said about the hacktivist group Anonymous, who gained notoriety for waging covert cyber-warfare against various targets. They have proliferated by way of social media and the general frustration of the zeitgeist, but their only unifying thread seems to be anti-establishment sentiment. Particularly unusual is their symbolic adoption of Guy Fawkes masks (referred to as “GF” from here on). For those who haven’t seen V For Vendetta, Guy Fawkes was the 17th-Century English Catholic whose Gunpowder Plot to replace one religious autocracy with another was foiled on November 5th, 1605. His reputation within Anonymous is that of a martyr who stood up to tyranny, and demonstrators wear a mock-up of his face in solidarity.
I approached the nearest demonstrator, a young woman, and inquired about the event, disclosing that I’m a journalist.
“The people you’ll want to talk to are the guy in the Minnesota mask,”–who had an outline of the state stenciled on his silver GF–“or that guy over there in the ski mask.”
Minnesota Mask was obviously busy flirting with a comrade of the opposite sex, so I tried the other suggestion, Ski Mask: his variation of the GF was silk-screened onto a balaclava, although it looked like he might have procured it at Target. He was a burly Caucasian young man, wearing an olive-drab military surplus overcoat and some sort of tactical ballistics vest. He introduced himself as an anarchist, espousing the belief that people should be free to rule themselves, and envisioned the ideal society as one that has no government.
“What about sewage and human waste?” I asked. “It takes a lot of complicated infrastructure to keep all the shit from piling up.”
“Obviously, it’s a dream and it’s never going to be a reality,” he countered.
During my conversation with Ski Mask, one of the demonstrators handed me a flyer (pictured), which reads:
Who Is ANONYMOUS?
We are not arbitrary hackers or criminals. We are you [sic] your friends, neighbors, and coworkers; a group of concerned and caring individuals who recognize the need for an immediate and positive change in society. We are tired of being slaves to an elitist controlled paradigm obsessed with destruction and intent on keeping us trapped under an ever expanding network of surveillance (and the means with which to enforce it.) The time has come to stand up for our collective rights as humans and say “enough is enough”.
In twenty years will you look at the Orwellian nightmare around you as your children ask “how did you let this happen?”. Or will you look at the world of peace and freedom you helped to create and say that this is the legacy you left behind.
If we don’t act now, it will soon be too late. Please join us, in our peaceful and legal resistance movement, and let’s make the world a better place for everyone.
Pretty hard to argue with on the face of it, although I imagine that the phrase “Orwellian” has been repeated so many times that Eric Blair must be spinning in his grave.
Back to Ski Mask. He described how the ideal society would be one of barter-and-trade between equals. Instead of money, a different form of currency would be established, based on a valuable material already in existence, like gold or silver, that would be fixed in value and regulated in supply.
“Okay,” I conceded, “but what exactly, in this world that we live in right now and under these circumstances, would be the best way to bring about political change?”
“Probably buying a weapon,” he replied. “Even in states like California and Massachusetts where it’s illegal, they are taking away your natural right to survive and to protect your family. And if you can just go off the grid, move into the woods with a small group of people and start a new community, and not pay taxes to the government.”
He talked about the inevitability of an armed uprising:
“That’s really what the Founding Fathers were all about, they revolted because of a 3% tax increase, and the way people are being taxed today is really almost illegal.”
[It should be noted that the United States has one of the lowest income tax rates in the developed world].
I talked to another demonstrator, also male, who was holding a sign. He initially talked to me through his GF, which I’ll admit had an eerie and unsettling effect, but after I indicated that I was having a difficult time understanding him, he pulled it back onto his forehead.
“If you’re showing me your face, I’ll show you mine,” he said. Like the others whose faces I had seen, he appeared to be young, maybe twenty. “We’re being educated by a system that controls us. The NSA just released PRISM with Google, and they’re collecting information on all of us.”
“So if all of these web services like Google and Facebook are compromised,” I asked him, “wouldn’t it be better to stop using them, if you wanted to stop the surveillance state? People use them voluntarily.”
“I don’t think we should have to do that,” he countered. “I believe in science, and I think we should use science to help people.”
“So what do you feel is the best way to make these changes?”
“I don’t really know, to be honest,” he responded. “That’s a tough question to answer.”
“Come on,” I prodded him, “you’re standing out here on the street corner protesting, you’ve got to have some idea.”
“I think probably getting the corrupt politicians out of Congress. Making information free so that there aren’t secret e-mails going around. We should know what’s going on.”
The third Anonymous demonstrator I spoke with was carrying a black flag on a pole and also wearing a gray ski mask, although it did not have the ubiquitous GF. We spoke for a few minutes, and he talked about Paul Wellstone.
I asked him if it’s been challenging for Anonymous to politically organize, given the de-centralized nature of a group that draws supporters who have vastly different social aims.
“Yeah, it can be…I’ve done political fundraising for Socialist candidates in the City Council, but technically Anonymous isn’t supposed to back any politicians.”
I noted that it seems like kind of a bind, to be a political activists who isn’t allowed to be openly political, to which he laughed.
“Yeah, it definitely is.”
I’m a firm believer in the right to protest and demonstrate in the public sphere. On the whole, though, the demonstrators I spoke with didn’t seem to be either very persuasive in their aims or very clear about their goals. It seemed to be more about protest for the sake of protest, of “sticking it to the man”, which is a pretty widespread sentiment these days. Some of them were probably there because they believe in the movement, but some were probably just there to get laid. So it goes.
Nevertheless, there is something admirable about their determination. The weather was not pleasant on Sunday, about 35 degrees and windy, and I only stuck around for about thirty minutes before I felt like getting out of the cold. At the very least, they’re getting off their asses and engaging with society rather than passively accepting the world as it is. I realize they’re still young, but I hope these activists are able to crystallize what it is they are actually trying to achieve, if their goals are really as noble as their flier claims.
I just wish they’d get rid of those stupid Guy Fawkes masks.