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Guy Fawkes: The Face of Hacktivism and Post-Modern Protest

guy fawkes mask

Tonight’s Bonfire Night will look different to what Britons have grown accustomed to. Public bonfires have been cancelled, meaning the night air will be less heavy with the aroma of burning wood and the trail end of fireworks. The 5th of November celebrations mark the execution of the 17th century fringe rebel who plotted to blow up the House of Lords. However, the last decade has seen Guy Fawkes become a symbol of global dissidence. But how did the grinning Guy Fawkes mask become the face of post-modern protest?

The History

All the way back in 1605, Guy Fawkes was part of a Roman Catholic group that plotted to blow up the House of Lords. It was intended to kill the Protestant King James I to then install his nine-year-old daughter on the throne to rule as a Roman Catholic monarch. However, the “Gunpowder plot” was foiled when an anonymous letter that detailed the plan was sent to the King himself.

Guy Fawkes was subsequently caught in the cellars of the House. Near him 36 barrels of gunpowder were found. Fawkes was tortured, while his co-conspirators were convicted of high treason. To deter any future terrorist attempt, the government was especially heavy-handed in the way it treated the group.

The tradition of burning effigies of Guy Fawkes and lighting bonfires started soon after the foiled plot and to this day children still learn the morbid rhyme “Remember, remember the fifth of November”.

Guy Fawkes in Pop Culture

Fast-forward to the 1980s when David Lloyd and Alan Moore created the graphic novel “V for Vendetta” in which the hero is a disguised anarchist that wears a grinning Guy Fawkes mask. The battle against a fascist totalitarian state is the backdrop against which the authors celebrate Guy Fawkes, turning him into a modern-day anti-hero.

In 2006 the graphic novel was turned into a movie. Even though the film deviated from the original, the “V” mask was a faithful rendition of the image first brought to light in the comic. To commemorate the release of the movie plastic masks were distributed to fans and were available to purchase online.

Guy Fawkes as The Face Protest

Jump to two years later, in 2008 when the hacktivist collective Anonymous launched “Project Chanology”.  A coordinated attack was launched on the Church Of Scientology’s website as the hackers deemed they were censoring online information. According to Rule 17 of Anynoymous’s code of conduct sent around to protesters before their first physical, real-life public demonstration, they all needed to cover their face to prevent “your identification from videos taken by hostiles.” The decision was simple for those that chose to wear a mask, with inspiration coming from the final scene of the film where a crowd of Fawkes mask-donning protesters watch the Houses of Parliament explode.

Ever since the mask and the symbol itself has been adopted by the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring and it has become a regular spotting in many protests across the world. In Thailand, protesters wore the masks in demonstrations against so-called puppet administration controlled by an exiled former prim minister. The mask has also appeared in a protest organised by Turkish Airlines employees when they fought for their rights as workers.

Most notably the mask was a symbol found everywhere in the Arab Spring movements of 2011. The Fawkes mask became so incendiary that several Middle Eastern countries prohibited its import and sale, with the Saudi Ministry of Interior claiming it “instils a culture of violence and extremism”.

David Lloyd himself called the mask a “convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny…it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way”.

To this day the Yeomen of the Guard, the English monarch’s bodyguards still inspect the cellars below the Palace of Westminster before each state opening of Parliament. One thing is for sure, Fawkes’ spirit lives on in many regards.

What are your thoughts on the Guy Fawkes mask symbol? Let us know in the comments.

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