Who Was That Masked Mob?

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
–Oscar Wilde

According to New York City law, one is not allowed to Occupy Wall Street while wearing a mask, and several protesters have been arrested recently at Zuccotti “Park” for wearing masks, including the Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the 2006 film “V for Vendetta.”

The law under which masked protesters were arrested by men wearing police costumes, dates to 1845. It bans gatherings of more than two persons wearing masks. The anti-mask law was enacted during the Anti-Rent War (1845-46) in upstate New York, when thousands of farmers revolted against their landlords, the Van Rensselaers, who were for generations the feudal lords of the Hudson Valley.

The van Rensselaers, who owned 750,000,000 acres in the Hudson Valley were the original 1%ers. Stephen van Rensselaer, whose death precipitated the revolt, had a fortune equivalent to 88 billion in today’s dollars, representing more than .5% of the Gross National Product. Stephen van Rensselaer had been a liberal landlord, but upon his death his son demanded immediate payment of all arrears from tenant farmers. When the tenants resisted attempts at foreclosure they disguised themselves with sheepskins and Indian style headdresses because those identified as leaders of the revolt, which had begun as peaceful assemblies, had been charged with riot, conspiracy and robber. They realized that revolt was best accomplished as a masquerade party.

The Guy Fawkes mask favored on Wall Street was created by British artist David Lloyd who collaborated with writer Alan Moore on the graphic novel on which the film V for Vendetta was based. The mask is licensed by Time Warner which distributed the film. It has been appropriated by the hacker group Anonymous.

The original Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) was a Catholic convert who fought on the Catholic side in the 80 Years War and plotted against the Protestant monarchy in England, planning to blow up Parliament with gunpowder. (His closest accomplices were a pair of English brothers named Wintour.) He was convicted of high treasons and was sentenced to be drawn and quartered but he avoided that grim fate by throwing himself from the scaffold and breaking his neck.
How, you might ask, can New York have an anti-mask law when the city’s best parade is the annual Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village, and a good case can be made for Halloween being the National Holiday of New York? Well, it is legal to wear a mask in New York, apparently, as long as you are taking part in a masquerade party!
The question is, of course, what constitutes a masquerade party. The courts have decided that the Ku Klux Klan is not a masquerade party. In January, 2004 a federal appeals court ruled that a New York state law barring public demonstrators from wearing masks is valid under the U.S. Constitution and does not violate Ku Klux Klan members’ free speech rights. The New York Civil Liberties Union had argued on behalf of the Klu Klux Klan.

The Court of Appeals’ ruling reverses a trial court’s finding that the state law violated the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals said the mask was not protected by the free-speech provision because it does not convey a message independently of the robe and hood. Nine states and the District of Columbia have anti-mask laws on the books. Such laws are most common in states where the Ku Klux Klan has been active, and the Klan was the reason for passing an anti-mask law in North Carolina, although it has been enforced even in cases of team mascots.
Another question is, if masks are not legal in New York and elsewhere, then what is the status of the full face veil or burka worn by many Muslim women in the United States. Obviously Muslim women are not living in a constant state of masquerade party, a fact which France seems to have noticed. In London, I have on numerous occasions seen women from the Arab Emirates wearing masks that cover the entire face, as well as the usual veils covering the hair. Although polls have demonstrated that a majority of Britons believe the burqa should be banned in public, the major political parties have refrained from supporting a ban.

But should such identity concealing garb seem to constitute an unacceptable threat in societies where surveillance is endemic and security from terrorism is practically a religion of its own. If I, an unmasked man, am required to show photo ID to enter any office building in midtown Manhattan, I wonder what sort of reception I would get if I were wearing a ski mask or balaclava, which provides slightly more facial visibility as a niqab or burka.
In March 2010, two women in niqab were filmed passing through security without being screened at a Toronto Airport. A newspaper reporter later duplicated this action, being permitted to board a plane without showing her face in Montreal. Were they considered a masquerade party?

I think it’s safe to assume that the balaclava or ski mask would not be welcome in most urban office buildings, banks or airports. This item has long been a part of military kit. A similar garment was worn as a helmet protector dating back to the Knights Templar. Such masks have been popular with underground armies or soldiers who wish to keep their identity secret, vrom the Provisional IRA to Zapatistas, to Mexican anti-drug forces to Moscow Police, American SWAT teams and Special Forces.
But who needs a balaclava when you can wear a burka. In February 2010 two men disguised in burqas entered a bank with concealed weapons and escaped with 4,500 euros. In January 2011 an Ottawa police said that there had been five incidents of burqas used in stickups. We doubt they would have gotten so far in a secular ski acccessory. Maybe the Occupy Wall Street crowd simply needs to trade in their Guy Fawkes mask for religious hoods.
But we shouldn’t forget that masks, disguises and blackface have often been employed in American political action. The Boston Tea Party of November 29, 1773 saw a group of men affiliated with the “Sons of Liberty”, some disguised as Mohawk Indians, dump 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor from the ship Dartmouth which had been held there. Whig leader Samuel Adams, namesake of today’s popular beer, had called for the Dartmouth to return with its cargo of tea to England without unloading it or paying the duty prescribed by the recent Tea Act.

In fact the Tea Act, current Tea Party doctrine notwithstanding, did not raise the tax on tea, but actually lowered it, and so this revolutionary action was not, in fact, a protest against taxation without representation. The real motive behind masked men dumping tea into the harbor was the fact that the Tea Act allowed the East India Company, holders of the British monopoly on tea, to sell their product more cheaply to the people, much to the distress of Boston merchants such as John Hancock who had made fortunes smuggling untaxed Dutch tea into the colonies. The primary causes leading to the Declaration of Independence were not onerous taxes on the common people or the idea of taxation without representation, but taxes and tax abatements that disturbed the highly profitable smuggling business. Before tea it was rum, the most important industry in colonial New England.
In 1831 the production of rum in Boston alone was estimated at over one million gallons. It is estimated that in 1771 the colonies produced 2 million gallons of rum and imported another 2 million gallons from the British West Indies. Approximately 300,000 gallons were exported, leaving 3.7 million gallons for a country of about 2 million men, women and children.
The British attempted to tax molasses imported from outside the Empire, first at a rate of 6 pence per gallon, but this rate was reduced to threepence as 6 pence proved unenforceable, but by this time the smuggling of molasses from the French islands had become an enormous business. According to David A. Wells: “John Hancock was the prince of contraband traders, and, with John Adams as his counsel, was appointed for trial before the admiralty court in Boston, at the exact hour of the shedding of blood at Lexington, in a suit for $500,000 penalties alleged to have been incurred by him as a smuggler.”
As W.E. Woodward notes in George Washington, the Image and the Man: “The British government had allowed the Old Molasses Act to become a dead letter. As a practical government they realized that it was impossible to collect a sixpence a gallon on molasses, so they did not try to collect it. There the British practical mind came to the end of it’s road. The act was a still a law, but not enforced. The effect of the situation was to make smuggling a recognised industry.”

So why did the American colonies fight a revolutionary war against the mother country? Somehow, the very wealthy merchants and farmers, those who stood to profit financially from that conflict, managed to mask their motives, convincing the humble masses who didn’t even possess the right to vote, that their interests were one and the same–liberty. While the rich might have had some claim of “taxation without representation” the poor had no representation anywhere, as property was a requisite for voting. In fact, wealthy Americans did not really want representation since any contingent they might have sent to Parliament would have represented a puny minority; what they wanted was no taxes period.
Essentially, studying the Boston Tea Party and today’s Tea Party and what lies between, we are left with the unmistakable feeling that for the entire history of United States as an independent nation, it has been dependent on class alliances based on extreme misperceptions.
What will it take to shake up the struggling mass of citizens to the extent that they realize they are acting in the interests of their owners and employers, mistaking them for their own. Perhaps it will take an altered form of political discourse. Michael Moore movies and their ilk are effective and fine, but Occupy Wall Street, and the flash mob social networks that characterized the Arab Spring and the English August, suggest that we may be on the verge of a new kind of political action. We toyed with it in the demonstrations of the sixties, the Living Theater and various rock bands showed flashes of it, and the Yippees and other activists articulated it in their own post-articulate way.

Demonstrations must actually demonstrate. The demonstrate should be theater and use the techniques of theater to convey philosophical and political truths. What the police fear on Wall Street is what the British feared in the Boston tea Party or the Patroons feared from the Anti-Rent Indians. In truth they were probably costumed as much to conjure up a feeling of Indian “wildness” more than to conceal their identities. In the theater of politics, the mask is not so much to disguise the identity, but to transform, by mask and costume, the audience into actor.
In The Theater and Its Double, Antonin Artaud wrote: “In the anguished, catastrophic period we live in, we feel an urgent need for a theater which events do not exceed, whose resonance is deep within us, dominating the instability of the times.”

We now need a theater that embraces the enormity and consequences of its subject matter. We need a theater that cannot be contained in a proscenium and cannot be confined to a fixed text. We need a theater in which action speaks at least as loudly as words.

Demonstrator circa 7000 BCE

I would argue that the masks of Occupy Wall Street, whether Venetian, Yoruba, Time Warner or gas-proof, constitute a legitimate masquerade party and actual theater. Masquerade is a party, and Occupy Wall Street is a party. Masquerade is the intersection of life and theater, and that is where effective political action will arise—where the terms of discussion are not limited by the usual restraining formats and castrated means, but where it can take on the revelatory power of theater and the magic of ritual.
–Glenn O’Brien, Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, 2011


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