Ever since the Occupy Wall Street Movement of 2011 proliferated the world, the Guy Fawkes stylized mask has become synonymous with Anonymous “Hacktivists,” rioters, and disenchanted millennials. Everywhere from the streets of Brussels to Melbourne, from the streets of Dublin to those of Washington, Fawkes’ stylized representation has become emblematic for the post-modern protest movement.
But who was Guy Fawkes?
Guy Fawkes was the most famous (or perhaps infamous) member of the Gunpowder Plot of November 5th 1604, whose objective was to assassinate James I and re-establish a Catholic theocracy in England.
Starting with Elizabeth I English Catholics were subjected to harsh statutes which ranged from civil penalties to occasional criminal reprimand. When James I extended these statutes by ordering every Catholic priest to leave England it enraged the nation’s Catholics. A small, reactionary group led by Robert Catesby concocted a plot to kill James I and his government upon the opening of Parliament.
Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators managed to get a sufficient amount of gunpowder into the House of Lords to reduce the entire building to rubble. The plot, however, was foiled by an anonymous letter describing the plans. The majority of conspirators learned the plot had been discovered and fled England. Guy Fawkes (who was entrusted with the explosives) was found in the cellar and tortured until he confessed the names of his fellow conspirators.
Fawkes was later convicted of high treason and hanged, drawn and quartered.
An artist’s impression of the execution of Guy Fawkes
By next year Parliament had enacted the Observance of the 5th of November Act which made the tolling of church bells to mark the beginning of the day and burning effigies of the Pope and later, Fawkes, an annual feature of British life.
The mask in modern times
Perhaps the first instance of Millennials adopting the Guy Fawkes mask was in 2008 when Anonymous subjected the “Church of Scientology” to a denial of service attack, a plot that was able to successfully shut down the church’s networks intermittently for a week.
Simultaneously the “Hacktivists” flooded Scientology centres with prank calls and black faxes. Protesters clad in Fawkes masks gathered in 100 cities to protest that Youtube had pulled a video of Tom Cruise talking about “Xenu” and chanted phrases like “Religion is free.” I guess they had never heard of the church’s Peter’s Pence…
Similarly in November, last year pro-democracy protesters in Mong Kok, Hong Kong donned the Guy Fawkes mask and clashed with police in the city’s streets. The irony (to which they seem oblivious) was that the man behind the motif they adopted fought for and was killed for what is perhaps the ideological antithesis of their cause.
How Fawkes, the member of a fringe and (what would essentially be considered) terrorist group, fighting for theocratic rule became the denotation for thoroughly post-Christian, Marxist leaning and soft millennials is somewhat incomprehensible.
This is in the same era where western Europe is still scarred by the ethno-religious fanaticism and bombings of the IRA. The same era where the world is traumatized by unceasing coverage of Al-Qaeda and ISIS being perpetuated by every major media outlet and the images of 9/11 still hover like a perpetual phantom in the western mind.
The parallels between the two aren’t difficult to see, and surely it would sit uncomfortably in the mind of any protest-inclined, Guy Fawkes mask-donning, historically literate millennial.
It’s important to remember, however, that this generation does possess the uncanny ability to blindly adopt, misappropriate, and re-contextualize seemingly anything to the point that all is rendered meaningless and trivial. It is in that respect that the Guy Fawkes mask is the ultimate symbol of millennialism.