Questioning the tactic of “questioning the tactic” of wearing masks at demos

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Smart Protestors Defend their Anonymity

The following article, originally posted on the Vancouver Media Co-op website, has been reproduced here by FITwatch as we believe it is of relevance in the ongoing debate around the wearing of masks on demonstrations. FITwatch always has, and always will, encourage the wearing of masks on demonstrations – our rulers need not know who we are in order to know that we oppose them. 

To mask or not to mask? That is the question, …*again*!?!

Some activists are vocally adamant against mask wearing at protests, while others just go along with them not really examining the ignorance and prejudice behind this anti-mask wearing sentiment. Even people who work within anti-authoritarian and/or direct action oriented groups fall prey to anti-mask wearing fallacies and attempt to place limits on where and how wearing a mask is appropriate. The onus is always placed on the mask wearer to appease people who are uncomfortable with mask wearing and never on the people who don’t wear masks to expand their knowledge and understanding of mask wearers, to push their own envelopes and challenge the conditions in wider society that generate the prejudice against mask wearers.

Imagine if the same amount of so called critique, or negative attention and enforcement were lodged against people who wear red bulbous noses because they make a protest look bad on the news because they literally are a bunch of clowns… Or what if this demand for people to alter their physical appearance were lodged at people who wear kafia’s, because a lot of people are really ignorant about what a kafia actually means and it alienates the general public away because activists are seen as a bunch of extremists? If this were the case with any other segment of the activist population it would not be tolerated. But because these people are wearing masks and have been successfully vilified as ‘violent protesters’, ‘twenty something white boys’, and ‘agent provocateurs’ it’s open season on them.

Structural Exclusion & Repression:

People who wear masks and their supporters are often excluded from participating in public debate around wearing masks. Thus making it easier for the opposing argument to frame it in their favour. People who wear masks to demos tend to:

*  Have lesser access to space in public discussion, such as being invited to speak at forums or have their articles published in alternative news sites or magazines;
*  Have fewer public figures in their organizations, thus less entitlement to participate in public debate when it is available – because they lack writing or public speaking skills;
*  Be left out of the important informal dialogue that influences decision making in activist cliques and friend groups;
*  Have an informal and decentralized style of organizing that makes coordinating with mainstream activist groups challenging.
*  Also, while anonymity has an advantage at a protest, it makes it difficult to speak about publicly without divulging your identity and ruining the whole point of having been anonymous in the first place.

Further, people who oppose mask wearing, coincidentally, share the same message as the police state and the corporate media, thus have all the privilege in the world to bemoan how mask wearers are not welcome at their protests. Whereas mask wearers do not have the ‘legitimacy’ in society to get the same amount of air time and sympathetic press.

People who wear masks –no matter what their behaviour actually is, are commonly viewed as terrorists by mainstream society and this perception is perpetuated by many activists. Protest organizers routinely generate a hostile environment for people wearing masks by:

*  Allowing police to harass and arrest them for no reason accept for wearing a mask (which is not a crime in Canada**) malign and humiliate them by making public announcements against wearing masks,
*  Sending marshals around to tell people to take off their masks.
*  The worst of it, and most ironic, is that ‘peaceful’ protesters will physically assault a person wearing a mask by ripping it off their face shouting ‘no violence!’ Meanwhile organizers do nothing to prevent this kind of behaviour, and will often blame the mask wearer for causing the problem.

In this hostile context mask wearers are badgered to justify and ‘re-evaluate’ the tactic of wearing masks. But even before any conversation can begin, mask wearers are disadvantaged within activist organizations and anti-mask wearers do little to mitigate this imbalance. Above and beyond doing little, they often take advantage of it.

Dominating the Discourse:

People who are opposed to wearing masks at demos put mask wearers on the defensive, as though showing your face is the innately correct stance and wearing a mask is inherently flawed. Showing your face is the accepted norm and keeping space open for wearing a mask must always be fought for. People who are opposed to wearing masks enforce their values with coercion and even physical violence, yet mask wearers don’t force people to wear masks. While people wearing masks are frequently assaulted at protests, the concept of a masked protester going up to someone, grabbing their head and tying a bandana over it is just umm, absurd! But the problem anti-mask wearers have is considerably less tangible than that…

The two most prevalent themes consistently at the basis for anti-mask wearing arguments are: “I/we have nothing to hide, because we are upstanding citizens exercising our legal rights in a democratic society,” and “It looks bad on the news, distracts from the ‘real’ message and then alienates ‘the people’ from joining the movement.” But there are many variations, including; ‘people who wear masks are unaccountable for their behaviour’, ‘people who wear masks are agent provocateurs’, ‘people who wear masks are violent’, ‘wearing a mask is racist/sexist’, etc. When asked to back up these arguments with any kind of evidence based reasons, anti-mask wearers have little to say except ‘because I said so’ and all manner of circular logic and irrational justifications.

But turn the discourse around, and some interesting reflections appear: ‘Nothing to hide,’ –the slogan of the upstanding citizen, changes to a grave and even negligent misunderstanding of the nature of democracy under capitalism and the role of policing and military agencies. ‘Alienates the people’ –the plea of an earnest community organizer, reveals a complacent attitude towards corporate media and its hostile role against resistance movements. And further indicates an abuse of power because what it is basically saying is that, “I’m too lazy to talk to the people in my group/community/family when they swallow the corporate/police state line against wearing masks, and it would be a lot more convenient for me if you just didn’t wear a mask, because clearly, my time and effort is worth more than yours because I’m a legitimate community organizer and you are a (…place prejudiced stereotype here…)”

Anti-mask wearers assert that pro-mask wearers have little to no thought or analysis behind the choice to conceal their identity. In reality, wearing masks is a powerful symbol of a popular/common response to increasingly harsh repression of resistance movements. While mask wearers are not a unified group, individuals who choose to wear masks to protests do so along the spectrum of a deep analysis of the development and acceleration of capitalism and rapidly changing dynamics in modern society. This analysis is an overarching umbrella that is fed by and grounded in anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist values and practices. Upon examination of why people wear masks to protests and why it is important, it becomes resonantly clear that wearing a mask is a key element to a larger understanding of and approach to anti-authoritarian resistance movements.

The Anti-Authoritarian Anti-Capitalist Resistance Movement:

Anti-mask wearers seem to believe removing a mask is a simple matter of pulling a piece of fabric off your face, but in reality, it is asking people to behave in a way that counters their holistic and in depth approach to resistance. It’s not just a matter of ‘hooligans vs. real community members.’ While many, even most, people who wear masks might do so intuitively rather than with an articulate manifesto at hand, wearing a mask to a demo is very clearly a product of a larger ethic towards resistance and also, a very important symbol and marker of that ethic. Demanding that people remove their masks is further marginalizing and invisiblizing this entire approach to resistance and movement building –which, in fact, is very much a part of the evolution of anti-capitalist and anti-colonial liberation movements.

Wearing masks at demos is a simple, practical solution to maintaining personal privacy and security. But it is also an important exercise of some fundamental liberties, including freedom of expression and freedom of association. And a critical example of why these freedoms are not just symbolic gestures but are crucial elements of a robust social fabric. Wearing a mask asserts an identity that delves far beyond the individual and represents an aggressively critical analysis of capitalist society and a radical (as in to the root) approach to dismantling it. To demand the people who work within this tendency remove their masks is to exercise a grave degree of ignorance that denies and disregards the existence of this historic and globally relevant stream of ideas and practices –and seriously impedes their capacity to organize and grow. Repression of wearing masks within resistance movements is part and parcel of the overall repression of anti-capitalist anti-authoritarian organizing in mainstream society.

8 thoughts on “Questioning the tactic of “questioning the tactic” of wearing masks at demos

  1. Thank you, Vancouver media co-op, for articulating the debate on wearing masks so well. This article says all the things I’ve been wanting to say for a long time – but has done it better than I ever could.

    It is particularly relevant as the government has recently ‘consulted’ on extending the powers of the police to remove masks at protests in the UK. If they get their way, there’ll be no need for a s60/s60aa order – any cop at any time will be able to force someone to remove a face covering. It’s a way off yet, but definitely on the govt agenda.

  2. If while on a protest you see police contstables who feel the environment necitates them wearing flame-proof balaclavas, then obviously you are justified in making a risk assessment about your own personal safety and also wearing such a item.

  3. Your logic is flawed. Cops wear shoulder numbers and name badges and you can demand to be told their name. You hide behind a “right” of anonymity but refuse to allow it in others. You hypocrites.

    1. Once again, I think you’re missing the point.

      Even by traditional liberal-democratic values, the idea that the police should be accountable and the public should be free to enjoy their privacy is not a radical one.

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