Tag Archives: protests

Happy Birthday Guy Fawkes: One man’s journey from plotter to hacktivist

It’s a long time till November 5, with all its bonfires and fireworks and historical half-memory, so obviously today I’m going to write about Guy Fawkes.

There is actually a good reason for this – on this day in 1606, Fawkes was executed for his role in the Gunpowder Plot and, as a result, became more than just a terrorist/freedom-fighter – he became a symbol. This may overstate his importance to history – he wasn’t the leader of the Plot, despite our assumptions (that was Robert Catesby, who was shot and killed around three miles from where I live, down at Holbeche House), and even if he had been in charge, the whole thing is notable for being a failure. James i survived and the cause of Catholic Emancipation continued for another 200 years. And yet Guy is a more potent figure in Britain’s national consciousness than, say, Oliver Cromwell, who really was responsible for killing a king (well, at least partly).

So why is Guy Fawkes the focus of our commemorations? Maybe it was because he was caught red-handed, becoming a snapshot of the whole conspiracy. Maybe it’s because he survived to go to trial while many of the other Plotters were killed trying to escape. Maybe it’s because, in the Victorian era when the ‘accepted’ version of British history began to solidify, an author called William Harrison Ainsworth wrote a book in which Guy Fawkes was portrayed as a swashbuckling hero. And let’s face it, although Guy is now mainly celebrated through being burned in effigy, he’s still something of a folk hero – after all, he wanted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and, well, no-one really likes politicians do they? It’s one of those symbols of comfortable Britishness that has its roots in protest – for another example, look at the second verse of ‘Jerusalem’ and its call for social reform, then try to square that with the climax of the Last Night of the Proms.

Nowadays, the image of Guy Fawkes has taken on a new edge. In 1982, Alan Moore and David Lloyd began their epic comic book series V for Vendetta, which received a big screen adaptation in 2005. The titular hero theatrically assassinates the representatives of a fascist dictatorship, all the while clad in cloak, hat and a stylised Guy Fawkes mask. That mask makes revolution anonymous and yet universal – anyone can resurrect Guy if they stand up against corrupt governments, you can’t be caught by their agents if they don’t know who you are, and turns a lone protestor into the embodiment of centuries of protest and revolt. V may have been born out of some very specific circumstances, but under the yoke of oppression, those circumstances aren’t entirely unique – everyone suffers, everyone has a responsibility to fight back.

That’s why, over the last few years, the mask used in the V for Vendetta movie has started to appear at protests, most notably concealing the features of Anonymous, the hacktivist group who have been making a splash with their Denial-of-Service attacks on corporate and government websites. They’re often seen in the crowds at Occupy campsites, which raises an interesting tension. Guy Fawkes and V both wanted change through violence and destruction – blow up the establishment and rebuild in a ‘better’ way – but Occupy is a non-violent movement. Occupy’s rallying cry is “We are the 99%”; the Guy mask is distancing, isolating, fitting Anonymous’s ‘persona’ as a vaguely threatening trickster figure, doing it for the lulz and telling its targets to “Expect us”. It’s meant to be unnerving.

(Of course, the problem is that it’s harder for authorities to dismiss, say, Scott Olsen, a former Marine who was seriously injured as the result of heavy-handed policing during a raise on Occupy Oakland, than it is for them to demonised a group hidden behind the face of a revolutionary. There are a generation of lawmakers and establishment figures who see the internet as either a Wild West that needs to be tamed or a dangerous fairyland – the threatening Other, and a Them-vs-us scenario fits right into their narrative. And when terrorism is used as an excuse to pass all kinds of legislation, it’s a red rag to a bull to appropriate the image of, well, a terrorist… Sure, Anonymous and Occupy aren’t the same thing, but in this age of protest, and when anti-protest agendas are in play, the boundaries can become blurred.)

Whatever the wisdom (or otherwise) of the V mask being appropriated for modern-day protests, Guy Fawkes still stalks our cities. He doesn’t want to blow anyone up anymore, thank goodness, but he still wants the world to change, still wants to make a stand. And the history books will record if, this time, he was successful.

 

 PS. Alan Moore has written a piece on this very subject for the BBC. You can read it here.)

The Man Behind The Mask: Guy Fawkes’s journey from plotter to hacktivist

It’s a long time till November 5, with all its bonfires and fireworks and historical half-memory, so obviously today I’m going to write about Guy Fawkes.

There is actually a good reason for this – on this day in 1606, Fawkes was executed for his role in the Gunpowder Plot and, as a result, became more than just a terrorist/freedom-fighter – he became a symbol. This may overstate his importance to history – he wasn’t the leader of the Plot, despite our assumptions (that was Robert Catesby, who was shot and killed around three miles from where I live, down at Holbeche House), and even if he had been in charge, the whole thing is notable for being a failure. James i survived and the cause of Catholic Emancipation continued for another 200 years. And yet Guy is a more potent figure in Britain’s national consciousness than, say, Oliver Cromwell, who really was responsible for killing a king (well, at least partly).

So why is Guy Fawkes the focus of our commemorations? Maybe it was because he was caught red-handed, becoming a snapshot of the whole conspiracy. Maybe it’s because he survived to go to trial while many of the other Plotters were killed trying to escape. Maybe it’s because, in the Victorian era when the ‘accepted’ version of British history began to solidify, an author called William Harrison Ainsworth wrote a book in which Guy Fawkes was portrayed as a swashbuckling hero. And let’s face it, although Guy is now mainly celebrated through being burned in effigy, he’s still something of a folk hero – after all, he wanted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and, well, no-one really likes politicians do they? It’s one of those symbols of comfortable Britishness that has its roots in protest – for another example, look at the second verse of ‘Jerusalem’ and its call for social reform, then try to square that with the climax of the Last Night of the Proms.

Nowadays, the image of Guy Fawkes has taken on a new edge. In 1982, Alan Moore and David Lloyd began their epic comic book series V for Vendetta, which received a big screen adaptation in 2005. The titular hero theatrically assassinates the representatives of a fascist dictatorship, all the while clad in cloak, hat and a stylised Guy Fawkes mask. That mask makes revolution anonymous and yet universal – anyone can resurrect Guy if they stand up against corrupt governments, you can’t be caught by their agents if they don’t know who you are, and turns a lone protestor into the embodiment of centuries of protest and revolt. V may have been born out of some very specific circumstances, but under the yoke of oppression, those circumstances aren’t entirely unique – everyone suffers, everyone has a responsibility to fight back.

That’s why, over the last few years, the mask used in the V for Vendetta movie has started to appear at protests, most notably concealing the features of Anonymous, the hacktivist group who have been making a splash with their Denial-of-Service attacks on corporate and government websites. They’re often seen in the crowds at Occupy campsites, which raises an interesting tension. Guy Fawkes and V both wanted change through violence and destruction – blow up the establishment and rebuild in a ‘better’ way – but Occupy is a non-violent movement. Occupy’s rallying cry is “We are the 99%”; the Guy mask is distancing, isolating, fitting Anonymous’s ‘persona’ as a vaguely threatening trickster figure, doing it for the lulz and telling its targets to “Expect us”. It’s meant to be unnerving.

(Of course, the problem is that it’s harder for authorities to dismiss, say, Scott Olsen, a former Marine who was seriously injured as the result of heavy-handed policing during a raise on Occupy Oakland, than it is for them to demonised a group hidden behind the face of a revolutionary. There are a generation of lawmakers and establishment figures who see the internet as either a Wild West that needs to be tamed or a dangerous fairyland – the threatening Other, and a Them-vs-us scenario fits right into their narrative. And when terrorism is used as an excuse to pass all kinds of legislation, it’s a red rag to a bull to appropriate the image of, well, a terrorist… Sure, Anonymous and Occupy aren’t the same thing, but in this age of protest, and when anti-protest agendas are in play, the boundaries can become blurred.)

Whatever the wisdom (or otherwise) of the V mask being appropriated for modern-day protests, Guy Fawkes still stalks our cities. He doesn’t want to blow anyone up anymore, thank goodness, but he still wants the world to change, still wants to make a stand. And the history books will record if, this time, he was successful.

 

 PS. Alan Moore has written a piece on this very subject for the BBC. You can read it here.)

Twitter Censored

And so Twitter has announced that it will censor Tweets in countries where it is requested to do so. On the one hand it sounds a fairly half-hearted attempt at censorship – offending Tweets will still be available in the rest of the world, and there’s a suspiciously easy work-around that makes you wonder just how committed Twitter is to this initiative.

But that’s not the point. Sure, there’s a work-around; the fact that a work-around is even necessary is the frightening part. Needless to say, the outcry has been greatest in countries where social media helped co-ordinate movements of massive social change. Already the 28 January has been designated as a day to boycott Twitter for 24 hours, echoing the recent shut-down of major sites as a protest against SOPA. This has caused anger in a lot of people.

And why not? Only this week it was announced that the US has dropped 27 places in the press freedom index – in the light of this, what do Twitter’s actions mean for the revolution in citizen journalism?

Privacy and censorship have reignited the ancient battles for the soul of the internet, and while the Ultimate Fighting Championship calling Anonymous ‘terrorists’ seems to be slightly bizarre hyperbole, it’s also the sort of rhetoric that can eventually lead to demonisation and repressive legislation. And while this too may seem like a paranoid conspiracy theory, in a world where people are, right now, dying in their pursuit of freedom, it’s worth noting that today is Holocaust Memorial Day.

Our societies are more fragile than we imagine. They need to be defended.

 

Martin Luther King Day 2012: Dreams and Visions

“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!”

Wrong era, wrong country. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is, like the moon landings, something I’ll only ever experience second-hand, with decades of context and scholarship and history and conspiracy theories ossifying around it. It’s an amazing speech even today, but to have stood before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights campaign, and just a couple of months before the Kennedy Assassination, must have been electrifying, visionary, transformative, one of the most iconic moments in a decade that feels like a thousand iconic moments stitched together.

3,000 miles away from where I sit today, America will be celebrating Martin Luther King Day, but his legacy, especially in a time of protest is relevant worldwide. That legacy is huge, covering everything from taking a stance against injustice to the importance of non-violence, but there’s another aspect to all this that may not get as much airplay today, although it’s something that’s stuck with me.

King came to prominance through the African-American church, with its preaching drenched in lyricism and a rapturous musical tradition, and his great speeches, two of which are quoted at either end of this post, reflect a poetry that’s been filtered through psalm-writers and prophets. His civil rights work was inseparable from his faith, and that raised an idea, a concept, a belief to the level of a vision.

If we take Hollywood as an authority, then visions are about the future – someone goes into a weird trance, all rolled eyes and strange camera angles and psychedelic rock, before delivering some ominous message. Maybe a crow will be watching them at the time, but the whole thing will be about the future – this is how things are going to unfold, and something, be it supernatural or even divine, will not be diverted from its path.

Well, that’s Hollywood for you.

Another way of looking at it is precisely that – another way of looking at things. In the Biblical tradition, that’s being granted the opportunity to see things through the eyes of God, and so visions and prophecy were as much commentary on current events as they were about the future. “This is the world you think you see,” says this idea, “But this is what it should be.”

And so King was a visionary in this sense, standing in front of thousands of expectant listeners and painting a picture of renewed and restored world while speaking with a prophectic voice against the sins of the present. There’s a line from the Bible that reads, in the sonorous tones of the King James Version, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” And that’s hard to deny, because without a dream of a better world, the possibility of change, a sense of hope, what is there? Sure, life can go on as it always has, but if it’s founded on a false premise then sooner or later it’s going to crumble. In King’s case that was a state taking Melting-Pot America and trying to segregate it along racial lines. Nowadays it’s encouraging people to get educated, get rich, get famous, then immediately throwing them on the scrapheap of income inequality.

A better world is possible. It just needs visionaries to see it, envision it, preach it. Sometimes it’s not enough to protest – sometimes it’s necessary to inspire at the same time. That job often falls to prophets, dreamers, people who may be flawed – and King had his flaws – but who can still check out the burning bush, who can hear a still small voice amid the chaos, who can push forward and climb to the mountaintop. And that will attract naysayers and cynics and killers, but it’ll also attract crowds and communities and movements. And then the world will change because the vision is too powerful, too compelling, too true to fall. And as King declared, on the day before he died in 1968:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

Truth, Justice and the American Way: How Superman has been reinvented for an age of protest

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway,
Nobody living can ever make me turn back

This land was made for you and me.

Long story short – A couple of months ago, DC Comics relaunched their entire line, and it’s turned out to be a roaring success, despite my pessimism. One of the most interesting changes has been to Action Comics, the granddaddy of American comic books and the traditional home of Superman. In the hands of writer Grant Morrison, the character has been returned to his roots, a social crusader on the fringes of the law.

It’s weird seeing Superman portrayed like this. I’m used to him being the patriarch, the guy who believed in the law and who worked within the system. Sure, some things needed fixing, but on the whole he believed in the American Way (define that however you wish). He was an authority figure – a positive, noble, idealism one, but an authority figure nonetheless. And I guess he still is, but only in terms of moral authority – he’s the one person in Metropolis who stands up for the little guy, and that brings him into conflict with industry, the media and the law.

The interesting thing is how this taps into the zeitgeist – let’s face it, 2011 has been a year of protest, and it feels as thought Superman has morphed to reflect this. As society realises the corruption that surrounds it, and starts to pull together into grassroots protest movements (Occupy, the Arab Spring), Superman has needed to change to maintain his role as the moral centre of DC Comics.

This isn’t a new idea. When the character first appeared in 1938, he was a product of the Great Depression, a period of economic crisis that hit in 1929 and whose recovery was shaken by a further recession in 1937. It was time of tent cities and unemployment and failing banks – well, circumstances are different now, but the iconography is the same, and if history is in some way repeating itself, maybe it’s necessary for Superman to return to his roots to remain relevant.

(Although I can’t help but note the irony of the original Action Comics #1, the book that not only inspired this current reinvention but the superhero genre in general, selling for $2.1 million dollars.)

 

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy.

Perhaps all this explains the costume worn by the new activist Superman – jeans and t-shirt and no spandex. If Bruce Springsteen worked in comics and not music, this might be what he came up with, and while it’s a change in image, I like it (certainly more than the costume worn by the older Superman in other titles, which looks more like his traditional costume but seems to be armoured – armoured?!). It establishes Superman as a working class hero, appropriate considering he grew up on a farm in Kansas. More importantly, it establishes him as a working class hero fighting against corporate corruption and vested interests.

Facing him is Lex Luthor, a corporate mogul touched by xenophobia and genius. He refers to Superman as ‘it’, hating aliens and convinced their presence on Earth will destroy humanity, although this concern is twisted by his lack of concern for life and his obscene consultancy fees. Lex is the evil shadow of the 1%. I guess Lex’s xenophobia reflects the hysteria over immigration, and so it’s worth noting that, in the 40′s, Superman was being used to tackle the Ku Klux Klan for real.

 

 John Henry told his captain,
“Lord a man ain’t nothin’ but a man
But before I let this steam drill beat me down
I’m gonna die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord
Die with a hammer in my hand”

This conflict between Lex and Supes raises another theme – in three issues, our hero seems to be up against technology an awful lot – wrecking balls, trains, cyborgs. Maybe there’s something there about the dehumanising potential of technology, which ties into American folklore – I’d think I was imagining this if the title hadn’t already seen the reintroduction of a character based on John Henry, the folk hero who died proving the superiority of man over machine.

And so, in a time of economic, technological and social crisis, Superman undergoes a reinvention that aims to speak to the world he’s pledged to defend. It’s necessary to maintain the relevance of a character who’s long been a symbol of decency, compassion and heroism, and it allows Morrison to speak to the problems of the world around us. For years, fans were saying that Superman should be based on his Silver Age incarnation from the 50s and 60s – turns out a new lease of life for the character actually lay within the year of his birth. And while this isn’t the Man of Steel we’re used to, he’s one we can understand. Economic catastrophe? Racial tensions? Technology out of control? This looks like a job for Superman.

 

Oh, there have been times I thought I couldn’t last for long,
But now I think I’m able to carry on.
It’s been a long time, a long time coming,
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.