One week ago, thousands of Twitter posts and Facebook statuses read, “Remember, remember the 5th of November.” Made famous in the movie V for Vendetta, this symbolic date and slogan were celebrated in England long before Americans even acknowledged it. The story goes that a man named Guy Fawkes unsuccessfully tried to blow up the House of Lords in London on November 5th, 1605, as part of an elaborate plan to bring Catholicism back to England. The intended scheme was to place three dozen barrels of gunpowder underneath Parliament, and so the plan was infamously named the “Gunpowder Plot.” Unfortunately for Fawkes, his plan backfired: the supply of gunpowder was discovered, and he was sentenced to death. Parliament decreed that every November 5th from then onwards would be a day of thanksgiving, and the nursery rhyme was born:
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Years later, the British still chant the poem on November 5th and celebrate with bonfires and firework displays.
But this year, Guy Fawkes Day was different: it brought a worldwide protest called the “Million Mask March,” which kicked off with a rally at our nation’s capitol. The project was orchestrated by hacktivist collective “Anonymous,” which, according to its website, is a “loose and decentralized command structure that operates on ideas of an Internet gathering.” The group chose Guy Fawkes Day because it has represented revolution for so many years; although unlike the Gunpowder Plot, the Million Mask March wasn’t organized in the name of religion. Its mission statement was “to remind the world that fairness, justice, and freedom are more than just words,” although its implicit goal was to protest the government and other forms of power. Specific protesters cited everything from foreign policy to police brutality as their reasons for attending the event.
In an effort to reinforce the idea that they are a single, united front, the majority of protesters donned identical Guy Fawkes masks – the same ones that were initially introduced into American popular culture by V for Vendetta. While the masks have become icons of anti-government sentiment, ironically a cut of the profit made from selling them goes to Warner Brothers, the company that produced the film and one that represents many of the things the hackers were protesting.
Few arrests were made that day in Washington, despite the fact that state law prohibits any person over sixteen from wearing a mask during a protest. As a result, the rally at the capitol saw little media coverage, which, unfortunately for the hacktivist community, meant that the gathering didn’t attract the numbers they had hoped for. Pre-rally speculation actually received more media attention than the event itself. Some theorize that Anonymous hit a speed bump last year, when the FBI arrested some of its more prominent members, robbing the group of the leadership it needed to coordinate a larger event. I would argue the possibility that the hackers at Anonymous are just better at hacking than they are at organizing.
I would also like to raise a question: what does this whole thing mean in light of the recent government shutdown? The answer is, I think, that the shutdown enraged millions of individuals, and that heightened anger was sure to drive more people to support dissenting groups like Anonymous. Regardless of the Million Mask March’s disappointing turnout this year, I’m sure that – so long as Warner Brothers keeps selling masks and Anonymous keeps buying them – Guy Fawkes Day will continue leaving its mark on the American political landscape.
As students at a prominent university, we should actively consider our role in these events. There have been rallies around and on Penn’s campus lately, so most students have witnessed – and maybe taken part in – parading frustration with government and big corporations. Who knows – we might even have a few future hacktivists in our midst.