Look at a photo or news clip from around the world of Occupy protesters and you’ll likely spot a handful of people wearing masks of a cartoon-like man with a pointy beard, closed-mouth smile and mysterious eyes.
The mask is a stylized version of Guy Fawkes, an Englishman who tried to bomb the British Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605.
“They’re very meaningful masks,” said Alexandra Ricciardelli, who was rolling cigarettes on a table outside her tent in New York’s Zuccotti Park two days before the anniversary of Fawkes’ failed bombing attempt.
“It’s not about bombing anything; it’s about being anonymous — and peaceful.”
To the 20-year-old from Keyport, N.J., the Fawkes mask “is about being against The Man — the power that keeps you down.”
But history books didn’t lead to the mask’s popularity: A nearly 30-year-old graphic novel and a five-year-old movie did.
“V for Vendetta,” the comic-based movie whose violent, anarchist antihero fashions himself a modern Guy Fawkes and rebels against a fascist government has become a touchstone for young protesters in mostly western countries. While Warner Brothers holds the licensing rights to the Guy Fawkes mask, several protesters said they were using foreign-made copies to circumvent the corporation.
Yet whether the inspiration is the comic, the movie or the historical figure, the imagery — co-opted today by everyone from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to the hacker group Anonymous — carries stronger connotations than some of the Occupy protesters seem to understand.
While Fawkes’ image has been romanticized over the past 400 years, he was a criminal who tried to blow up a government building. It would be hard to imagine Americans one day wearing Timothy McVeigh masks to protest the government or corporate greed.
Lewis Call, an assistant history professor at California Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo, said the masked protesters are adopting a powerful symbol that has shifted meaning through the centuries.
“You can seize hold of it for any political purpose you want,” he said. “That’s the real power of it.”