You don’t need anonymity to have power

Posted on December 8, 2011 by | 17 Comments

Pete Speller wrote a piece “Why I don’t mask up“, to which Majsaleh responded “We don’t need martyrs” – this is Pete’s reply.

In response to the article We Don’t Need Martyrs, I agree with some of the points raised, and conceded as much in the comments thread of my original post, but disagree with a number of the others.

Firstly, I am not calling for people to martyr themselves for the cause. People should take precautions against threat of arrest. I have, however, had a number of conversations that have lead me to the conclusion that wearing a mask does not breed solidarity and has become a default for protests.

I conceded in the comments section of my article that when used as a specific tactic there could be occasions when concealing ones identity might be important. Redwatch is another example of this, or indeed protection against tear-gas. Masking-up is not, however, a guarantee against prosecution or of anonymity and has in recent protests been the cause of people’s arrest; snatch-squads and undercover officers target people with masks. Many people who were involved with the Great Climate Swoop at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station were identified and later arrested and charged based on their clothing, including masks/scarves.

I chose the example of the Seeds of Hope action specifically because they were both very accountable and very well prepared. The acquittal was indeed a good outcome but the defense had been well thought out in advance, to the extent that they knew they were likely to spend 6 months on remand before the trial and that the likely outcome would be a 6-month prison sentence. So in that case, it didn’t particularly matter, though acquittal is obviously the best outcome. I concede that perhaps Seeds of Hope was a clumsy example but it was also most definitely a protest. But if you look at other examples where real change has happened, those movements have been accountable. The civil rights movement in the US, the Indian freedom movement led by Gandhi being the two tired clichés but still apt.

The assertion that masking-up does not separate you from the people you are standing with is something I do not agree with. For the person masked up perhaps that is the case, but for many people it is not. If you cannot identify with someone, it is hard to have genuine solidarity with them. That isn’t about being personally recognizable; it is about others being able to see something or someone they know in you, having a point from which to build solidarity. This can start with agreeing on an issue but to extend it further, people need a stronger connection. I don’t necessarily mean the person standing next to you on a march, I mean the person at home watching the news who agrees but isn’t yet out on the street or the person with children who is worried about violence. A lot of people simply don’t view those masked-up as allies, and it is exactly that which you accuse me of being, self-indulgent, to assume that everyone on a march knows your intentions.

Very often protests are about who you are, not personally, but collectively. Teachers, doctors, students, firemen, public-sector workers, these are all groups of people that have been out on protests. They gain strength from being a group. If they were all masked and anonymous then they would be labeled“protesters”, quickly dismissed by the politicians and mocked by the media.

Masking up is used tactically by some, but if hiding your identity is your main concern then it is not the be-all and end-all. The police employ highly sophisticated electronic surveillance systems to track people. They don’t need to see you to know where you are. GeoTime, software being trialed by the Met, tracks IMEI numbers on phones, IP addresses, social networking, GPS data from mobiles and satnavs and even financial transactions, including which machine you get cash from. If anonymity is really what it is all about, the we have a long way to go.

Direct action is not about asking for a change to be made, it is about making that change yourself – by your actions you force a change. Stopping a coal-fired power station from pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, dismantling parts of a bomber heading for Afghanistan, throwing computers used to test and control nuclear missiles into a lake, driving a speedboat between a whale and a harpoon ship. These are examples of effective direct action.

Recently we have seen people on protests masking up and smashing windows, ostensibly in the name of an economic damage deterrent – you cost the company money, they stop doing the thing you oppose. But this is on such a small scale as to be of negligible impact to the companies. Santander can withstand a few broken windows.

UK Uncut, which I have been critical of in the past, built a movement out of open, accountable protest and they have put tax dodging on the political agenda. Yet they have avoided the personality cult that affects many groups on the left.

So my point is this: there are occasions when a tactical decision to conceal ones identity would be the best course of action. As a default setting for protest, however, it is not conducive to building solidarity and, whilst it can be liberating for the person wearing the mask, it is very inward-looking to assume that people see you as an ally and that they know you are there for the same reasons they are.

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Comments

17 Responses to “You don’t need anonymity to have power”

  1. MattNo Gravatar
    December 8th, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

    Personally, unless you happen to be a super hero, then seeing someone attempting to conceal their identity by wearing a mask gives me the immediate and strong sense that they are either ashamed of what they are doing or are doing something that they know could get them in trouble. Either way it puts a very negative image in my mind and makes me doubt whether their intentions are good.

    This is an immediate and subconsious assumption that I make based on a stereotype, but it’s a very strong stereotype, and even if that person’s true reasons for masking up are well intended, its the perception it gives others that does the damage.

    Whilst there may be some validity in the argument that police are being unfair and arresting people who haven’t actually done anything wrong, surely by hiding your face to avoid being wrongfully arrested you are actually just sending out the message to onlookers that rather than standing up for your rights and saying “No, I’m not doing anything wrong and I have nothing to hide” you are instead perceived to be vindicating their actions by giving the impression that you do indeed have something to hide?

  2. MollyNo Gravatar
    December 8th, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

    I know that there are a lot of differences between these examples, but assertions like ‘we should not mask up because it will discourage solidarity with our movement’ do not seem very far away from ‘we should dilute our political message to broaden solidarity for our movement’ or even ‘we should not acknowledge or criticise sexism/racism/etc. within the movement because that will discourage solidarity’.

    “Building solidarity” does not and should not mean that everyone needs to act the same and believe the same things. I am all for outreach, but not at the expense of silencing dissent, nor (as in this case) of policing others’ behaviours when those behaviours are not hurting anyone — and may, in some cases, be an act of self-protection. There are plenty of reasons to or not to mask up — my personal opinion is that it is appropriate in some situations but not (necessarily) in others — but ‘it will make people not like us’ should not be one of them.

  3. Jim JeppsNo Gravatar
    December 8th, 2011 @ 5:55 pm

    Although I’ve some sympathy with what Molly is saying (after all I don’t go round ripping people’s masks off, or even arguing with people with masks on – I’d *never* have a conversation with someone who is deliberately hiding their identity from me) there is a key phrase here: “when those behaviours are not hurting anyone”.

    Some of those with masks on some demonstrations are police officers or intent on violence. They look exactly the same as the nice cuddly masked up people who just want everyone to be nice.

    It is an irony of wanting an inclusive movement that some behaviour actually *does* have be made to feel unwelcome. Sexism is a case in point. If we turn away from sexist behaviour for fear of excluding that person we end up excluding many others.

    Masking up frightens some people and sometimes that is with good cause. That makes our movement less inclusive, and that’s a problem.

  4. MollyNo Gravatar
    December 8th, 2011 @ 7:20 pm

    Should I also not wear a hoodie and saggy jeans, if I am a teenage boy, because some people are frightened of teenage boys who dress like that?

  5. Thomas Clark WilsonNo Gravatar
    December 8th, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

    It’s really more a question of overtly concealing your identity than just a straightforward aesthetic thing, dressing like a teenage boy doesn’t do the former, because the onlooker is none the wiser.

    I’m not a fan of masks generally but I don’t really care if people wear them, though I do think doing so invites negative public perception, which obviously isn’t a huge help for whatever cause the masked one is championing. Very nearly every non-protester I speak to on the subject are turned off by a sense of distrust they get from someone actively concealing their identity. I don’t think we should be saying ‘oh well they should just get over it and stop judging people for their appearance’, because they have legitimate reasons for that position (mentioned above and elsewhere) which really need to be acknowledged, because public support is actually pretty important.

  6. MattNo Gravatar
    December 9th, 2011 @ 9:59 am

    I think there is an interesting conflict that emerges here.

    Molly, you mention that ‘it will make people not like us’ should not be a reason not to do something. It’s an extremely important point – you should not allow what you stand for and believe in to be effected just because others may disagree.

    But equally Thomas says that ‘public support is actually pretty important’, another extremely valid point, especially when you have a relatively small ‘movement’ trying to grow support so that you can become a stronger voice and have a bigger impact.

    I don’t think the values are the problem though. I think its the actions and behaviours that are taken in order to demonstrate them, whether legitimate actions or not, that can sit uncomfortably with the very people whose support you would like to have, and who probably share similar values. Wearing a mask to conceal identity I’m sure is one of them.

    I personally think there are a lot of people out there who are actually very sympathetic of the values and arguments of campaigners on the left (I’m certainly one of them), but sometimes disagree with the actions and behaviours used to demonstrate and fight for these values, so stand back from getting more involved.

    I may be wrong about this particular example (and if I am I’m sure someone will correct me!), but the Robin Hood Tax campaign seems to have gained a lot of support, including from high profile celebs, and I think one of the main reasons for this is the approach that has been taken to get the message across. I think it is more accessable campaign to the wider public. I think it’s within people’s comfort zone and comes across as less threatening and people can identify with it better.

    I’m not saying people should stop protesting on the streets or occupying buildings. If it’s the way people want to get their message across, and they feel comnfortable doing it, then go for it – who am I to stop freedom of expression! But it’s perhaps atleast worth considering whether, if gaining wider support for a campaign or movement is truly a priority (perhaps it’s not?…), that some of these types of actions could be the very things that are keeping people with similar values to your own from showing their support along side you.

  7. Pete SpellerNo Gravatar
    December 9th, 2011 @ 11:06 am

    I think there are a few things that are important to think about within the context of this argument, it seems to be moving slightly from the original point but that’s great.

    I agree with some of what Molly has said and some of what Matt has said but there is one point I want to raise. I think the sentence “you should not allow what you stand for and believe in to be effected just because others may disagree” is actually something I disagree with. Ignoring others’ concerns or criticisms of your values is fanaticism. That is what fascists do, so I think you should always be willing to listen and assimilate criticism, you don’t always have to accept it but you should at the very least consider it.

    I also think it is worth examining the statement “we should dilute our political message in order to broaden solidarity within the movement”. The assertion being that this is a bad thing. Well, whose movement is it? Is it the movement of the minority of radical leftists who’ve read Marx, Zizek and Bookchin and ‘know’ better than the rest of us? or is it the movement of the majority of the population who don’t have as nuanced an analysis but know when they’re being screwed over and won’t stand for it?
    I’m not being rhetorical, I am genuinely not sure. It feels like it ought to be the movement of the majority but then we’ll end up with a weakly reformed capitalism that is very similar to what we have now. So how do we create a movement where the majority are radicals? I don’t know. Solidarity has to go both ways. You might feel it with others but that doesn’t guarantee they feel it with you. If you are acting in a way that makes the majority of people feel like they aren’t part of the movement, like a movement that should be theirs isn’t, then you are acting unilaterally, not in solidarity. You are saying “I know better, I am more enlightened”. Maybe you do and are, but you have to bring others with you, show them your path to enlightenment so that they can follow, not tell them whats good for them.

  8. MattNo Gravatar
    December 9th, 2011 @ 11:40 am

    I think your first point is spot on Pete. You’re quite right that we shouldn’t ignore other’s opinions and critique.

    To pick up on your second point, I think it is very important not to confuse political message with the actions and behaviours used to communicate them.

    For example, occupying a building or wearing a mask on protests are actions that have become closely associated with leftist campaigners, yet these actions do not constitute a political stance or message in their own right. They are simply the approaches, or tools, being used.

    I think it should be quite possible to consider alternative approaches that might be more successful in gaining wider support without having to impact on or dilute the message you are standing for at all.

    Is there a risk that the line between the political message/value and the action used to communicate it can become blurred, to the extent that the action itself becomes considered as part of the core values of those within the movement?

  9. Pete SpellerNo Gravatar
    December 9th, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

    I think you’re right.

    “I think it should be quite possible to consider alternative approaches that might be more successful in gaining wider support without having to impact on or dilute the message you are standing for at all.”

    You last point is sort of what I was trying to imply in my original article, you’ve just articulated it better.

    “Is there a risk that the line between the political message/value and the action used to communicate it can become blurred, to the extent that the action itself becomes considered as part of the core values of those within the movement?”

  10. milgramNo Gravatar
    December 9th, 2011 @ 6:27 pm

    I haven’t followed the full series of posts but these 2 paragraphs stood out. I think the intention is to present “accountable = effective; unaccountable = ineffective”.

    Direct action is not about asking for a change to be made, it is about making that change yourself – by your actions you force a change. Stopping a coal-fired power station from pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, dismantling parts of a bomber heading for Afghanistan, throwing computers used to test and control nuclear missiles into a lake, driving a speedboat between a whale and a harpoon ship. These are examples of effective direct action.

    Recently we have seen people on protests masking up and smashing windows, ostensibly in the name of an economic damage deterrent – you cost the company money, they stop doing the thing you oppose. But this is on such a small scale as to be of negligible impact to the companies. Santander can withstand a few broken windows.

    Trouble is they aren’t equivalents. You can mask-up to do the first list and try & get away, you could grin for the cameras while doing the 2nd list.

    I also wouldn’t equate “property damage” with “loss of support”. Once public mood has changed, broken windows get filed under “well what did they expect” rather than “oh that’s disgraceful”.

    Find anyone in Edinburgh who thinks that dunting Fred Goodwin’s windows stopped them from being pissed off with RBS and I’ll be surprised. Likewise students vs. Tory HQ last year.

    (And that last is a fine example of why masking up should be supported. There’s a lot of Xmas cards needing sent to prisoners this year.)

  11. JulesNo Gravatar
    December 9th, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

    I think Pete is absolutely right to point to the worrying trend of people being arrested by the police BECAUSE they are wearing a mask.

    However, I don’t agree with many of the conclusions that are then drawn. People mask up for all sorts of reasons that others have already commented on – protection from tear gas, identity protection, protection when engaging in illegal or borderline illegal activities – and many of these are very valid. Personally I think it’d be pretty stupid to smash a bank window with your face uncovered, for example.

    I have never met anyone who masks up because they are “ashamed” of their actions. It seems to me a very unreflective reaction to not look beyond that. I think the real question – which this article shies from addressing but Matt and Molly are commenting on above – isn’t about masking up, it’s about whether the appearance AND actions of the black bloc are a barrier to gaining wider public support. And that’s an age old debate. Diversity of tactics anyone?

    You don’t have to wear a mask. But respect that other people have different motives, different concerns, different tactics.

  12. Pete SpellerNo Gravatar
    December 9th, 2011 @ 10:48 pm

    I think it is important to critique and examine tactics and trends, rather than to blindly accept them because that’s the way things are done.
    Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong and sometimes we try to do the right thing in the wrong way.
    There is a trend in radical left movements to be so used to defending ourselves from attack that we are unable to critique our methods and behavior. Sometimes we need to take a step back and make sure we doing things in the right way and for the right reasons. That is all I am trying to do. I’m not trying to stop people from masking up, I’m just presenting the side of a debate I felt was missing. I am certainly taking on board a lot of what has been said in the comments, I have already conceded (though no one appears to have noticed) that as a tactical decision there could be times when it is a good idea. Nothing anyone has said has fully changed my mind but I will certainly have to give it some thought.

  13. MollyNo Gravatar
    December 10th, 2011 @ 4:41 pm

    I think the mistake that you are making is in conceptualizing (or seeming to conceptualize) the radical left as some sort of unified ‘we’. So, since no one (as far as I know) is making the argument “we should all mask up all the time”, your argument against masking up is perceived as “no one should mask up” — which, at least personally, raises my behaviour-policing hackles.

    I certainly agree that there are situations where mask-wearing is socially inappropriate and tactically unwise, but I also believe in a diversity of tactics — and there are a lot of situations where mask-wearing is appropriate and tactically valuable.

  14. Accelorata JengoldNo Gravatar
    December 10th, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

    I largely agree with most of what Matt and Pete say.

    “Either way it puts a very negative image in my mind and makes me doubt whether their intentions are good.

    This is an immediate and subconsious assumption that I make based on a stereotype, but it’s a very strong stereotype, and even if that person’s true reasons for masking up are well intended, its the perception it gives others that does the damage.”

    This is hugely true for the vast majority of people in the UK today. To ignore it is just being wilfully thick, or being more immersed in protest culture than achieving anything and bringing the rank and file of the populace with you.

    Still, most leftist movements have been, and will be elitist, in most senses of the word. You could almost make a sketch of this thread a la the People’s Front of Judea.

  15. Thomas Clark WilsonNo Gravatar
    December 13th, 2011 @ 9:23 am

    This discussion, in the posts and ensuing comments, has been rather good, because it’s examined the validity and consequences of masking up. Calling it an attempt at behavioural-policing is basically an attempt to shut down debate on the issue.

    The opposition to which is nonsense anyway; if I’m chatting to a protester in a mask, I will definitely be keen on discussing the validity of their action, just as I would be if I were chatting to a protester with a can of beer, or a joint, or that was behaving aggressively, or if they were holding a sign saying ‘these demonstrators are mincing vannila twats’ or performing any other action that would invite both widespread public disdain and avoidable police attention.

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