NEW YORK — 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 cartoonlike man with a pointy beard, a 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 5-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 Bros. 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 WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and 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.”
Fawkes was a Catholic insurrectionist executed for the bombing attempt. In the years immediately after his execution, Nov. 5 was England’s official celebration for defeating Fawkes, said Mr. Call, who has written about the nexus of Fawkes, “V for Vendetta” and modern-day protests.
Over the next three centuries, Mr. Call said, people in England started using Fawkes‘ image in different ways. Some used Fawkes as a symbol for putting limits on state power. Others held him up as a freedom fighter.
Then came the comic book, a nihilistic story set in a futuristic England - and the movie. People began thinking of him as a libertarian or even anarchist hero.
“Gradually over the centuries, the meaning of Guy Fawkes has dramatically changed,” said Mr. Call. “The reputation of Guy Fawkes has been recuperated. Before he was originally seen as a terrorist trying to destroy England. Now he’s seen more as a freedom fighter, a fighter for individual liberty against an oppressive regime. The political meaning of that figure has transformed.”