Masking & Unmasking: Of Masquerades & Matraques
On August 22, 2012, two of us made papier-mâché drama masks for the monthly protest that had marked the 22nd of each month for the duration of the Québec student strike, in opposition to the tuition hike and proposed further privatization of education. The mask gestured toward the two faces of the movement. One mask was sad, crying red square tears, saddled with growing debt and heightened state repression and rising levels of police brutality that had left countless injured and two young students half blind for life; the other mask was joyful, full of hopes and dreams and the spirit of a new collective future that lay on the horizon after months of mass civic engagement in enacting change. Within this social drama, what intervention could a masquerade enact?
SCENE ONE: The Face of the Law
A protest – it could be almost any protest over the course of the spring of 2012 in Montreal. Or should we say 2013? Or? It could be afternoon or evening. Something that no one can really hear is muttered through a loudspeaker. Men and women, heavily armored, with helmets and sunglasses, begin marching toward the crowd, banging shields with their batons or “matraques”. Protestors move away; some run, others walk quickly to avoid a stampede. No one wants to trip and fall in a panic. The heavily disguised and armored men and women begin to hit those who do not move fast enough. The reverberations of sound cannons can be heard. The air is smoky. Something has been released into the crowd. A few minutes later, small groups congregate around those who have been hit and are bleeding. Some need ambulances. The crime? Apparently something has been thrown (a snowball?) or broken (a window?) by someone – though almost certainly not by the people who were hit by the masked men and women known as ‘the police.’ The political demonstration is broken up. This is order restored.
For many, the eruption of police brutality in the streets of Montreal brought to the surface the structural violence that tends to protect corporate property over and against public well-being. The “offending” “projectile” launched by protestors could be a single snowball, a harsh word of dissent, or the simple presence of a group of people gathered to make known their opposition to state policies. Protestors would be pepper sprayed, clubbed, kettled and arrested. Countless stories poured in concerning police breaking their own protocol, charging crowds without warning, assaulting protestors and preemptively arresting anyone suspected of engaging in political activity, occasionally resulting in the arrest or assault on unsuspecting tourists.
This policing, whether conducted by agents of the state or by the crowd itself, was propelled by a diffuse fear that had the effect, to the extent that it was successful, of circumscribing political disagreement and silencing propositions that challenged the arrangements of state institutions. As Rancière argues, “politics stands in distinct opposition to the police”, not only because the police are the arm of state repression (though they also serve this function), but because, in enforcing a state sanctioned order, it enforces a particular way of dividing up the world and of doing things.2 Any challenge to this order, even through accepted means of protest, can be characterized as dangerous, simply because it challenges the policed order.
The state violence that was experienced in 2012, and that is re-surfacing in the spring of 2013 in the face of renewed protests against newly proposed tuition “indexation” (a never ending hike to keep pace with inflation), must then be seen not only in the context of the general situation of precarity of students but also of the workforce and the general population. Attempts to undermine the strike itself functioned most effectively by atomizing individuals and taking advantage of their sense of precarity, casting a veil of fear3: if you protest, you might fail your classes, get expelled, get fined, lose your job, get arrested, or get beaten by the police.
Against this sense of precarity, atomization and the fear for survival that this brings with it, numerous affective and theatrical tactics were deployed.
SCENE TWO: Masking Up! You are (not) Your Persona
A large protest – probably somewhat larger than the one described in Scene one. Many of the protestors wear masks. These masks are diverse. From bandanas and ski goggles, balaclavas and “Anonymous” Guy Fawkes masks, to more festive clown wigs, make-up and fake noses, a giant-multi-person cloth “bookworm”, various plush animal costumes, and masks in the likeness of politicians – a host of colourful characters fill the streets. Amongst the crowd a duo in papier-mâché drama masks: one happy, with a “joker” like smile cut into the mask, the other sad, with red square tears running down the mask. They are dressed in black, climbing flagpoles and sprinkling “revolution dust” (red sparkles) on police cars and fellow protestors.
In order to exert discipline and control, the ability to identify individuals became paramount. In May, the City of Montreal banned the wearing of masks at protests, enforceable upon the discretion of the police, with a fine of up to three thousand dollars. The bill foreshadowed a federal ban on masks that would be adopted in the fall criminalizing mask wearing at protests with a penalty of up to ten years in prison. In the media and amongst police spokespeople and politicians, masks became associated with perpetrators of unregulated violence. In a bid to defend such pre-emptive legislation, the head of Montreal’s police union appealed to a good protestor/bad protestor divide: “The objective for us is to catch these trouble-makers before the situation spirals out of control, so that others, including families with children, can protest in peace and security.”4 The justification offered by Montreal’s Mayor Trembley: “When your cause is just and your intentions are good, why hide your face or refuse to give your itinerary to police?”5.
The wearing of masks became not only symbolically associated with criminal behaviour, but a crime in itself. The implications of this were far reaching in terms of circumscribing political association, tactics and the very ways in which collective identity and affect could be generated. Such criminalization could only be justified on pre-emptive grounds since other criminal acts with which the mask became associated were already enshrined in the criminal code – those accused of other such crimes could already be arrested and prosecuted. What was criminalized then, was not the obscuring of identity while committing a crime – but simply obscuring of personal identity in itself. While typically associated in the media with Black Bloc tactics, masks have a diverse history in social movements. The reasons for wearing masks are likewise diverse. In the case of the Black Bloc, the justification, contrary to the claims of the police, is often to protect the crowd from police brutality by generating a line of militant defense between police and those unprepared for police confrontation, by confronting police in order to have comrades de-arrested (thus making themselves vulnerable), and by being readily identifiable in cases where more militant tactics are deemed necessary, such that they would not be confused with those engaged in symbolic protest.6 Why pepper-spray an entire crowd supposedly for the actions of readily identifiable protestors (identiable by their use of masks – not despite it)?
Ironically, the very legal notion of a person is grounded in the Latin concept of persona, derivative of the masks worn by actors in Ancient Greece. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote:
In its original meaning, it signified the actor’s own face and countenance, but in a way that would make it possible for the voice to sound through. At any rate it was this twofold understanding of a mask through which a voice sounds that the word persona became a metaphor and was carried from the language of theatre into legal terminology” (Arendt, On revolution, 106-7)
The persona – that is to say the mask worn and the role-played – became the legal face of the person because it was through the public face presented and the role performed that a voice could be heard. The wearing of a mask obscures the public persona of the individual, but it also re-invents it. The mask becomes another way of expressing affiliation with past and present dreams and identities and thus a way of recreating a future public persona through which to intervene in the social and political dynamics that circumscribe existing possibilities. This is why order maintained by violence shuts down politics: it negates the ability to speak through a mask – to speak as a public entity guided by ideas rather than by immediate survival. When one is silenced by fear for one’s life or bodily safety (or fear of incarceration or sanction preventing the ability to pursue a livelihood) there can be no political discussion.
In the case of the Quebec student movement, the rushing through of anti-mask legislation increased the use of masks in protests, heightening its role as an affective resistance tactic. On March 29th, prior to the passage of the mask legislation, a protest was called under the name and thematic Le Grand Masquerade (the big masquerade) to protest the tuition hike, but also to protest the proposal of Mayor Tremblay who wanted to make wearing masks illegal. Student leaders pointed out that there are multiple reasons for wearing masks: it is not merely for anonymity in committing a crime, but also to protect oneself from tear gas, to avoid racial profiling or to be creative.7 What became a crime was thus a whole array of protest tactics, including tactics for de-escalating tensions (carnivalesque and clown masks/noses for example) and re-introducing joy into a situation increasingly characterized by fear and violence, and for protecting oneself from police aggression (bandanas and goggles as protective wear against pepper spray). Heightened resistance and militancy may seem to run counter to the parade-like aesthetic of many circus and carnivalesque style tactics. In the face of state violence and legislation to make visible and vulnerable the corporeal body of the individual, they became two faces of the same resistance. One affective tactic is to meet violence with militant resistance – that is, to defend oneself and one’s fellow protestors. Another, however, is to defuse the violence with humour, and to make the state violence appear ridiculous and inappropriate. In the spaces created by laughter, political disagreement can be voiced.
SCENE THREE: Stripping Down: Ma-nu-festons!
On a city street, a protest, not unlike that which took place in “Scene One”. This time, however, the protestors are all naked or scantily clad. Many wear nothing but red scarves hiding their faces. Others have words written on their naked – or mostly naked – bodies such as: “Charest, tu veut notre chair” (Charest, you want our flesh?). Many of the women wear red square “pasties” to hide their nipples. This scene, like those above, repeats, sometimes at night, sometimes mid to late afternoon.
If the justification for mask legislation lay in the presumption that masked protestors were plotting violent activity, the mockery of this legislation reached its logical conclusion in the naked marches, or man-nu-festations8, where participants were invited to come wearing nothing but scarves covering their faces. The symbolic meaning offered by this act was read in multiple ways: a reference to the indebtedness of students who would be left without even the shirts on their backs; a way of conjuring at once the red square symbolism of the movement with its “squarely in the red/in debt” metonymy and the burlesque culture of Montreal that playfully co-opts the consumer culture of the city’s vibrant sex industry in an attempt to transform the power dynamics that come with it. The force of such a march, however, was less in its symbolism than in the sheer force of having naked (or mostly naked) bodies in the streets, particularly in a climate of escalating tension and police brutality.
It has become a cliché that there are two ways to get attention in contemporary society: sex and violence. While mostly-young-masked-bodies may tend, within the mainstream media, to invoke the latter, mostly-young-naked-bodies, of course, invoke the former. The media was reporting and people were watching. Such stripping down, however, also placed the vulnerability of young, unarmed bodies on display as such. What could be more grotesque than shielded, helmeted and armed riot police attacking a crowd full of naked or mostly naked young women?
If police brutality closes the possibility of politics through focus on the vulnerability of the body, naked protest, in drawing attention to this vulnerability, re-opens this possibility of political intervention. While the collective anonymity of vulnerable bodies enacts an ethical, rather than a political intervention, it is clear in this context that this vulnerability is made public very explicitly as an intervention to expose the socio-political climate of fear and control in defense of maintaining the order of the status quo deemed by protestors as the protection of capitalist interests and culture. As Alaimo puts it, “naked protestors significantly carve out a space for their politics as much as they assert a voice,”9 In policing the masks and persona of protestors, one recourse was to wear nudity as a mask to reclaim the space of politics. While collapsing political debates into pity and concern for the vulnerable bodies of those on the streets threatens to efface the political disagreements at stake10, without the space to viably express such dissent, discussion of a new politic becomes irrelevant. In such situations, the role of the ‘vulnerable’, into which police cast those they threaten, itself gets worn by protestors as the mask to create a space for politics. We all have naked bodies, we are all vulnerable, but this very vulnerability is why “we” protest. Stripping down becomes a way of masking up.
SCENE FOUR: Mascots and Masquerades: Role-play as the Subversion of a State of Fear
A large protest. It could be the same one described in Scene Two. Clowns, donning bike helmets, clown wigs and noses, attempt to police the crowd. In the middle of the march, surrounded by hundreds of thousands, the duo, donning drama masks, jean shorts and black tank-tops vaguely reminiscent of the Black Bloc, sprinkle “revolution dust” on police cars and the crowd, and begin to taunt the clowns. The clowns respond by attempting to get the duo to move with their shield and sticks, and by writing the masked duo “tickets” for their infractions. A few feet away a Giant Panda with a red square walks by and offers a hug to a fellow protestor.
If social roles are coded by what is always already deemed “legitimate” according to existing institutions, wearing such roles as masks through which to act and speak becomes a strategy of subversion, in order to make space for another kind of politic. As Moruzzi writes, the masquerade, in its various manifestations “allows us to reconsider the supposed inability of those traditionally excluded from the public realm to represent themselves within it”.11 The masquerade of parodying authority – those who themselves wear masks – literal or figurative – as agents of the state, is of a different order than the masquerade of those who create and subvert their own social masks of personal and collective identity. Nonetheless, in both cases, the masquerade challenges the monopoly of the state and of those who control the public debate, images and, more poignantly, the affective terrain that allows for the possibility, or impossibility, of politics.
Anarchopanda became a living, larger than life, at once human and more-than-human embodiment of non-violent anarchy. Banana Rebel trafficked in humour and the ridiculous, breaking into social media fame with an iconic image of a police officers dragging away a limp more-than-human banana. For a long time, however, few knew who the humans within the panda and banana suits “really” were. Anarchopanda’s “human” identity as Julien Villeneuve, Cegep12 professor was only unmasked when he went to protest the mask ban at city hall after it came into effect. Even after his unmasking, however, his “specific but non-human embodiment and rejection of the politics of personality”13 allowed the mascot to retain a force that is at once singular and collective, as he offered hugs to both police and protestors to defuse the violence and raise the spirits of the weary youth as they returned night after night to protest. The mascots became the soft faces of militant collective action, generating distinct personas that were nonetheless not reducible to their identities as individual legal persons. This was of course their power. Individual persons can be disciplined and controlled, not only through the explicit sanction, arrest or brutality, but also through the soft coercion of individual self-interest and the imperative to survive and make a living.
Beyond the donning of masks as adoption, and transformation of collective identity over and against the prescribed social role of the (neo)liberal individual, however, is equally the mockery of police codes in the carnivalesque vein. To this end, clowns paid a very particular role in challenging the codes of policing.14 Clowns de-escalate tension in the face of police brutality typically by mocking the way policing is done. In the midst of protests (typically among large family protestors or during smaller protests before police attacks cause the crowd to run and attend to the wounded), clowns could thus often be seen donning bike helmets, clown wigs and noses, and hitting plastic shields with little sticks, writing tickets for ridiculous infractions, and yelling in their clownish ways “bouge, bouge, bouge”.15 In such gestures, the spell of fear could be broken and the code of policing could open up to humour, to laughter and to the free and easy breathing that is laughter in the face of state repression. When, at a demonstration on February 26th, 2013 against the indexation of tuition to inflation, the police began charging and cornering the crowd in response to a small number of protestors throwing snowballs causing tension and panic in the crowd, a young woman in clown make-up took the lead at de-escalation with an announcement, in the style of police declarations that had become common at protests: “attention, attention, it is now illegal to throw snowballs if you are over the age of seven. I repeat, it is now illegal to throw snowballs if you are over the age of seven.”
The media became the place where distance from the violence could be taken, surveilled and commented upon. Even here, the resistance of corporeal bodies and the ability of those who place their bodies on the line to also adopt and satirize the masks of the authority proliferated. The sock puppet Docteur Chausette, leader of the union of sock puppets, gently mocked the authority of the learned professors and pundits on such matters. Docteur Chausette, of course, “spoke for” the socks of the protestors who tirelessly marched daily and were repeatedly subject to police brutality in the streets, even while insisting that she was not a mask, – but a puppet, a peaceful puppet, and that she should not be considered illegal.16Through humor and the adoption of collective identity, even on the streets themselves, the discourses of distinguished individuals (whether professors, student leaders, or poets) against the hike was re-appropriated at the height of violence, maintaining a space for thought and politics.17
Beneath the subverted masks is not one singular identity or idea of a student, nor is it singular ideology being propagated through the masks. Just as the masks themselves are multiple, so are those who don each mask. What is at stake is accessibility itself – of political decision-making, of public institutions, of the means to live and dream without fear.
SCENE FIVE: And Then There was Change? New Masks, Same Politics?
One year after the first large protests, there has been a change in government. The hike has been officially cancelled. Nevertheless, tuition continues to rise. The protests described above begin to repeat. On social media, images proliferate. One features the face of PQ leader Pauline Marois as a cracking mask atop the face of the previous leader.
While a certain political power exists in donning masks and roles that obscure individual identity, and recreate temporary collective identities, there are differences in positionality and sub-identities and trajectories that were also occasionally hidden, and at times accentuated, by the masks donned. For while, on the one hand, student protestors were villified as too radical, and too disruptive in their claims for accessible education, others argued that the concerns of those for whom education is already inaccessible remained largely absent or under represented in the popular event that became known as the “Maple” or “Quebec” Spring, and certainly in the political decision making that happened following the “cancellation” of the hike. The incoming government, having campaigned on the cancellation of the hike and the inclusion of students in decision making concerning the future of education, less than a year later raised tuition and cut funding before consulting students. While indexation of tuition to inflation that was enacted was certainly gentler than the 80% tuition hike that had been cancelled, the breach of promise and sham of consultation left many enraged. For it seemed that the masks were changing, but the dynamics of accessibility to institutions of power, to education, and to the possibility of inclusive political discussion were not. On the streets, policing continued to threaten dissent. The affective sweetness of the popular uprising and its ostensible victory in radicalizing a population and staving off the tuition hike was waning. The movement, however, was re-grouping… [to be continued]
1 French for baton, often used as a short hand to conjure images of police brutality.
2 Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: on Politics and Aesthetics, tr. Steven Corcoran, Continuum: London, New York, 2010. p. 36.
3 See Brian Massumi “Buying Out: of capitulation and contestation” in Wi Journal of Mobile Media 6:2, 2012. http://wi.mobilities.ca/buying-out-of-capitulation-and-contestation/
5 as quoted from the press conference on May 17, 2012 by QMI http://www.sunnewsnetwork.ca/sunnews/politics/archives/2012/05/20120518-143325.html
6see David Graeber’s Direct Action: an ethnography, AK Press: Edinburgh, Oakland, Baltimore, 2009.
7 For an account of Le Grand Masquerade and the reasons for this action see: http://fr.canoe.ca/infos/quebeccanada/education/archives/2012/03/20120329-101914.html
8 A play on words of the French term for demonstration (manifestation) by replacing the phonic “ni” with “nu”, meaning “naked” or “nude”.
9 See Stacy Alaimo’s “Naked Word: the trans-corporeal ethic of the protesting body” in Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 20:1, March 2010, p. 15.
10 Arendt makes this argument in chapter two of On Revolution.
11 Norma Clair Moruzzi, Speaking Through the Mask: Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Social Identity, Cornell University Press: Ithica, & London, 2000, p. 46.
12 Cegeps are colleges in Québec
13 Alanna Thain “Anarchopanda’s Soft Subversions” in Wi Journal of Mobile Media 6:2, 2012 http://wi.mobilities.ca/anarchopandas-soft-subversions/
14 Such a tradition of fools and clowns satirizing the state is of course ancient. Since the late 1990s, with the rise of the alter-globalization movements and the intensification of policing that went with it, battalions of “clown armies” began to proliferate across Europe and the Americas. For an example of a particularly sophisticated and highly trained clown battalion. See for instance Kolonel Klepto and Major Up Evil’s “the Clandestine Insurgent Rebelle Clown Army goes to Scotland via a few other places” in Shut them Down!: The G8, Gleneagles 2005 and the movement of movements: edited by David Harvie, Keir Melburn, Ben Trott and David Watts, Dissent! & Autonomedia: Leeds & New York, 2005. p. 243 – 265. http://www.shutthemdown.org/contents.html
15 In the spring of 2012, and again in 2013 riot police would regularly charge the crowd, swinging their batons or (“matraques” as they are called in French) and clubbing anyone in their path, shortly (or occasionally before) declaring the protest “illegal”. As they did so, they would typically repeat “Bouge, Bouge, Bouge” (move, move, move). “Bouge” became a word to illicit fear.See for instance, “Bouge, Bouge, Bouge” Wi Journal of Mobile Media 6:2, 2012, http://wi.mobilities.ca/bouge-bouge-bouge/; also see the short film “Bouge” by Moïse Marcoux-Chabot, Ceci n’est pas un film productions, which compiles footage of the March 5, 2013 night protests http://vimeo.com/61270818 (last accessed, March 9, 2013).
17 See for instance, Sophie Castonguay’s Prêter l’oreille as presented in this forum.