For Occupy protesters, every day is Guy Fawkes Day
Guy Fawkes was an English mercenary and failed plotter whose death was elevated into a national celebration complete with bonfires and the burning of effigies. Four centuries later -- thanks to Hollywood, not to mention a deep undertow of popular discontent -- his grinning, mustachioed face has become the symbol of resistance for almost any political movement.
That, of course, includes the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations across the United States.
From New York to Seattle, protesters have donned the stylized masks of Fawkes -- a person seen by many as a 17th century terrorist.
Traditionally, Guy Fawkes is celebrated on Nov. 5 in England by the burning of his effigy in a bonfire. The date is the anniversary of his failed Gunpowder Plot, in which Fawkes and fellow Catholic conspirators tried to blow up the English parliament in 1605.
But those early celebrations of patriotic fervor have morphed into something new, with the help of the comic book series “V for Vendetta,” first published in the 1980s.
Hollywood's 2006 film adaptation completed the transformation of Guy Fawkes by portraying a cryptic cinematic everyman as a hip anarchist who wears the grinning mask while waging what starts as a one-person war against a monolithic state in the future.
Since then, the stylized Fawkes mask has been used by protesters, including the Occupiers, WikiLeaks supporters and the hackers known as Anonymous. The mask's use has become an apolitical message that simply says it's cool to be opposed to authority and even cooler to take action against perceived repression, whether economic, political or social.
The transformation of political figures is nothing new. Political interpretation changes depending on the times, so symbolism often reflects that migration of ideas.
For example, swastikas were initially religious symbols of good fortune in Asia; only later did they become the hated Nazi symbol of World War II Germany. Even the U.S. Founding Fathers were seen as criminals by the British before they morphed into freedom fighters -- after winning their insurrection, of course.
As most English children learn, the Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by Fawkes and other provincial English Catholics to kill King James I by blowing up the House of Lords during the opening session of Parliament. The hope was that the violence would lead to a popular uprising and the eventual installation of a Catholic monarch.
Fawkes, a soldier with experience on the European continent, was put in charge of igniting the gunpowder bomb.
The plotters were betrayed and arrested, though some forcefully resisted. Fawkes and others were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but Fawkes reportedly jumped from the scaffold and broke his own neck, a last gesture that saved him from the agony of being drawn and quartered.
-- Michael Muskal
Photo: An Occupy Seattle protester sports a Guy Fawkes mask in downtown Seattle last month. Credit: Ted S. Warren / Associated Press/File