Tens of thousands of masked demonstrators turned up in Hong Kong in response to a new ban on wearing a mask in a protest. The show of masked solidarity was completely predictable. Outlawing the mask was all about intimidation, and democracy activists wanted to show they would not be intimidated.
Unmasked, in a world where cameras are everywhere, demonstrators will be easier to identify and prosecute, even long after the protest is over. If demonstrators know that they might be punished much later, maybe, authorities reasoned, they would be less likely to protest. And just being caught in a mask becomes another criminal violation for the government to haul out to repress what has been an irrepressible movement.
Masked protesters are, of course, nothing new, and certainly not confined to Hong Kong. There are long histories populated by both the noble and the nefarious. In the comic book universe–and even in real life–both the bad guys and the good guys wear masks. The mask disguises the other life identity of the hero, and frees him from recognition, retribution, or inhibition. He becomes the cause.
In a place without democratic protections, demonstrators don disguises for protection, like Pussy Riot and their balaclavas, but their anonymity disappeared. Some of the members ended up in jail, some in exile.
Protesters also have many reasons for wearing masks, including–but certainly not limited to–temporarily confusing the police and avoiding arrest and criminal prosecution.
The costume or disguise–like the fake headdresses worn by Independence activists at the Boston Tea Party or the hoods worn by Ku Klux Klansmen–are an expression of an identity, building solidarity and inhibiting inhibition.
They can also be an expression of intimidation: the costumed crowd may be capable of doing things your neighbors–at least when identifiable–would never consider. It’s scary. In the event of chaos and confusion, the costume helps identify friends–and foes–and maybe a path to safety.
It’s important to remember that it’s not just government that can punish. Having your boss, your aunt, or your friends see you involved in some kind of collective political action can have harsh consequences as well.
Undisguised racist protesters at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 paid for expressing their political views. At least one protester lost a job at hot dog stand when his employers saw him pictured at the event. Another who gave a long interview explaining his views was banned from a dating site.
They had no reasonable fear of the local police or of the federal government, but conspicuous racism is still bad for at least some businesses. I can see why people of all sorts might hesitate before buying a hot dog from someone who marched with Nazis and Klansmen. It also doesn’t take much imagination to see why a dating site would want to make sure not to match an apparently volatile racist with anyone.
Protesters can wear masks and costumes in an effort to avoid outing their offensive political beliefs. What’s offensive changes over time and across communities. And cameras are everywhere!
There’s also physical protection. Increasingly, we see people hustling at airports or jogging outdoors wearing surgical masks to filter out some of the stuff in bad air, or to protect themselves from other people’s bacteria. This isn’t a political claim, just an effort to stop coughing.
Tear gas and pepper spray present more visible threats, and a scarf or even a gas mask, offers a bit of protection. Demonstrators bearing scarves can’t compete with well-armed and armored police forces, but a filter may buy enough time to get out without being badly hurt.
The pictures of the newest demonstrations from Hong Kong don’t look like anyone is trying to avoid identification. Instead, it looks like young people are donning masks to demonstrate their commitment to fight for democracy. I guess it says something about a government when we see who feels like they need to wear a mask.