Spending a decade in prison just for wearing a mask seems like a joke, but it’s a frightening reality for Canadian protesters. This past summer, Canada passed new legislation stipulating that dissenters who don a mask could face up to ten years in jail, an unreasonable consequence for such a non-offense.
Chalk it up to Canada’s ongoing draconian laws to discourage protesting. Though Canada guarantees the right to assemble and dissent, the government learned what that actually means when put into practice beyond a symbolic display. A massive student movement protesting tuition hikes did not fizzle out like most protests, so the government responded by instituting curfews, heightening fines and inventing arbitrary laws like this mask rule in order to discourage protesting without officially forbidding it.
To receive a sentence of up to ten years, masked protesters must also be participating in an “illegal protest.” Unfortunately, by definition, almost all protests, including peaceful ones, are deemed illegal by Canadian law. To be considered “legal,” protesters must first submit a protest itinerary to and receive approval from law enforcement. Seeking permission from authorities to protest seems to not only defeat the purpose, but also undermines the idea that protesting is a constitutional right.
In recent years, masks, particularly Guy Fawkes masks (popularized in the film V for Vendetta) have become staples at protests internationally. From Tunisia to Thailand to Brazil to Japan, these masks make their way to all corners of the earth to stand as a symbol of opposing tyranny.
However, just like the Canadian government, other countries’ authorities are similarly cracking down on masked protesters. Canada’s laws may carry the steepest consequences, but Germany also makes it illegal for striking workers to wear masks. Additionally, the United Arab Emirates has banned Guy Fawkes masks altogether. Presumably frightened by the mask’s symbolism in other nations’ respective Arab Spring actions, UAE has deemed the mask both insulting to its country and a symbol that may incite riots. “We urge citizens to celebrate using other symbols such as national flags,” said a police spokesperson.
The United States criminalizes masks, as well. In 2011, when police were looking for “legal” excuses to arrest protesters for their participating in Occupy Wall Street, they reached all the way back to an archaic 1845 law forbidding masks. During demonstrations, police plucked multiple mask-wearing people from the crowd, many of whom were understandably unaware that this infraction could be considered a crime in the first place.
Given that exceptions to such petty laws are generally granted in cases of political speech, it seemed like these mask arrests would go away. However, when OWS protestors celebrated the movement’s second anniversary last week, the problem resurfaced. Though the event was both peaceful and smaller than past protests, police officers still used the standby to arrest three mask-wearers, likely just to exert their authority.
While many assume the attacks on masked demonstrators are an arbitrary way for the government to legally target protesters, others see the crackdown as more nefarious. Given the current surveillance state and the police’s omnipresence at all political protests, the government may feel it important to keep tabs on which citizens oppose its policies. Since masks would obscure a protester’s identity, they’ve sneakily made it illegal to wear them.
If the government is as corrupt as protesters allege, that’s all the more reason protesters should be able to disguise their identity to protect from authoritative repercussions. “Free speech” is hardly free when the powers that be can intimidate citizens from expressing their viewpoints.
Photo Credit: Loz Pycock