London braces for Million Mask March

The annual Million Mask March organized by activist collective Anonymous UK is set to begin Saturday night with some 20,000 people expected to take to the streets.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/File
A protester from the online activist group "Anonymous" wearing a Guy Fawkes mask walks with a flag during a protest rally in New York, November 5, 2015. The group claims to be mobilizing protests in more than 600 cities worldwide as part of what they call the "Million Mask March" held on Guy Fawkes day.

The streets of London are expected to be filled with thousands of activists Saturday night for the Million Mask March, an annual event organized by the hactivist group Anonymous UK, which calls for political and social change.

Turnout is expected to be high. On the group's Facebook page, up to 20,000 have said they’ll be marching, and police are preparing extra security measures. With the current political headwinds in England revolving around Brexit, immigration issues, and income inequality, the group's statement reflects some of those concerns too. 

“We have seen the abuses and malpractice of this government and … we have seen the encroaching destruction of many civil liberties we hold dear, we have seen the pushes to make the Internet yet another part of the surveillance state, we have seen the government’s disregard for migrants,” the organizers wrote in a statement. “We invite all the activists, the workers, the students, all doctors, nurses and all those that want to see a positive change in the world … The government and the 1% have played their hand, now it is time to play ours.”

The annual march, begun in 2011, falls on Guy Fawkes Night, which commemorates the failure of British revolutionary Guy Fawkes’ 1605 plot to blow up the Parliament. Ever since, Britons have celebrated by gathering around bonfires, burning effigies of Mr. Fawkes, and lighting fireworks. But in recent years, the event has taken a more activist undertone as effigies of current political and influential figures are burned to express discontent. Some see the mass mobilization of the Million Mask March - and similar events around the world - as a manifestation of the simmering frustration with political institutions, corruption, and the ruling elites.

“We look beyond the narrow scope of Brexit to the inherent problems of the system, capitalism is not working, capitalism has not worked, capitalism will not work,” Anonymous UK wrote in a statement published in Huffington Post. They delivered a threat directly to Theresa May, current prime minister of the United Kingdom in charge of negotiating for Brexit. “In the four years that has passed Mrs May has risen to unelected power, fueled by right-wing rhetoric and striving to push the UK to even new lows. ... In 2016 we’re going to come knocking on Mrs May’s door.”

In other towns in Britain, Guy Fawkes Day has become an opportunity for locals to express discontent by burning effigies of current figures. As reported by The Independent, 2015 saw effigies of David Cameron, the UK's former prime minister, and Sepp Blatter, head of FIFA, soccer governing body, being burned. The previous year, had Russian President Vladimir Putin as one of the bonfire effigies, while this year, the BBC reports that a Donald Trump effigy is set to be lit in Edenbridge.

The Million Mask March protesters, however, translate their frustrations into demonstrations. The stated goal this year is to protest against austerity measures that have “become the political norm,” corruption in government, the surveillance state and the “government’s disregard for migrants, for the poor, the elderly and the Disabled,” according to its statements.

While protesters have often donned a Guy Fawkes mask, popularized by a 1980s graphic novel “V for Vendetta” and a 2001 movie of the same name, the collective this year told its followers “you need not wear a Guy Fawkes mask” this year, and said “we respect diversity of tactics and welcome anyone who takes the path of direct action.”

During last year’s London event, the protests broke out in violence when police tried to block the path of protesters, as The Guardian reports. The group called the police’s actions heavy-handed, to which the Metropolitan Police responded through a statement published by The Huffington Post stating that the protesters had damaged public property, smashed windows of businesses, and intimidated police officers.

“As we look ahead to this weekend, my message is simple: if you want to protest peacefully, that is your right and we want to work with you. If you commit criminal acts - that is not peaceful protest - and you are liable to be arrested,” Commander BJ Harrington wrote. “The public would expect no less.”

This year, up to 2,000 officers will be on the streets with stricter rules on where and how long the protesters can march.

The collective already has advice for protesters on dealing with police officers, as posted on Facebook: “The police are not your friends, this goes for police liaison officers too, they're simply a 'friendly face' who collect intelligence.”

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