Behind the Mask: Inside The 2015 DC Million Mask March

The march forms.

The march forms.

Washington, DC (TFC) – Activist. That word can mean almost anything these days. On November 5th of each year, however, it means Anonymous. On that date each year, activists of every sort from all over the world don a mask, or not, and take to streets in the largest recurring joint protest the world has seen. It draws peace activists, militants, hacktivists, food safety proponents, tax reformists, militia members, police accountability activists, environmentalists, income equality supporters, whistleblowers, and just about everybody else. Anybody and everybody who has an issue finds a place under the Anonymous banner and takes to the streets.

I’ve covered the Capitol’s Million Mask March every year since the concept, born in the United Kingdom, jumped the pond and inspired the lowly colonials. Every year is different; every year is the same. This year, the event reached a level of maturity that may not be evident at first glance. The events that made headlines were the same as years past, but the behind scenes activities were different.

On November 4th, there was a smallish gathering at Parlay Sports Bar and Lounge. The event hosted speeches from various activists and was punctuated by music provided by Steve Grant, PTP, and Travis Spade. The event was produced by Banger Productions and the production company’s name made it on to flyers and event pages, leading some to believe it was going to be a drunken brawl of an event. The hype was, well, hype.

Surprisingly, I arrived early. I was greeted by several familiar faces. There were activists I knew only through Facebook profile photos, some I had met at previous Anonymous-related activities, and there were a couple of guys I hadn’t seen since the Battle of Ferguson.

“I haven’t seen you since Ferguson,” an activist, who asked to be referred to as Yellow Laces when we were in Missouri, said with a big grin and a hug. The statement sounded as nonchalant as “I haven’t seen you since Christmas.” It struck me as a bit funny that Ferguson was not only the name of a town in Missouri, but was now also a time period. Ferguson was an event that seared itself into the country’s collective memory. Much like other riots of the past, it was the place where many militant activists cut their teeth. It was a defining moment for this generation of activists. Yellow Laces had cut his teeth elsewhere, but it was still the word “Ferguson” that brought a smile to his face. The smile was the same sported by any veteran who fought a hopeless battle and won. Once the fires were extinguished and the tear gas cleared, Ferguson was a victory.

While I was on time, I was unprepared. I was starving. I ordered a steak and slipped around the corner into the area cleared for the speeches and music. I was going to be speaking that night, and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to address. I mulled it over in my mind and was joined by Ford Fischer from News2Share and Daniel Johnson from PANDA. Ford and I talked about Kurdistan, as he toyed with the idea of heading over to sandland. Dan spoke about his next project. Sadly, that conversation was off the record. Talking with Dan did help me firm up what I wanted to say to the crowd, though.

Dan and I have very different approaches to activism. While I, being a completely innocent, objective, and uninvolved journalist, would never throw a tear gas canister or brick at cops, I’m usually standing near the guy who did. Dan tends to throw reams of paper at politicians to force change. Despite those very deep tactical differences, here we were together. Looking around the room I saw the reflection of our table everywhere. I saw a few guys who I knew had gone toe-to-toe with cops or the National Guard talking with hacktivists, those committed to nonviolence, and other reformists. I laughed to myself when I noticed the reformists were typically drinking soft drinks or water, while the militants, who the media labels as “thugs”, were typically drinking alcohol. I thought it was fitting that the thugs were the ones drinking. I stopped smirking when, as if on cue, the waitress handed me another Guinness. The universe let me know exactly where I stood.

The lounge filled with people and the sound system was set up. We assembled for our speeches. The wide variety of speakers made me proud to be a part of the event. A street activist named Vlow spoke humbly about his experiences in Ferguson and elsewhere. He indicated that he didn’t feel like he should be on stage with the other speakers, as if somehow he wasn’t worthy. I always crack a smile when the people who are actually in the streets forcing change don’t realize their importance. It was especially true in this case. When I’m asked by people how Ferguson turned into a riot, they always get the same answer: “The police started it. They refused to let us protest.” It’s the most simple and basic statement that fully sums up the chain of events in Ferguson. It’s also quote from an activist I interviewed in Ferguson. If I remember correctly, he said it while he kicked some broken glass in frustration as we wandered through the streets after the riot ended. There was smoke billowing from a nearby structure fire. It’s been a year, so he might not remember, but that activist was Vlow.

Dan, representatives from the Panthers, and I also spoke. Unfortunately, I can’t remember all of the speeches. I was very absorbed in looking over the crowd. For the first time, I didn’t see the unorganized rabble the media portrays. I saw an army. I saw the front line activists, but I also saw recruiters, public relations experts, intelligence wings, cyberwarfare technicians, medics, and general support. All of these activities operate independently of central command and control, but they operate and function as well as can be expected. I saw the people that will continue the fight even if they are alone. The men and women in that room would fight on and complete the objective, even if they were the lone survivor.

Most of the movement despises authority in just about every form imaginable. While we may not want to take orders or be involved in a hierarchy, it’s telling to note that most of us understand our roles. We know what we’re good at, and how we can best serve the movement. It takes all of us, each acting in his or her best capacity, to achieve anything worthwhile. I relayed this thought to the crowd. I pulled Dan alongside me and asked the crowd to look at us objectively. Even based solely on our physical appearances, it’s easy to see a difference. Dan is clean cut and looks like he might be an Eagle Scout; I most often look like my address might be a cardboard box underneath a bridge. I asked the crowd who they would want to come a get them out of riot if things were going bad. They smiled because it seemed like a silly question. Then, I asked who they would want explaining to America why the riot happened. Even the most militant person in the crowd shifted their gaze to Dan. While those that prefer to be in the streets privately poke fun of petitions, deep down we all know that at the end of the day somebody who can speak clearly to the rest of America has to explain the shattered glass and burnt cars. Most of the time, it can’t be a street activist or CNN winds up with a quote of somebody screaming “burn it down!” The militant activist’s job is to generate the media attention for the political activist to capitalize on.

A sticker on a DC cop car.

A sticker on a DC cop car.

When the speeches were over, the music kicked off. Before the last song played, the activities of November 5, 2015 had begun in earnest. The clock passed midnight, and the cyber activities began. The shadowy online sections of Anonymous started their campaigns of hacks, defacements, DDoS attacks, and leaks. The most notable was #OpKKK, in which Anonymous leaked a list of suspected members of the Ku Klux Klan. The list contained hundreds of names. We haven’t had time to verify the list, so we aren’t publishing it, but cursory checks reveal it to be accurate. You can find it under the #OpKKK hashtag on Twitter.

When the night wound down, we hopped on the subway and went back to the hotel to prepare for the main event.  We checked the cameras, filled the canteens, checked the first aid kits and so on.

The morning of the March, we took a quick walk through the city on the way to rallying point at the Washington Monument. I noticed that every federal building had officers posted at each entrance. This was a variation in the federal response from the previous years. It seemed as if the feds had adapted their tactics. Rather than chasing Anonymous all over the city with masses of officers, they seemed to be securing sites and waiting for the activists to come to them. When the Washington Monument came into view and there was barely any police presence, I knew they had changed tactics. The unknown variations made the hair on my neck stand up. I began to regret my decision to not bring my vest or gas mask.

At the monument, we handed out Million Mask March memorabilia and gear from The Fifth Column. The number of marchers this year had dwindled to less than 500, but I noticed that the average marcher wasn’t new. While there were new faces in the crowd, most had been involved in street actions before. Most importantly, I saw several people I was certain would stand their ground if confronted by police aggression.  The numbers might have been smaller, but what the crowd lacked in numbers, it made up for with dedication. This crowd wasn’t going to be bullied.

The question of why militant activists should attend peaceful protests arose in the crowd. The answer is simple: peaceful protests are often mistreated by police officers who are aware of the crowd’s unwillingness to respond to unwarranted violence. The mere presence of militant activists has been shown to stop police aggression in many cases. History would also teach us that revolutions don’t happen on a set date and time. The chance to force change occurs when the proverbial match hits the powder keg.  There is no way to predict when a set of circumstances might arise that creates that situation. Militant activists should support nonviolent actions because there is a slim chance that nonviolent action could force change. Nobody wants violence. Well, no sane person anyway. If civil disobedience can win the day, we should all breathe a sigh of relief. At the same time, if government forces unlawfully assault and attack peaceful protesters, the presence of militants can buy them the time needed to evacuate the young, elderly, or wounded. It’s simply a matter of filling our respective roles. Throughout the day, we repeatedly received updates from the other marches across the world. In some form of cosmic practical joke, the marches with the smallest amount of militant activists and the marches most dedicated to nonviolence were almost invariably the ones attacked by police. State police in Columbus, Ohio assaulted women, including one in a wheel chair, after a complete failure to coordinate on the part of law enforcement led to conflicting orders.

Ray Lewis joins Anonymous.

Ray Lewis joins Anonymous.

As the march took shape and more and more activists walked up the hill, I spotted a man I respect because he knew when to change sides. Captain Ray Lewis, formerly of the Chicago Police Department, arrived to stand in solidarity with Anonymous. Standing up for what you believe in is difficult in today’s society. Breaking ranks and standing against the thin blue line as a former police officer is an act of courage that shouldn’t be glossed over. He faces ridicule and hatred from cops that haven’t seen the light yet, but that doesn’t dissuade him from taking part and it certainly doesn’t silence him. I shook his hand and introduced myself. He asked if he could get a moment with a megaphone, I rounded one up for him and provided a completely unnecessary introduction. I doubt there was anyone present who didn’t know he was. His presence certainly energized the crowd. When it became clear that he intended on marching and occupying alongside the march, that energy grew even more. To many, Lewis is the proof that those behind the badge can be reached. They can be swayed. They can be moved from possible foe to ally.

From the second the march left the Washington Monument and took the streets, the variations in law enforcement tactics became more apparent. In previous years, police would have already began searching and arresting activists. By the time we were in the streets, we were surrounded on all sides by law enforcement. This year police kept their distance and simply blocked traffic when necessary. After watching their officers lie to arrest activists and watching them attempt to taze people taking photos on a public street during previous marches, I have a healthy distrust of cops in the DC metropolitan area. I started looking for the Department of Homeland Security team the crowd tangled with last year. I was suspicious of any van, bread truck, RV, or bus. We made it to the White House without incident.

Almost immediately upon arrival, the Secret Service noticed an unattended piece of luggage on the sidewalk. I was standing by Ford Fischer and Luke Rudowski just a few feet from the bag. Fearing it was an explosive device, the officers began calmly asking people whose bag it was. When nobody claimed it, the officer’s tone got louder and there was a tinge of panic in his voice. There was a split second where I thought “Just my luck,” and waited for the concussion. Eventually, a young woman claimed the bag.

People began giving speeches at the Secret Service enforced perimeter. The White House is surrounded by a fence. For some inexplicable reason, the Secret Service set up temporary barricades just a few feet from the fence. I talked to participants, some of who came from as far away as Seattle. I kept waiting for Metro PD to block the routes leaving the area in front of the White House. In previous years, the department had unsuccessfully attempted to keep the protest in front of the White House and deter the march. There was a minimal police presence on each side of the protest. As more activists arrived, I took a quick stroll through the park across the street from the White House. There were four plain clothes officers sitting on different benches watching the crowd. I didn’t think they were Metro PD because they weren’t as obvious as they had been in the past. I stood behind them and watched the watchers. They certainly watched and observed the march, but they were also paying attention to people completely unrelated to the protest. I became convinced that there must have been a heightened level of security at the White House and that these cops were Secret Service agents scanning for threats.

When the march started moving, taking an alternate route than previous years, the plain clothes officers didn’t attempt to blend in with the crowd. They continued their surveillance of the people in front of the White House. I thought back to the slight panic in the officer’s voice when he discovered the unattended bag. I became more and more convinced that the Secret Service had received a tip about a threat completely unrelated to the protest and were expecting trouble.

The march wound around the streets of DC, stopping briefly to hand small wads of cash to homeless people. The typical chants were being shouted. Every so often, the crowd would stop and occupy an intersection. Disrupting traffic is a protest tactic that turns the city’s drivers into collateral damage. Their day is disrupted, and they tend to become angry. Because the traffic is disrupted, news agencies are forced to cover the event, even if only to explain the traffic delays. This generates headlines, which generates interest, which generates people checking out the cause, which generates new activists. Almost all nonviolent street protests are public relations events. This is a way to get on the news without violence. Throughout the day, the march continually disrupted traffic. For the third year running, they repeatedly shut down Pennsylvania Ave. The symbolism of shutting down one of the best know streets in the world is also public relations. It gives journalists wonderful backgrounds for photos. A wild-eyed group of protesters blocking traffic to the nation’s seat of government is always good for a few clicks.

Million Mask March outside of FBI headquarters.

Million Mask March outside of FBI headquarters.

The building of the Environmental Protection Agency received the brunt of the protest. While many activists in the crowd had issues with the EPA’s complicity in pollution, the real reason it was hit the hardest is simply because it was the first stop. It was the only building to sustain any real damage. The damage consisted of a single pane of broken glass. Many present, including journalists, have noted the broken window was an accident.

There were slight moments of tension outside of other government buildings. At the FBI headquarters, where tensions reached a boiling point last year, protesters and uniformed FBI officers engaged in a brief standoff before things calmed down and conversation began. Last year, a single FBI officer reeled in his overly-aggressive colleagues and avoided a full scale riot. At the Capitol, marchers were greeted by an army of cops. The more peaceful activists kept the more militant activists in check, and instead of tearing down the barricades, marchers grabbed bullhorns and bombarded the police with information about the funding for their pensions and their moral obligation to disobey illegal, immoral, or unethical orders. Another frequent stop during the marches of the past has been the occupation of certain tunnels. Much to the relief of the military-minded, who see the tunnel as nothing but a trap, it was avoided this year.

Steve grant and the camel.

Steve grant and the camel.

There were humorous moments throughout the march. While laying siege to Monsanto, activists pulled down the American flag and raised it upside down as a symbol of distress. It was brought down a second time and an Anonymous Jolly Roger was flown above it. Eventually Metro PD pushed their way through the crowd and returned it  to it’s original state. Moments like this brought laughter and smiles from the marchers and passersby alike. At one point, a group of protesters somehow obtained a statue of a camel. The statue accompanied the march the rest of the day and become a mascot of sorts. I stood with a group of journalists attempting to figure out how to best make use of our newfound friend, when rapper Steve Grant began riding the camel as if at a rodeo.

However, the most consistent comedians were a group of activists that silly stringed surveillance cameras, placed anarchist stickers on cop cars, and used spray paint on the roads all over DC. The group conducted their activities without a care in the world and for whatever reason seemed invisible to law enforcement. I watched on multiple occasions as the group placed stickers on occupied police cars or on law enforcement motorcycles. (Note to DC cops: The participants were wearing masks and The Fifth Column has no photographs of the group. Don’t waste the paper on the subpoena.)

As night fell the group returned to the White House and then headed to the Federal Reserve. It’s seen by many in the movement as the true source of the world’s ills.

The day after the march, some of the participants met near the Saudi Arabian embassy to protest the continued imprisonment and torture of Raif Badawi. Raif was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for his blog. The lashes are being carried out 50 at a time and are likely to kill him. This particular cause is very close to my heart. Samples of his writings are available on the web and you can purchase a book with all of them. His message was one of peace and tolerance. He advocated no militant activity. In today’s era, it’s saddening to know that there are places in the world where prohibitions exist against calling for peace and tolerance. Not just is it illegal, the government will beat you to death. It’s a government that media and the United States government grant a free pass for almost any activity, no matter how brutal or tyrannical.

It took mere minutes before United States Secret Service arrived to begin questioning us about the event. I spoke to him, provided my name and informed him that there was no organization behind the protest. He was a relatively friendly guy and once I advised him that we didn’t have any molotov cocktails and didn’t have any current plans to storm the embassy, he kept his distance. Another officer sat across the street for a while and filmed us. Those walking in and out of the embassy did their best to avoid speaking to us or even making eye contact. We didn’t approach them too heavily either, out of fear of them suffering reprisals for talking to us. Even in the United States, Saudi Arabian citizens still aren’t free. Outside of the prying eyes of the embassy’s cameras and security detail, one of the people we had seen entering the embassy stopped me and told me that I just didn’t understand Saudi Arabia. He looked me eyes and said with complete resignation “It’s not a free country.”

"We don't have any molotovs"

“We don’t have any molotovs”

While the US demands regime change in countries around the world, it is important to remember that our own allies are brutal dictators that have literally beaten their subjects into submission. Our government backs the King of Saudi Arabia as he and his family travel the world beating and raping whomever they choose, even on American soil. The Saudi Royalty needs to be overthrown. If there is a need for regime change in the Middle East, it’s in Riyadh.

So the question that many ask after an action of this size is: what changed? Nothing. There was no immediate change. The NSA didn’t close down its domestic surveillance program. The US is still attempting to overthrow Assad and allowing tens of thousands to die to achieve political goals. The cops will probably kill an unarmed person sometime in the next couple of days. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. Our veterans will continue to be denied proper treatment for PTSD. Corrupt politicians still run the show. You’ll probably vote for one of them soon. I would suggest that if you are looking for quick change you should be looking for a laundromat, not a revolution.

I would remind readers that the first attempt at unifying the colonies took place in 1754 at the Albany Congress. It wasn’t until 1788 that the US Constitution was adopted. 34 years. This was in a time period when people weren’t distracted by the mindless to the same degree as they are today.

Outside of the FBI headquarters

Outside of the FBI headquarters

These actions are building blocks. They create headlines without the use of violence. Those headlines are critical to maintaining and growing a movement. There’s been a lot said about egos during the march and in the lead up to the event. Everybody has an ego, you are no exception, I am no exception. Why did I provide an introduction for Ray Lewis? That was my ego in action. He’s somebody I truly respect and I wanted to have a personal interaction with him. There is nothing wrong with that. It didn’t damage the movement. The problem occurs when egos create emotions that are counter-productive. As Anonymous creeps out of the hidden internet and on to the streets, more and more of those affiliated with Anonymous will be unmasked. Many may see this as running counter to the idea of Anonymous, and in some ways it is. It’s a leaderless collective. However, the media needs soundbytes and quotes. Somebody has to provide them and the idea of anonymous sources has lost its appeal to American viewers. Those that choose to step out and say “This is my name, this is my face, and this is what I stand for when I stand with the collective” may not be motivated by ego. They may be motivated by the harsh reality that the average American needs a face. They aren’t proclaiming leadership, well, I haven’t seen anybody do it yet. If they did, they wouldn’t be taken seriously. They can only become “leaders” if the collective follows. The strength of Anonymous lies in decentralization. No one person will ever be able to control the actions of Anonymous, but they can serve as a temporary media conduit. Those that do this, do so at great risk. I can’t think of single public figure associated with Anonymous that hasn’t been actively targeted by law enforcement and wound up in cuffs.

The question many are asking in DC and elsewhere is, “Where do we go from here?” I eavesdrop on conversations while at events. Some want to focus on state capitals in 2016, some want to organize a larger and longer DC protest, some want to take the event to a isolated location and broadcast. They are all correct. Today’s movement is not a single-issue movement, like many of the past. This is a movement to change society as a whole. It requires different tactics. It requires different ideas, but more importantly it requires constant action. Don’t wait until November 5th, 2016. What’s wrong with January 1st? Or July 4th? Or any other date on the calendar. For this movement to be successful, it must stay active.

There also needs to be a constant reminder that while taking a break is ok, surrendering is not. We’re at war. We must deal with the matter as such. We must continue to fight every single day. We don’t have to win every engagement, but we do have to fight every battle. This won’t be over this year, or the next. This is a fight that will take years. Accept that and prepare for it. If we don’t continue the fight, it will be our children who suffer.

Where will I be next year on the 5th? Probably in DC. There are only two locations that might be able to pull me away from that. I want to cover the birthplace of the event in London at some point, and I must admit that the idea of holding an event on November 5th in an isolated location while broadcasting globally strongly appeals to me. It can’t replace street action, but it can supplement it in a way that brings more people into the cause and into the fight.

2015 mmmThe coordination and cooperation that occurred in DC this year needs to be remembered. Each and every person needs to figure out where the strengths and weaknesses are and how they can best serve the movement, then they need to be willing to offer those skills to others. We must begin coordinating nationally more than once a year. The person that will make that coordination happen isn’t any of the people of prominence. It’s you. Your daily actions are what will make the movement succeed. You are the leader that will bring more people to the fight and eventually obtain victory.