As the evening throng of commuters hummed through Union Square on Thursday, Kevin Blanch wanted to make sure no one walked by without taking notice of the Million Mask March. "Bankers are robbing us and they still have jobs," another man bellowed into a megaphone Blanch handed him moments earlier.
The megaphone circulated through the crowd of about 100 protesters who gathered in solidarity for the annual November 5 action organized by the hacktivist collective Anonymous, which encouraged similar events in cities around the world. And though the crowd pumped itself up with short speeches about everything from police brutality to the Federal Reserve, the protest almost immediately began to fray at the edges.
"Let's go!" Blanch, who had become something of an unofficial emcee, shouted, indicating that it was time to start marching. A moment passed, and he realized he hadn't picked a direction. "Where are we going?" he wondered out loud. "I'll go anywhere." After a few moments, the crowd started walking down 14th street toward Sixth Avenue, chanting: "Whose streets? Our streets!"
This wasn't an Occupy Wall Street rally circa 2012, but at times, it sounded an awful lot like one.
The rally's stilted nature captured the challenges facing Anonymous activists across the world. Because the group largely rejects hierarchy in its decision-making, the protest often felt aimless and disorganized, even to those who showed up in Guy Fawkes masks and counted themselves as Anonymous supporters. "I know this isn't going to accomplish anything," said 16-year-old Callie, after the crowd had marched all the way to City Hall only to unexpectedly change course toward Wall Street.
And while Callie, who declined to give her last name, wasn't the only skeptic about the tangible changes the protest would likely yield, many defended it as an important way of exchanging ideas and talking about the many forms injustice can take. "The problem is that there's so many problems to stand for," said Jae, a 25-year-old from the Bronx who attended largely to draw attention to police brutality but counts herself as an Anonymous supporter. "I just feel like we've lost sight of [our] humanity and I want to be part of a movement that brings that back."
A man who calls himself Shade Septem was among the protesters who have literally taken to the streets. A stout man in his 40s, he had no trouble weaving in and out of traffic on Sixth Avenue, alternating between shouting at the police officers who were asking him to get back on the sidewalk and purposefully blocking traffic.
This was one of few heated moments with the handful of police who trailed protesters much of the night. For the most part, the officers successfully corralled them back onto the sidewalk—but the police were generally content to let demonstrators wander into the street without shouting or threatening to arrest them.
"There's been restraint on both sides," acknowledged Septem. "I respect the individual [police officers] all day. I'm mad at a system. I'm not mad at the little parts." For its part, NYPD officers said they hadn't initiated any arrests connected to last night's protest.
Across the Atlantic, a very different scene played out. Thousands of protesters at London's version of the Million Mask March clashed violently with police, leading to dozens of arrests and the hospitalization of three police officers, according to the BBC. Other accounts of the protests in London, however, described the violence as 'eerily stage-managed' and more interested in cosplay than politics.
There was certainly some of that in New York. Andy Adriano, a 25-year-old student at Brooklyn College, for instance, was decked out in V for Vendetta gear, sporting six plastic knives, a Guy Fawkes mask and a suit. "I don't know what issues we're doing," he said. "This is my first time out. I love V for Vendetta."
Misha Schmidt, a 23-year-old who marched last night, said he was at London's protest last year and a previous November 5 Anonymous protest in New York. "In London, it's huge," said Schmidt, who remembers protesters being teargased, beaten with batons and burning cars. This year's protest in New York, he added, "Is the smallest I've seen so far."
"This is a moderate turnout—thank God for camera phones," agreed Reverend Roy Beckford, one of the night's more vocal activists who compared Anonymous to the Black Lives Matter movement. "They're all civil rights movements," he said, noting problems as varied his own confrontations with police that he suspects were racially motivated, and a prison system that only sees an economic upside to incarceration. "We've been raped by the system."
Beckford wasn't the only one to talk about racial justice. In fact, that was one of the more common threads throughout the evening.
"I actually grew up wanting to be an officer," explained Jae, as we ride on a No. 6 train uptown to meet another group of protesters who had gathered outside Rubert Murdoch's News Corp. headquarters. But as she increasingly witnessed instances of police harassment and brutality, she said she's more interested in playing a role as an activist.
Still, as the evening wore on and I spoke with dozens of demonstrators, it was clear there was no single unifying issue. A small selection of problems raised by protesters included: genetically-modified foods, income inequality, military spending, cyber security, media conglomerates, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the merits of the Electoral College, vaccines and whether they cause autism, and corporate data breaches. It made me wonder if the protest could have a political impact if the people who showed up could cohere around a single set of objectives.
It's an issue I put to almost everyone I spoke with, and many came up with similar responses. "I don't think it's 30 ideas. It's actually one idea expressed in 30 different ways," explained Shade Septem. "The one idea—love over all—be willing to fight for the weaker person, that's who we are."
Still, he added, "Do I believe there are changes in my lifetime? Probably not. [But] I believe that if we find more [people] like Anonymous, our children actually have a shot of being free."
Thursday's protest also came against the backdrop of Operation KKK, a high-profile effort orchestrated by Anonymous to reveal the identities of 1,000 white supremacists. One list leaked early, however, and appeared to contain flagrant inaccuracies. Anonymous indicated it wasn't responsible for that early leak, and as planned, released a slew of names yesterday—which apparently listed mostly well-known white supremacists and included misleading information of its own.
Many Anonymous supporters last night said they were familiar with Operation KKK, but didn't know a whole lot about the legitimacy of the leak. Back in Union Square where the protests started, those details didn't seem to matter all that much, though. Kevin Blanch picked up his megaphone to make an announcement: "Anonymous just released 1,000 names on the KKK list," he said.
The crowd cheered.
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