In the recent protests in Mexico over the Ayotzinapa case, a minority of ‘encapuchados’ (people with bandannas covering their faces) have been involved in small ‘disturbances’ (including an arson attack on the door of the National Palace and some minor clashes with the police). The vast majority of protesters have marched peacefully, attempting to avoid conflict with state ‘security forces’ at all costs.
While there may be some anarchists in this small group of masked citizens, there have been claims that at least some are actually ‘infiltrados’ (undercover policemen, paramilitaries, or soldiers) who cover their faces to incite conflict whilst avoiding detection. There are photos which appear to show the latter is true, but it is worth analysing in greater depth the value of using masks, hoods, bandannas, and balaclavas as a part of social activism.
“From Taking Power from Above to Building It From Below”
In May 2014, Subcomandante Marcos’s “last public words” made it clear why the Zapatistas rose up in arms almost twenty-one years ago. “To kill or die”, Marcos said, “seemed like our only fate”. In an authoritarian system draining away the rights of indigenous Chiapans, the dilemma in local communities “was not between negotiating and fighting, but between dying and living”. It was a dilemma thrust upon them by the ruling political system, but one that the vast majority of inhabitants recognised.
Marcos clarified, however, that the Zapatistas subsequently “had to rebuild the path of life that those from above had broken and continue to break – the path not only of indigenous communities but also of workers, students, teachers, youngsters, and peasants”. Instead of continuing to “sacrifice [their] blood for the path to power led by others”, he affirmed, the rebels realised they had to “turn [their] hearts and eyes to the people who [they were] – the indigenous people who protect the Earth and the memory [of those lost]”.
In other words, they would not aim to physically take power from the state, but to create democratic political structures independent of the state so that the latter would lose its relevance. They would defend themselves from outside attacks, but would focus on autonomously building the system they wanted rather than waging a bloody war against the system that had oppressed them for so long. Some left-wing critics believed “an army cannot and should not try to forge peace”, but the Zapatistas knew that, “by fighting, [they] would end up disappearing”, and that they would give the state an excuse to justify further repression and war. In other words, they chose, after “looking at each other and listening to each other”, to “cultivate life instead of praising death”.
The Zapatista Balaclava
Perhaps one of the most recognisable features of Zapatismo is the way in which Zapatistas wore balaclavas in the uprising at the start of 1994 and how they have continued to use them in public mobilisations ever since. As both a metaphorical emphasis (regarding the ideological importance of community) and a means of avoiding targeted intimidation (from members of the state apparatus who oppose Zapatista autonomy), the balaclava has clearly served a purpose. But the key to its success has been the fact that the vast majority of Zapatistas have used it consistently. In other words, its use had been agreed upon almost unanimously.
Lack of Unity in Mass Protests
In Mexico City (and cities around the world), however, those who cover their faces are usually part of a tiny minority. In some cases, the provocative acts of these ‘activists’ (or undercover state operatives, depending on what we believe) are often counter-productive. They usually give the state an excuse to demonise protesters (even if the vast majority are peaceful) and crack down on freedom of movement or speech.
An entirely peaceful protest is much harder for anyone to criticise. There are even many capitalist cheerleaders who would oppose state violence against peaceful protesters. However, once there is any sign of activists being near people who damage (or vandalise) property (public or private) or who react aggressively to police presence (or provocation), many of the aforementioned citizens would feel perfectly comfortable with state ‘security forces’ restoring ‘order’ (i.e. repressing protesters).
Unity Is the Only Key to Meaningful Transformation
Here we have the real, concrete issue. If citizens are to change society (whether peacefully or violently), they must be unified and organised. The Zapatistas, for example, have managed to build autonomy in Chiapas peacefully not through protests or war, but through organisation and unity. Therefore, although the mass non-violent protests in Mexico are an important demonstration of dignified, popular indignation, they need to lead to daily coordination and action if they are truly going to change society.
The microscopic circles of masked citizens involved in clashes with the state ‘security forces’, meanwhile, are highly unlikely to change anything. They are significantly outnumbered (in both firepower and number) by the enforcers of state power, and their actions are, as mentioned before, extremely counterproductive (creating division in the mass movement and giving state forces an excuse to intensify repression). In other words, only the state really benefits from their activities and, for precisely this reason, the idea that at least some of them are undercover state agents seems incredibly believable.
In summary, covering one’s face is not virtuous in itself. The anonymity of the mask, hood, balaclava, or bandanna is only of any positive use if there is unity in action and purpose within a movement. Without that unity, covering one’s face is an empty, meaningless act that allows for the possibility of state infiltration. Therefore, unless activists have a unified mass movement behind them, they should leave their faces uncovered. That way, we can be certain who the revolutionaries are, and who the counter-revolutionaries are.
 https://ososabiouk.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/the-political-murders-of-ayotzinapa-the-solidarity-march-in-mexico-city/, https://ososabiouk.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/22nd-october-march-for-ayotzinapa-in-mexico-city/, https://ososabiouk.wordpress.com/2014/11/09/mexico-levels-of-dignified-rage/, https://ososabiouk.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/mexico-cnte-zapatistas-crac-pc-unite-around-ayotzinapa/, https://ososabiouk.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/mexico-ayotzinapa-revolution/, and https://ososabiouk.wordpress.com/2014/11/23/calle-13-the-ayotzinapa-case-is-a-disgrace/