While some commentators and journalists have dismissed Occupy Wall Street as carnival, lawmakers and police officers did not miss the point. They reached back to a mid-nineteenth century ban on masking to arrest occupiers wearing as little as a folded bandana on the forehead, leaving little doubt about their fear of Carnival as a potent form of political protest. New York Times journalist Ginia Bellafante initially expressed skepticism about “air[ing] societal grievance as carnival,” but just a few days later she warned against “criminalizing costume,” thus changing her condescension to caution as she confirmed the police’s point: masking can be dangerous, Carnival is serious business.
The mask ban was enacted in 1845 to prevent Hudson Valley tenant farmers from resisting eviction by rioting in “Indian” dress and “calico gowns and leather masks.” The arrests at OWS on charges of “loitering and wearing a mask” occurred on September 21, the fourth day of the movement’s occupation of Zuccotti Park. The eventual eviction from Zuccotti Park happened two days short of the movement’s two-month anniversary and planned Day of Action known as “N17.” As Kira Akerman noted,
There is almost something comical in occupiers being evicted from Zuccotti Park by the police force in the middle of the night, much in the same way Native peoples were surprised in their tents and pushed off their land …This time white people with Mohawks and brown boots with Indigenous-inspired tassels are banging pots and pans.
Carnival hardly exists in the United States anymore. It has survived as a Shrovetide festival with Mardi Gras in New Orleans and as a summer celebration for the West Indian community with the Labor Day parade in Brooklyn. However, the carnivalesque—as a medium of emancipation and a catalyst for civil disobedience—is alive and well, and these contemporary carnivals have retained their rebellious potential.
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