Hands up, umbrellas out, hoodies on, fists raised — the icons of protest have long played a significant role in movements of social change and revolution. From flower power to Rosie the Riveter to the rainbow flag, icons have momentous social potency and live on as cultural currency that is exchanged, needed and protected sometimes long past the initial movements of their birth.
Icons are sought after and are coming to be needed more and more. Perhaps it is easier to understand an image than it is to know the world, let alone how to change it.
Uploading an icon to a profile picture or posting a response or article bleeds into thousands who are doing the same and suddenly an entire social media feed is parroting the same visual calls. Today, protest icons are disseminated rapidly and with such reach that, while the news is mired in arguing over factual evidence of whether or not Mike Brown’s hands were actually raised or not, the image has already hit the streets. There thousands of protesters begin to raise their hands and take photos with their hoodies pulled tight or make videos of themselves dumping buckets of ice over their heads.
Images lead to creative actions. For once, the value of these images is separate from the art or entertainment markets, propositioning us to rethink the worlds and systems occupied by them. Some of the most potent protest icons of 2014 appeared in just the last four months of the year.
Hands Up, Don’t Shoot
Thousands are still protesting across the country in the aftermath of the non-indictments of the police officers involved in the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner (along with many others). Images of hands raised above one’s head in a “hands up, don’t shoot” position have flooded the media from footage of protesters across the nation to members of Congress on the House floor. On December 1, five St. Louis Rams’ players held their hands up during pregame introductions in a peaceful and poignant use of their public platform to millions of viewers. Their stadium is located only 11 miles from the battlegrounds of Ferguson.
Hands up, don’t shoot is bigger than Mike Brown’s case, and is reminiscent of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who bravely raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” at their 1968 Olympic medal ceremony. Like Smith and Carlos, whose raised fists aligned with Black Power but also appealed for greater human rights, the “hands up, don’t shoot” icon has come to confront a history of perceived systemic and disproportionate police brutality, while calling for transparency within the criminal justice system and the confrontation of institutional racism. The action is a reminder that all is not yet equal and serves as a desperate proposition that we are all a part of this system, no matter how far you are from Ferguson, or Staten Island, or Sanford, or Fruitvale Station.
The ‘Spinning Wheel of Death’
The Internet is the most critical tool in activism and protest. Its utility comes in its speed, lack of regulation and ubiquity, but the current war to privatize the Internet could pose a threat not just to the pending revolution, but to one’s daily online activity as well.
On September 10, 2014, dubbed Internet Slow Down Day, you may have noticed that many of your usual sites were loading… and loading… and loading…
The ‘spinning wheel of death’ is part of an online campaign in support of what is most commonly known as net neutrality, or the call for an open and free Internet. This year, the FCC began considering new regulations that would, among other things, create “Internet fast lanes” where broadband service companies, like Comcast and AT&T would be able to collect fees from content companies, such as Netflix or Amazon, for special priority to their networks.
In response, 40,000 websites, including Netflix, Tumblr, Vimeo, Kickstarter and Etsy all participated by installing mock loading icons on their home pages — both a poignant protest and an ominous forewarning. Response was so great that the comments section of the FCC was shut down. The Internet still offers great opportunity that does not exist anywhere else — this is part of its value and it’s up to its users to keep it that way. After all, if the privatization of the Internet allows speed to be manipulated by the highest bidder and corporate interest, how can one be sure they’ll even find the revolution?
On October 29, 2014, mattresses and pillows became unexpected symbols confronting sexual assault on college campuses. Inspired by the activist/performance art of Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz, who has been carrying her dorm mattress with her everywhere she goes, even to class, since September. Sulkowicz claims to have been raped on the first day of her sophomore year by another Columbia student.
The accused was ultimately found not guilty — Sulkowicz’s appeals were dismissed — and he still attends classes at Columbia. In protest of the way her case was handled and the lack of seriousness afforded to her accusations, Sulkowicz will carry this mattress with her until her accused rapist leaves the school; she was one of three students to accuse him of assault.
Carry That Weight, was a day of collective support and action confronting the unforgivable amount of assault that occurs on American college campuses—one in five students report some experience of assault or attempted assault, compared to the many presumed not to report anything.
Mattresses and pillows are often the private specters of sexual assault survivors confront daily, but have now become a public icon for the inequity and inability for post-secondary institutions to protect and provide safe environments for all students to learn. Pointing to the seriousness of safety for students, President Obama recently launched It’s On Us, a national campaign to raise awareness and end sexual assault on college campuses.
It is on us to acknowledge the gravity of a system that protects or dismisses sexual predators and a public that takes more interest in a young woman’s mattress than in her accusations of rape. Sulkowicz is one of twenty-eight students filing a Title IX federal claim against Columbia University.
Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’
Expecting a system or government to care for its’ citizens shouldn’t be so hard to imagine. But in Hong Kong, over a hundred thousand protesters filled the streets in response to China reneging on the promise to grant it open elections by 2017. After it was announced that the candidates for election would be vetted by China first, students took to the streets. For two months since September, pro-democracy activists occupied the streets of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong police responded with liberal use of pepper spray and activists found that umbrellas, sometimes turned inside out, were an effective way to shield their bodies from the attacks. The umbrellas came to have a creative utility — they protected activists from the sweltering midday sun, along with shielding them from pepper spray and tear gas. They were sometimes painted bright colors, donned with activist slogans or were joined with other umbrellas to form symbols when seen from above.
The images are reminiscent of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square with many connections drawn to the iconic image, ‘Tank Man,’ who appears to bravely step in front of a column of tanks, a lone hero performing an isolated act of courage. Yet, he was one hero amongst thousands who happened to be cropped out of the famous photo. In Hong Kong the protesters used their umbrellas to shield their own bodies, but most effectively brought umbrellas together to form a giant collective shield over the mass of protesters.
Images of the umbrella in Hong Kong fundamentally capture the collective agency needed in movements of change and serve as a reminder that — in numbers — even a flimsy umbrella can become an impenetrable force.
And when these protests fade, their visual legacies will be remade and exchanged again as reminders that while movements may end the fight for human rights battles on.
Funding for coverage of arts that explore social issues is provided by the California Arts Council.