In the days following the election of Donald J. Trump back in November, thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets in protest. Among them was Jim Crocamo, a 39-year-old Columbia University librarian. This was not his first protest—he marched in the run-up to the Iraq War, again in 2004 during the Republican National Convention in New York City, and visited at Occupy Wall Street. But he’d never been a protest sign guy, until now.
At a loss for words but feeling particularly riled up, Crocamo painted exactly that on a piece of cardboard: “Not usually a sign guy, but geez.” And within 24-hours, a photo of him holding it up was tweeted by a Daily Beast reporter and re-tweeted almost 90,000 times, including by the writer of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has over one million followers.
“Having my sign go viral was awesome,” said Crocamo over the phone on Monday. All weekend, he received endless picture texts from friends who’d spotted his catchphrase at Women's Marches around the country and on social media. You might even see it in a museum one day, too. “Seeing so many people share your sign makes you feel the way protests make you feel,” added Crocamo. “Less alone.”
Like Crocamo, a lot of Americans weren’t really “sign people” until Trump was elected. “You know it’s bad when introverts are marching,” read one sign. And theirs weren't just your commonplace signs—they were works that might have come from professional graphic designers, Saussurean linguists, and satirists—in fact, a few of them were. The marches were a sea of clever puns, (“You can’t comb over racism”), word play (“Girls just want to have fundamental human rights”), and meta references (“Too many issues to fit on one sign”). In sum, the crowds at the Women’s Marches demonstrated not only that Americans are ready to show up and fight back, but also that they’re getting creative about what activism looks like.
Ralph Young, a professor of "Dissent in America" at Temple University and author of Make Art Not War and Dissent: The History of an American Idea, remembers the protests during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement as also having lots of very clever signs, too. “But I think there were more signs on Saturday than I’ve ever seen before,” he said after marching in Philadelphia, where there were an estimated 50,000 people. “It seemed like everyone had one.”
Why this sudden resurgence of signs? And how are they similar or different from political signs and posters of the past?
Of course, all arguments point back to the short-fingered vulgarian. "Maybe if the signs are more prolific and cleverer, it’s because Trump is really feeding people,” added Young. To combat Trump’s own vitriol, the public is fighting fire with fire, and re-claiming his language and insults as their own. “Nasty women” and "pussy grabs back" being perfect examples.
“Trump seems so easy to get to,” said Crocamo of why he felt the urge to suddenly be a sign guy. “You want to make fun of him because you know it will actually bother him.”
In the past, marginalized groups have reclaimed slurs and symbols of oppression as their own weapons of dissent. The “Silence = Death” pink triangle, for example, was a symbol re-purposed by the pro-gay, AIDS awareness group ACT UP in the 1970s after its historical use by Nazis to identify homosexuals in concentration camps. And a similar phrase, “White Silence = Violence,” was found again at the Women’s Marches and earlier at Black Lives Matter protests, proving that protest signs and slogans of the past are still (unfortunately) just as relevant today. Just ask the many women who could be found holding signs that read: “I can’t believe I still have to protest this s--t.”
That being said, some of the posters made for the Women’s March received flack for their repurposing of historical protest symbols. And from the start, it was also criticized for adopting the name of the Million Woman March, which first took place in 1997.
The official logo of the Women’s March, which features three women of different tones in profile, was almost apolitical in its inclusivity and lacked a powerful punch, which is perhaps why so few printed it out. The organizers held a contest though to find five other original posters, and it was one of the winners (they ended up choosing eight) that received the most pushback. On it were multiple hands grasping at the iconic Black Power fist, from which flames erupted, followed somehow by a dove perched on top, which also happened to have laser beams for eyes. Needless to say, it did far too much and was a graphic design disaster.
It was perhaps due in part to the fact that the official Women’s March posters failed to adequately express what people were feeling and thinking that most decided to provide their own signage when they took to the streets. Additionally, despite being called the Women’s March, there were so many issues to raise awareness about, ranging from climate change to police brutality, that it was impossible to find one image that represented them all.
Bess Williamson, a historian of design and material culture and professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, was particularly struck by the amount of text that she saw on signs at her local Women’s March, as opposed to images. “It’s a movement that hasn’t coalesced under one specific graphic representation,” she said. “In the ‘60s, we had the flower child, but what’s the activist logo of the moment?”
What do we do when the peace sign isn't enough?
Well, according to images being spread around the Internet, the current symbols of the revolution are cats, the poop emoji with Trump’s face on it, and images of the female anatomy, which actually challenged opinions about who exactly this march was “for”—if any one particular group at all.
“Was the Women’s March just for women?” Williamson queried. “Are women just people who have vaginas? The pussy hat, for example, was a literal reference that people felt uncomfortable with. The very idea of wearing something that represents their vagina was unappealing, but also raises the question of whether it focuses the idea of femininity around having just one kind of body, which we’re sort of moving beyond in this trans, non-gender binary era.”
Perhaps, then, the answer Williamson's first question is that we've moved on from activist logos altogether, and it's more about what you say, how you say it, and most importantly, in your own words. “It’s about the content now," said Williamson. "What’s catchy is the idea, and not the image.”
In addition to the amount of text that Williamson saw, she was also struck by how handmade most of the signs were. This is not only a result of no one organization or movement providing signage, but also indicative an overarching contemporary desire for individuals to voice their personal political opinions, and loudly. Not to mention a new DIY ethos.
According to Mirko Ilic, a New York-based graphic designer and co-author with Milton Glaser (of “I Love NY” fame) of the book The Design of Dissent, the resurgence of handmade signs and symbols of protest are a fairly recent phenomenon. They were used in ancient times with rebellious hand-carvings in the Roman Catacombs, for example, but even Martin Luther's 95 Theses, which he famously nailed to a door during the Protestant Reformation in 1517, was made with a printing press. So why are we suddenly reverting to such outdated methods of communication?
“It’s very sweet that today, in a time when you can print better and cheaper than ever and everyone has access to printing, people decide to get markers and oils and paints and write signs in their own handwriting," said Ilic. "It’s not mechanical; it’s you. It’s your signature, and you sign off on that sign by doing it by hand.”
It makes sense that people would want to have a fingerprint on their political statements during a time when the boundaries between real and fake, facts and fiction are becoming blurred. The powers that be communicate via propaganda, so activists pick up Magic Markers. In fact, at the starting point of the Women's March in New York, members of the crowd set up shop right on the linoleum floor of a nearby CVS.
Despite the public's desire to be more "real" than Trump's tweets, activists are also playing the game by using shareable, caption-worthy catchphrases that would most likely fit into 140-characters or less. There was a distinct Internet sensibility and wit to many of the signs seen last weekend and it was hard not to imagine them as memes, too.
“I think we're seeing more humorous signs because of memes and the Internet," said Crocamo. "People see memes all the time now, and they know how they work. Memes are also something you make on your own and share; they’re participatory. Memes are DIY.”
Of course, the "best" signs we see are the ones that come to the forefront of our social media feeds via Kim Kardashian or Rihanna, which are then recycled and spread even further. But while social media and activism have a symbiotic relationship, this "look at me" means of communicating with likes and favorites also has its cons.
“There’s also a downside to social media—they call it ‘clicktivism,’ where people click a link or like something and think they’ve done their job," said Young. "It’s not the same as being a Freedom Rider and getting your head kicked in. It’s a different kind of commitment, and I think it can sometimes trivialize a cause.”
A sign can be a good place to start, but it's usually not enough, especially when things get violent, activists say. It also has to be made for the right reasons, and if we're distracted by hollow signs that are just trying to be the "best" or "funniest," then we're right back where we started with "fake news."
On Saturday, Crocamo walked with his wife in the Women’s March on New York, however, he was sans sign this time, having loaned the original to a friend who marched in Washington, D.C. He also felt that resurfacing it himself would detract from the cause, and instead decided to let others adopt it. "It was about the Women's March," he said. "I didn’t want to be like, ‘Here’s my new sign, it’s about me!’"
He came to the conclusion that, at the end of the day, each protester is so more than the sum of his or her sign; their presence is a sign in and of itself. And by nightfall, when thousands of discarded signs blanketed the streets of America in a collage of garbled text, it became clear that while some posters would have a second life on social media, it was the collective action that spoke the loudest.
“All these signs are like flares in the night," said Ilic, who marched in New York with his wife and daughter. "For a second, you see who we are and where you belong. You feel less alone. You feel brotherhood and sisterhood. For a second, everything is lit up and clear, and then it goes back to dark."
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