Yellow Vest protesters on the Champs Elysées | Benoit Tessier, Reuters

Symbols of Movements Past: Five Symbols that Shaped the Face of Modern Protests

In light of the French Yellow Vests Protests, what other movements have used symbols to such effect? The IAS Gazette explores a few of them.

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It’s generally accepted that in an age of instant messaging and 280-character news feeds, people’s attention spans have become shorter.

For the aspiring activist then, there is a need to command attention in ever more creative and memorable ways. Raising banners and chanting slogans are no longer the exception to the norm.

What then could be more prominent than associating oneself with a specific symbol?

Just as the ongoing demonstrations in France have been centered around yellow emergency vests, so too, have other movements aligned themselves with specific hues to punch through the static and get their messages heard.

What kind of political movements have built their messages around symbols in the past?

The IAS Gazette looks at five examples.

Yellow Vests Protests: Yellow Emergency Vests (France, ongoing)

“Yellow vest” protests have gripped France for over two months, blocking highways from Provence to Normandy and erupting in riots in Paris. What started as angry protests over rising fuel prices have since gone on to encapsulate high cost of living and calls for President Macron’s resignation, with 10 deaths and thousands injured from the ensuing violence.  

Known in French as gilets jaunes, the yellow vest easily became the symbol of mass discontent against Macron’s policies due to its association with the working class and its ease of procurement. Most French motorists carry one in their car, which they are required by law to don during breakdowns or emergencies in a bid to reduce the country’s high accident rate.

The yellow vest itself was a target of discontent a decade ago when the law was passed under then President Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration. Some French motorists refused to wear the vests while others overtly displayed it on the back of their car seats to avoid being pulled over. This upheaval simmered within a couple of weeks and the yellow vests gradually disappeared into the glove compartments of French cars ever since.

Certainly, it is not the first instance of the use of fashion in protest movements. Clothes and accessories are visually powerful when transformed into symbols – not only for onlookers and the target of their demonstrations, but also internally to unite the group and amplify their voices before they even utter a single chant.

Abortion Rights Movement: Red Cloaks and White Bonnets (Argentina, 2018)

Argentina came closer than ever last year to legalising abortion after a wave of demonstrations by women’s rights groups and shifting public opinion. Argentine lawmakers voted last August against a bill that would have allowed abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. But by this time, the Abortion Rights Movement had spread all across all the whole of Latin America.

The Handmaid’s Tale inspired protests | New Media Activism Insights

What made the movement significant was that the demonstrators staged wide protests in the streets of Argentina dressed in red cloaks and white bonnets, an icon of the Margaret Atwood dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. In the novel, the protagonist Offred struggles against an autocratic, patriarchal state determined to wield control over her reproductive organs.  

This iconic symbol has taken hold all across the world in women’s rights campaign, especially those involving reproductive rights and abortion. Atwood’s dystopia provides a stark, recognisable illustration of the fears of the abortion rights campaigners; a visual shorthand for the oppression of women.

Atwood told BBC, “The symbolism is so powerful, reducing women to their reproductive functions. Women become just vehicles to produce children. It’s a symbol to say we need to be vigilant, to be careful.”

Umbrella Movement: Umbrellas (Hong Kong, 2014)

The umbrella was closely associated with massive protests in August that year, in response to the Chinese central government’s decision to restrict candidate nominations for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive.

Though mainly used by protestors to shield against tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets, the umbrellas eventually became identified with the movements and took on a powerful symbolic function on its own.

It is, however, not the first time an umbrella was used as a symbol of protest. In Latvia, a ‘umbrella revolution’ in 2007 took place which saw protestors gathered in the pouring rain to stand against corruption and, later, austerity politics in the light of the global financial crisis.

Hundreds gathered in Hong Kong Friday to mark the fourth anniversary of the mass pro-democracy Umbrella Movement rallies as concerns grow that freedoms are disappearing under an assertive Beijing | Bobby Yip, Reuters

While not dubbed the ‘umbrella revolution’ at that time, the widespread appearance of the umbrella appeared to epitomize the frustration and anger felt towards political and financial elites. The protests eventually led to the resignation of then Latvian Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis.

The umbrella has also featured in the 2015 ‘Blockupy’ protest movement, a diverse grouping of anti-globalization and anti-capitalist groups that organised large-scale protests against EU austerity in cities such as Frankfurt. The umbrella not only represented the all-embracing nature of the protest collective, but also provided practical defence against policing measures.

Occupy Movement: Guy Fawkes Masks (Worldwide, 2011 – 2012)

The Occupy Movement, on most accounts, traces its origins to an encampment in Zucotti Park – close to Wall Street, New York – on 17 September 2011. The Movement saw demonstrators protesting against income inequality, corporate greed and the influence of money in politics.

The initial movement in Wall Street ran with the slogan, “We are the 99%”, referring to income inequality and wealth distribution in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population.

The Guy Fawkes mask became the symbol of the movement and several others around the world. Protesters showed their support for the Occupy Movement by picking up the mask and joining the movement.

It draws its influence from Guy Fawkes, a Catholic who, spurred by a climate of religious intolerance in 1605, led a plot known as the “Gunpowder Plot” to blow up the House of Lords and kill the protestant King James I. The plot eventually failed and he was convicted for high treason and sentenced to the gallows.

Occupy Berlin |  Pawel-Kopczynski, Reuters 

More than 400 years later, the mask bearing his face was made famous by the graphic novel-turned-movie V for Vendetta, and has become an international symbol of popular rebellion since the film’s release in 2006.

It first came into prominence in a 2008 protest by international hacktivist group Anonymous against the practices of the Church of Scientology, in which members used the mask to conceal their true identities.

Cacerolazos: Pots and Pans (Argentina, 2001, 2012)

Cacerolazos is a Spanish term that refers to a form of protest which consists of a group of people banging kitchen wares such as pots and pans to arouse attention. It comes from the Spanish word cacerola which means “stew pot” and was a symbolic highlight of the 2001 and 2012 Argentina protests.

In the middle of a financial crisis during 2001 in Argentina, there were instances of civil unrest and rioting plaguing the country’s many cities including its capital, Buenos Aires. The upheaval was a result of the government’s handling of the crisis and came to a climax on 19 and 20 December that year, leaving more than 22 dead and several other protesters injured amidst the spectacle of violence.

Eventually, it led to the resignation of then-President Fernando de la Rua on 21 December. What made this protest unique was that it saw the spontaneous involvement of middle-class workers that were previously not involved in any kind of grassroots political action. The protests eventually escalated beyond the harmless drumming of crockery and took on a violent nature, mostly directed against banks.

Eleven years later, Argentina experienced another series of Cacerolazos in the span of two months. These were targeted against then-President Cristina Kirchner, with protesters denouncing what they viewed as her increased authoritarianism which included the suppression of the media and the possible removal of constitutional term limits. These protests were non-partisan and organised through social media.

The strike aims to highlight sexual discrimination, domestic violence and salary gap between genders in the country | VC G Photo

To be sure, these Cacerolazos demonstrations in Argentina were not the first of its kind. In 1971, middle and upper class Chilean women banged on their pans and pots outside their homes to protest against the shortages of basic and industrial goods during Salvador Allende’s administration.

Since then, Cacerolazos has gained prominence in several protests that have taken place in Spain, Canada and Iceland. What makes it so distinctive from other forms of protests is that it allows people to protest from their own homes, allowing for a high level of support and participation.

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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