The Art of Protest

An estimated nearly 5 million people marched around the world on Jan. 21 as part of the Women’s March on Washington and sister marches held in major cities across the globe. Aside from just the sheer number of individuals participating, a striking component of most images from the day were the creative and colorful protest signs held aloft by the marchers.

While there is a tradition of demonstrators using visual aids to amplify their voices, the signs and banners seen in the Women’s Marches went far beyond the starker, text-heavy signage used historically such as in protests against the Vietnam War of the 60s and 70s or the Women’s Suffrage marches of the early 20th Century.

The art of protest is important not only in a historical sense, but can be a powerful tool in helping a group advance their cause and stick in the mind of the larger public.

“Those signs become the public face of the protest march in a lot of ways, along with all of these hundreds of thousands of people and their faces marching, but these signs are what perpetuate their message and causes very quickly,” Marisa Lerer, assistant professor of art history at Manhattan College and herself an attendee of the New York City Women’s March, said.

Part of the reason that the signs in the 2017 Women’s Marches were so vibrant and eye-catching was the involvement of the professional arts community.    

“The visual artists were very much engaged with creating works,” Lerer said.

Photo Courtesy of Caitlin Armstrong

Artist Shepard Fairey has spent his career working in street art and producing politically charged images (he is most famous recently for his “Hope” poster of Barack Obama).

Fairey created a new series of posters as part of his “We the People” series and encouraged protestors of President Donald Trump and participants in the Women’s March to download the images for free from his website.

The mainly red-white-and-blue toned depictions of Muslim, Hispanic, and Native American women were a frequent sight at the marches.

Fairey was just one of many artists and creative people who utilized the Internet to disseminate images for use in protest. Social media proved a powerful tool not only in proliferating popular images from the Women’s March after the event, but also allowing marchers to share ideas for signs beforehand when preparing.

“The social media presence was extremely strong,” Lerer said. “Before the march, there was that openness in terms of proliferating the text and image and for people to share—that there’s not one person owning the sign.”

Some professional linguists even published guides with instructions on how to transform one’s message into a sign-ready slogan or catchy rhyme.

“So there kind of was this combination of visual aspects and linguistic aspects that I think people were able to access more in 2017 than they were in previous marches,” Lerer said.

Still, many groups approached creating their artwork for the march by sharing the old-fashioned way: gathering together and borrowing markers, paint, and stencils to craft their signs.

protestsign2Alannah Boyle, a resident advisor at Manhattan College, put together a floor program for students to make posters together for the Women’s Marches in New York City and Washington D.C.

“Sometimes supplies can be expensive and also it’s just more fun when you are going to a big group event to do things with other people that are also going to the event,” Boyle said.

The floor program gave some residents who couldn’t attend the march an opportunity to be involved and feel that their voices were also heard at the protests.

Boyle, a junior peace studies and philosophy double major, herself carried a sign during the march bearing “Good Trouble,” a frequent slogan of civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis that supports non-violent acts of protest and civil disobedience when necessary.

“Signs are fun in a lot of senses. They’re funny, they can make people laugh, they can show the people around you and sum up what you think is important, what issue is the most important to you,” Boyle said.

Boyle’s sister marched alongside her and carried a sign reading “Love is Love, Black Lives Matter, Climate Change is Real, Immigrants Make America Great, Women’s Rights are Human Rights.”

Just some of the many reasons why people took to the streets during the Women’s Marches, this diversity in causes for marching contributed to the wide-ranging signs portrayed at the events.

Photos Courtesy of Liam Moran

“There’s also this American impulse for individuality that people are interested in creating their direct message within this larger umbrella of messages,” Lerer said.

Scheduled the day after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, the Women’s Marches were as much a protest against Trump as they were a wider call for continued women’s rights and equality.

Back on Manhattan College’s campus, political signs and banners have been frequent sights in dorm room windows during this particularly divisive election year.

In many ways, the dorm room window can be seen as an extension of the suburban lawn sign, according to Lerer, whether bearing a “Make America Great Again” flag or a handmade sign with the phrase “Not My President” scrawled in black marker.

“I think people are more and more using the public sphere, or even that part of public space within their private space, to call for political action or to make their political interests known,” Lerer said.

Rose Brennan contributed on reporting.