Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Design of Dissent

Egypt April 6 graphic
Serbian Otpor logo
A recent mention in the New York Times about ties between Egypt's uprising and the Serbian Youth Movement, Otpor, which helped topple Milosevic; along with a facebook note by friend and photojournalist Kael Alford led me on the trail of this stylized fist. You'll find it repeated on banners of protesters and resistors from Serbia to Iran to Zimbabwe and now Egypt. Recently I heard a friend say, "art can turn a cause into a movement." I'm not sure I'd credit art alone, but certainly art, or in this case, graphic design, can give the movement a unified identity and a sense of common cause.

The US press has given a lot of play to a previously obscure American academic, Gene Sharp, who seems to have helped inspire to these brave dissidents and a host of others across Eastern Europe and Asia. I tend to agree with Stephan Gowans' analysis here, Sharp's ideas are the culmination of a long history of non-violent resistence including Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others. Some of his organizing advice is even reminiscent of Rules for Radicals.  The idea that one 82 year old American white guy is  the major mobilizing impetus for millions of Egyptians is just another form of colonialist thinking (one that Sharp himself rejects, to his credit.)

Sharp, unlike Gandhi and King, is not driven by passion for a political cause.  In recent interviews, he has been careful to eschew his "lefty, pacifist" past which included a jail stint for refusing conscription during the Korean War. He is more of a pragmatist these days, promoting non-violence simply because it is the most efficient way to bring about regime change. This focus on the means to the end, along with the fact that he seems to be quite cozy with the US Military (evidently DARPA funded his first book) and the consistency of the fist logo across the many movements he's inspired has led some to conclude that there's a CIA common thread. I guess I wouldn't be too upset to find that some of my tax dollars were helping to train the masses in non-violent organizing techniques designed to topple oppressive dictators--compared to, say, Star Wars missile defense, assassination attempts on Castro, and abstinence-only education. I do wish I knew who was behind the fist design though.

back to Egypt

And some more good raised fists (I don't think the CIA had anything to do with these):

from Cuba

IWW Poster, 1917

Tommie Smith and John Carlos' black power protest salute at the 1968 Olympics


  1. Hey Wendy. Cool post. Are you asking who was behind the Egyptian fist design or the original? I'm pretty sure the original can be credited to the the Black Panther Party, possibly back to it's earliest incarnation in rural Lowndes County, AL, with the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Here is an interesting email thread from the Civil Rights Movement veterans email list (aka the SNCC list):

  2. That would be an interesting thread discussing the origins of the black panther and fist symbols.. more focused on the panther but still relevant.

  3. Interesting essay, Wendy. I guess I'd be wary of anything that was funded by the CIA, even revolutions. And I would be especially suspicious of anything funded by DARPA! A revolution is merely a convenient means to an end, exploited to accomplish an outcome that has been planned years in advance and takes several years to achieve.

  4. Agreed about wariness re:the CIA connection, although many have vigorously disputed it. But still, something smells a little off with this guy.... Stephen Zunes defends him eloquently here: But I wonder about someone who gets involved with Burma (for example) at the invitation of an ex-US Army officer.

  5. @Ben: The Black Panthers and SNCC certainly took the fist to another level, but there's also this history of the graphic on Docs Populi: and even a Wikipedia entry on the "raised fist."

  6. So interesting. Thanks for the info, Wendy. I wonder if there's any connection to be made between the fist and the AFL-CIO hand in hand logo. Found this little history of the hand in hand logo here (PDF):