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Understanding the Symbolic Public Acts of Non-Violent movements around the world: The role of colour, symbols and slogans.

By Rakshan Kalmady

In modern-day people’s protest, colours and symbolism are common across different cultures. Everyday things have become objects of protests and symbols over the years that have defined the significant struggles in history. They are the instant identifiers to a united cause, from everyday kitchen objects and colourful flags to face masks and Hunger Games-style three-finger salutes to Unifying colours of green, red and white wore by British suffragettes, insignia, such as pussy hat have emerged as symbols to amplify the effect of the cause. It can also be like in the case of the 2018 Golden globes where black attire was worn as a symbol of collective mourning for the #TimesUp movement, or the all-white attire worn by the women from the Democrats in Donald Trump’s State of Union address to Sports teams and persons taking the knee in support of Black Lives Matter Movement, we are seeing symbols in public platforms as an irresistible protest tool.  These symbols serve as a reminder of the courageous demands for justice and dignity shared by demonstrators around the world

As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, we witnessed a plethora of people’s protests around the world. From Hong Kong to Russia, Myanmar to Argentina, India to Lebanon,  to name a few. Some of these protests were an attempt to overthrow the political leaders while others were an attempt to bring some fundamental changes in the way things were going. Not all have been successful in achieving their goals but have managed to fundamentally change the political scenario around the world. A lot of them are still ongoing.

Gene Sharp, credited as the chief strategist of the modern-day non-violent movements around the world, is known for creating the template to take on authoritarian regimes, created a list of 198 methods for non-violent actions, which has been translated into more than 30 languages and can be downloaded free of cost along with his seminal work “From Dictatorship to Democracy”. The book became the inspiration for attempts towards non-violent revolution culminating in the 2011 Arab Spring, Serbian Resistance, Georgia’s Rose Revolution, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, etc. This also foreshadowed some of the other strategic non-violent movements around the world, the characteristics of which are similar but differ in the cause.

One of the sections in his epilogue ‘198 ways of non-violent revolution’, mentions the use of Symbolic Public Act which includes- Display of flags and public colours, wearing of symbols, delivering symbolic objects, new signs and names and a few more. What this means is that to convey a complex message in a complicated world, one has to hook something that can command attention across cultures in a memorable and visually arresting way. In his book, Sharp mentions that there is nothing more elemental than associating yourself with colour and symbol.  

A few of the best examples of the implementation of this are visible in Hong Kong’s Yellow Umbrella Movement, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and Argentina’s Green Handkerchief Movement. 

Hong Kong’s Yellow Umbrella Movement

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has been well documented in the past two decades. It has gone from inspiration to protests all over the world to a sign for grief caused by the clampdown by China on any form of dissent and protest. In 2014, a 79-days sit-down protest took place in the city demanding fair and transparent elections after it was found out that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China prescribed a selecting pre-screening of the candidates for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive. It was seen as though China was asserting their dominance in Hong Kong and getting more elected representatives who would be pro-China. The colour yellow was associated with these sit-down demonstrations, with protestors wearing yellow ribbons, hanging huge yellow banners in well-known landmarks, The idea of yellow colour was perhaps borrowed from the Philippine’s anti-establishment protests of 1980. The officials tried to shut down these demonstrations by getting the state police to fire tear gas and pepper sprays. The protestors used their Umbrellas to protect themselves from these attacks, which then became a unifying symbol for them. Protestors brought in umbrellas in bulk and distributed them for free. They were used as protection, as shelter from the rain, to sleep under it, to write slogans on it and demonstrate. It was not only functional but had a certain emblematic resonance as a symbol of resistance and brought an enormous feeling of brotherhood in the fight for justice, freedom and democracy. The yellow ribbon too was a way to show your support for the movement even if one was not physically present at the protest site.

The movement gets its name, The Yellow Umbrella, from the combination of the colour yellow symbolizing anti-establishment sentiments and the umbrella that was used as protection from the attacks from state police.

These colours and symbols have defined the pro-democracy in Hong Kong for decades now.

Black Lives Matter Movement

Civil rights movements in the United States of America have always had their symbols, colours and slogans. From raising fists to taking the knee, the movement has evolved over the last century. But the Black Lives Matter got its momentum in the age of information and social media. It was born in 2013 when Alicia Garza, a writer and organizer was angry about a jury verdict which found a neighbourhood watch volunteer not guilty for the shooting and killing of a 17-year-old Trayvon Martin for carrying only a bag a Skittles, wrote a post on Facebook which ended with the words “Our lives Matter”. The post was widely shared around the world with the hashtag #BlackLivesmatter. 

These words then became an emblem, a rally chant, a cry, and a symbol in the recent protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd, and are often supported by black and white images of a raised fist, or spray-painted on placards, T-shirts and buildings.

The raised fist has had much meaning around the world for different causes, but in this movement, it symbolizes solidarity and the Black Power Movement of the 1960s. The symbol came about with the formation of the Black Panther Party in 1966 which sough black liberation and an end to the racially motivated police brutality,

Perhaps the most famous and powerful image of it was from the 1968 Mexico Olympics, where track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their gloved fists, protesting racism and injustice on the world stage after they won gold and bronze medal for the United States. This came on the backdrop of Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination a few months before the event. They both justified their action despite criticism, citing that they wanted to be seen because they couldn’t be heard, by doing something so powerful that it would reach the ends of the earth, and yet still be non-violent. The silver medalist, Australian Peter Norman, wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity. Both Smith and Carlos were then removed from the games. 

The symbol was then further popularized by Nelson Mandela in 1990, who raised his fist on release from prison after 27 years, signalizing his resilience and the start of negotiations to end the apartheid in South Africa.

In the Black Lives Matter movement the raised fist is a representation of other popular gestures, phrases and slogans like the ‘hands up, don’t shoot, a phrase coined out of outrage after the killing of a black teenager Michael Brown who was shot 6 times by a white police officer. Witnesses described that he was unarmed, and had raised his hands to gesture his surrender before he was fatally shot. Shortly after that, Eric Garner was killed after he was held in a chokehold, with his last words being “I can’t breathe”, something that he repeated 11 times. (Alfred, 2014) This too became another slogan in the movement and got more prominence with the killing of George Floyd in a similar manner. In all the cases, the grand juries declined to indict the police officers. 

This resulted in outrage with the raised fists and taking the knee becoming a symbol of solidarity. Congressmen in the US, NFL and basketball players showed their support through these symbols. As of now, every single football match in the English Premier League begins with the players taking the knee to show solidarity and raise awareness in the fight against racism and racial violence.

Argentina’s Green Handkerchief Abortion Rights Movement.

On December 30th 2020, Argentina’s senate had been debating a bill, for over 12 hours, which has already been passed by congress and would legalize abortion and offer it free of cost through the country’s public health system.  Outside, hundreds and thousands of people had been there all night occupying 10 blocks surrounding the building, in tents, watching the screens, playing music along with artistic performances, soccer matches, public speakers and more, all designed to put pressure on the senators inside to vote. When the announcement was made that it is now a law, the crowd gathered, roared, cried, laughed and celebrated in every possible form of expression.  

The celebration was a culmination of years’ worth of work by the massive feminist political mobilization. The movement has taken on a collective identity, in part through the use of massive, transnational demonstrations, like the International Feminist Strikes. This demonstration takes place every year around the world on the 8th of March and has seen millions of people participate in the sea-like marches that cross borders, languages, classes and genders—the Green Tide.

Green has often been associated with health, and with the historic movement to legalize abortion rights in Argentina. Another symbol in this movement has been a handkerchief, which represents women’s rights, equality and resistance. It is inspired by the women in Argentina who wore the handkerchief to draw attention to the kidnapping and killing of loved ones during the dictatorship.

The Green Handkerchief hence became the symbol of solidarity and support for sexual and reproductive health rights.

The movement comes in the face of several horrific femicides in 2015 that shocked the nation and called for widespread protests for gender-based violence to be addressed. The movement gained traction after local authorities denied a legal abortion to an 11-year-old who was forced into pregnancy after being raped. This forced the senate to consider a bill to legalize abortion, which led to a mass mobilization of women of all ages, demanding they pass the bill. The demonstration was a wave of green; everyone waving a handkerchief, green flags, green posters and even glitter. 

However the Senate narrowly rejected the bill, but the movement was just getting started. The demonstration caught the attention of the world and was discussed and debated, creating a space for women to talk about gender-based violence, and gender equality. This resulted in the green wave spreading in other countries like Brazil, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean etc, creating the path to keep fighting for the right to Abortion. 

Abortion was finally legalized in Argentina in 2020 after it was presented in Congress seven times.


Symbols and Slogans have changed for the same cause over time, or they are inspired by other movements or pop culture. The 2019 Hong-Kong protests were vastly different from the 2014 ones, with the symbol’s slogans changing even though the cause remains the same. It is worth noting that the 2019 pro-democracy protest has the song “Do you hear the people sing?” a song interpreted as the people’s dissent in the French Revolution in Les Miserables, showing how art culture can influence the non-violent movements around the world. Another good example of it is the ‘Three Finger Salute” from the dystopian novel and movie “Hunger Games”. The gesture has been a symbol of resistance in Myanmar and Thailand in their fight against the military dictatorship. Protestors in both countries have been arrested for showing this gesture. 

The importance of colour has also been interpreted as a message in the digital age in areas of authoritarian regimes like Russia, where people posted pictures of themselves in red clothing, a way of showing solidarity with the opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s wife Yulia, who wore a fiery red sweater on the day of his trial.

We’ve also seen that only colour but an ordinary object like a high-vis vest can become a symbol of protest in the case of the yellow jacket movement in France, or the grinning Guy Fawkes mask symbolizing the resistance against fascist leaders in the Occupy movements around the world, which was designed by a comic book artist David Lloyd for the novel and movie- “V for Vendetta” (The Economist, 2020). 

Colours, symbols and slogans – here in their most basic form – are an irresistible protest tool.

Rakshan S Kalmady, 2nd Year MA in Public Policy Student at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.

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