Essays

An Ode to the Raised Fist Emoji

The international gesture has almost always signified some variation of solidarity and power to the people.

(graphic by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Oh, ✊. How your five fingers clench with determined strength, but not too tight. Like the way we hold our dreams for a better future — with intention but no real grasp. One tiny symbol with such grand significance, recognized across continents, evoker of hope, solidarity, justice, and … testicles? 

“✊”  is my email signature, which is how I learned it means “testicles”/ “fuck you” in Mexico, where I live and work, after making it my email signature the night Donald Trump was elected President. Also in Mexico, during protests and natural disasters, a raised fist in a crowd is a call for collective silence. 

At a femicide protest in Mexico City on March 8, 2020 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In Cuba, the emoji can stand in for the knocking-on-a-door motion, which means sex. In Switzerland, it can mean ‘here’s hoping,’ like fingers crossed. But it almost always universally means some variation of solidarity and power to the people. 

You have to wonder if there’s a gesture-or-its-meaning, chicken-or-egg phenomenon here. It seems so natural to raise one’s fist in victory, in defiance. It seems to ask, “who’s with me?” Nobody knows how far back the history of the international gesture goes. 

Honore Daumier, “The Uprising” (1848) (via Wikimedia Commons)

It can be seen in this 1848 Honoré Daumier painting called “The Uprising,” a depiction of the revolution against the French King Louis-Philippe I. In 1917, it was depicted as a solidarity symbol for the International Workers of the World. In the 1930s, it was an anti-fascist symbol in the Spanish Civil War, and from there it spread as an anti-fascist, sometimes socialist symbol throughout Europe. In 1944, David Alfaro Siqueiros painted it into his famous mural “La Nueva Democracia. In the late 1940s, the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a Mexican screen-printing collective that influenced revolutionary imagery the world over, adopted the symbol. In the early 1960s, an American activist and graphic designer, Frank Cieciorka, used the fist — which he’d seen at a socialist rally in San Francisco — as a symbol in some posters and later buttons, which popularized it among the American leftist protest movements. Also in the 1960s, it was adopted as a symbol by Second Wave Feminism and by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Gold medalist Tommie Smith (center) and bronze medalist John Carlos (right) showing the raised fist on the podium after the 200m race at the 1968 Summer Olympics; both wear Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges. Peter Norman (silver medalist, left) from Australia also wears an OPHR badge in solidarity with Smith and Carlos. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

There are unknowably many international examples. In 2017, the New York Times printed an image of an Iranian protester using the symbol. As late as last year, it was a symbol of the October Revolution in Lebanon, and according to my friend who was there, “a bunch of anti-revolution folks tried to say that it was a [George] Soros plot because that symbol was also used by Otpor, the Ukrainian democracy movement which was backed by Soros 😂.” 

The symbol had its most famous moment in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, when medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the air to protest for human rights during the national anthem. That year, it became a Black Power symbol, which it has continued to be, most recently becoming a common image in the Black Lives Matter movement. On Twitter, “#blacklivesmatter” pulls up an automatic emoji of three little raised fists in different shades of brown.

It’s also been used by 😈👿😈. In Venezuela, it was one of Hugo Chávez’s signature moves. And it’s currently associated with the Duterte regime in the Philippines. 

A mere 20 minutes on ✊’s page on Emojitracker.com, which tracks emoji use on Twitter, gave me an international smattering of tweets in Persian, Hindi, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Japanese, Turkish, Arabic, and Russian that used the emoji in messages of hope, resistance, and solidarity. The emoji has become a universal rallying cry of a punctuation mark to many causes. 

One in French read, “Fighting for you too ✊.” One in English, but from Stockholm read, “Time for a revolution ✊.” There were tons of tweets in Persian speaking out against the imminent execution of protestors

Russian, a dominant language in the feed, featured “strength to you ✊ I believe that in the end we are the generation that will be able to defeat authoritarian regimes.” And the slightly less revolutionary, but equally hopeful: “We watch anime and enjoy life ✊ The main thing is not to worry.”

One in Polish read, “please let them return before 5pm, then dad will take me and I won’t have to take the bus ✊.” See? A universal sign of hope! 

One tweet in English from Lagos read, “still believe in myself 💯✊🏾.”

But my favorite tweet in English read: “😔 we all broke somehow ✊🏻” 

So true. ✊.

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