A view of The Mall in Washington, DC, during last Saturday’s progressive protest. (all photos by the author)

Washington, DC — This is a protest post. A post about a protest in the city that is Paris done in the American-wide style (not the Las Vegas lights-and-money style) on the banks of the Potomac; the city of pearly bureaucrats, and neo-cons, and neoclassical columns; all things National, American, U.S.A.

I got in late to the vaulted barrel of Union Station after sliding down the coast on that overpriced train from the future, the one that rocks and sways gently, has doors that open like they were on a Star Trek set and where all the passengers are well dressed (in the future everything is more expensive and everyone can afford it all, right?); i.e., the Acela .

Buttons galore.

It dumps you off in the middle of the city without the 26-mile hassle of the dull bus from Dulles or the please-remove-the-shoes-and-all-the-metal-from-your-person-and-your-belt-too-please-sir ritual of airport security. I arrived late, slept on a floor softened by exhaustion. I woke up early, walked a lot, walked for miles, walked through Saturday morning’s coffee-less haze through DC’s alphabet grid.

Did I know that DC was, in fact, an alphabet city that was truly the size of the alphabet (not just A, B, C, D)? I was learning. But the highpoint, both physically and metaphysically was finding myself alone in the sun on the balcony of the bulbous concrete pillar of American history that is known as The Watergate (which, in the fashion of all things done in the high style of the 70s, looks like it’s from space and might’ve been more accurately named Stargate).

Bumper stickers for everyone.

Now, say what you will about mixing art & politics, sometimes the one needs the other more than it cares to let on, and vice-versa (Obama’s literal image without Shepard Fairey?). When it comes to the art of the protest, for example, it’s as much about effectively crafting and conveying a message as it is about leveraging political capital, electioneering, earmarking, legislating, voting, etc … A communicative task that One Nation Working Together, a big rally staged last Saturday, October 2, nailed with its name but not with its placards and signs.

A protestor with a clear message.

What is this rally about? One Nation Working Together: Jobs, Justice, and Education for All. That’s straightforward enough. But those things how?

Who made it happen? The Important Progressive Acronyms of America: The NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, UAW; acronyms that came after the names that made them – unlike those legislative attempts to be a PATRIOT, say.

Ignorance as roadblock?

There’s more to it than a name, though. Just as crafting a visual message, at least in theory, is something that an artist is good at.

The fact is: politics needs art to be heard in this over-mediated age — especially when a protest involves bringing people together under a common message — since a protest is aggregated belief about how to get, out of many, one takeaway.

¡Si se puede! This is burned in my mind from the most muscular gathering of human bodies I’ve seen to date, at Chicago’s May Day immigration rally way back in 2006.

Art and protest meet.

Why all this about art and politics? The signs, reader, the signs. One Nation Working Together brought together that coalition apparition of American Acronyms to signify and be signified on the National Mall with their signs hoisted aloft.

A protest is, in essence, a symbolic act. It’s supposed to express a message about a particular politics. And when it works, truth gets spoken to power and that’s when we see sparkly campaign promises become the wall-hangings of democracy.

I’m guessing that this is why they are also known as demonstrations: here’s a group of people, gathered, to demonstrate what a collective expression of will looks like. A protest is what happens when a lot of people come together to say something.

Youthful energy.

I could talk about the speakers, about marveling at the technical equipment, about the thrill of just being around almost 200,000 other people, about the malevolent glee with which the crowd shouted when a satellite confirmed our crowd as bigger than theirs, but I won’t.

What I really want to talk about is the signs they carried. The signs people got from Local this-or-that; the signs people got from their Acronym Liaison, but also about the inordinately large number of signs that people painstakingly stapled together using thin strips of wood and broad sheets of paper. The signs people composed poems for, the signs they spent days and nights agonizing over, or else a few frenzied minutes with a marker, the signs they carried are objects of pride and so each one is willingly held out for the camera: “here is my message: take it, and take it from here and back into the world to everyone. This is what I want them to see me saying here.”

Two sides, same sentiment.

In this age of Arial and Helvetica and Times New Roman and New York Times the individual expression made possible by a stroke is taken out of our daily communication. And suddenly being surrounded by a flood of handwritten signs, it’s almost overwhelming to see and read so many individual voices.

So I took pictures of the signs I saw, and thought graphological thoughts, that is, reading the signs and their handwriting as inferences not about the content of syllables but by the distinguished markings of their characters. Typography as personality. Screw ups and cross outs and illegible A’s. The vulnerability of individual faces in an invincible crowd. The thrill of being able to shout, to cheer, and to clap at disparaging remarks about Glenn Beck, to tea-bag the Tea Party and trash talk the dirty capitalists who don’t know their capital from their Capitol.

Handwritten text makes the case. (click to enlarge)

Looking through them now, thought, the disparateness of the signs strikes me. One Nation — but working together? Why so many different signs, then? What was the message here? The takeaway? Each person gets to shout? Do it quietly in marker? It felt scattershot, in a way. Where was the urgency? What do we need to truly be One Nation Working Together – since it’s clearly not a war or our economic recovery or electoral procedure, things we can’t seem to work together on? Is it just the right to make signs? To free speech? To a fractured politics of “our signs are louder?”

Maybe I felt left out of the sign-waving, message-bearing fun.

There was media criticism, union pride, gay pride, anti-war polemic, rants & raves … in pen & ink on posterboard & pine slat; there was Fox News rage and Glen Brakhage or Glen Buggery or just plain pecking at Glen Beck. There were single-payer demands and even signs shaped like hands.

And here are a few … and you can find dozens more photos from the One Nation Working Together protest on Hyperallergic’s Facebook page (direct link to photo album).:

The more things change …

A worker’s message.

A voice from Michigan.

Definitely NOT a Republican.

Rethinking Jesus.

Some anger for Democrats.

A young protestor takes a rest.

Not everyone was angry.

Foreclose War, Not Home!

Still hopeful.

Jobs, jobs, jobs …

Marriage for everyone.

A message for Obama and his supporters.

One of many voices for single-payer healthcare..

Green workers unite!

LGBT workers unite!

More photos from the One Nation Working Together protest on Hyperallergic’s Facebook page (direct link to photo album).

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Ian Epstein

Ian Epstein is a freelance writer and photographer living in New York City. He has worked for The...

3 replies on “Signs of Protest: One Nation Working Together with Marker + Paper + Political Opinions”

  1. I was holding the signs, “fear of diversity” and “let’s finish the job”. The disparateness of the signs and the faces holding them reflected the mission statement of One Nation Working Together. Perhaps you should have read it before you wrote the article.


    Our messages might have seemed like scatter shot to you but everyone of us instantly recognized why the each of us was there. Out of our diversity we made a sweet cup of tea…

    1. I appreciate your comment but I think Ian has a point that in this day and age — and in this media environment — a unified perception or message seems to get more traction.

  2. The main theme of the One Nation March was reflected in the unions and social organizations with their different colored shirts and homogenized signs. They dominated the scene with the message, jobs, justice and education. Apparently that was too boring for the observers because I had a LA Times reporter approach me and ask me to explain my fear sign, and then she twisted my words to sound controversial. She left out the theme of jobs, justice and education in her report too.

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