In Seattle, signs have always been a popular form of protest. Whether homemade or mass-produced, signs offer valuable glimpses into the hearts, minds and life stories of the people who display them.
WHEN JONATHAN CUNNINGHAM decided to display a “Black Lives Matter” sign in the front yard of his home in South Seattle earlier this year, he got two, just in case.
He figured someone might take one.
Several other homes on his block already had signs, so they clearly were popular with his neighbors.
But even in progressive Seattle, he says, “A lot of people don’t necessarily agree with that statement.”
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Cunningham, 37, is African American.
The message, printed in all caps on his signs, doesn’t come as any great revelation to him and shouldn’t need to be spoken at all.
“I know that black lives matter; my black life matters,” says Cunningham, a program officer at the Seattle Foundation and a Seattle Arts Commissioner.
“It wasn’t meant to be provocative … It’s three words.”
Still, “Even as a black male, I’m overwhelmed by how powerful it is.”
Actions might speak louder than words, but signs, whether homemade or mass-produced, offer valuable glimpses into the hearts, minds and life stories of the people who display them.
They communicate outrage, call for action, nod to events foretold and foregone. They glorify and condemn, praise and mock. They tell the world what we believe in and what we won’t stand for. They boil down society’s problems at any given time and offer grand solutions.
They draw a line in the sand between “us” and “them.” They also plead for unity.
Even with the ability to tweet and status-update our positions on the issues of the day online, there’s no denying the enduring satisfaction of speaking your mind in public.
Especially since the 2016 presidential election cycle, the soundproof chambers of the public’s collective consciousness, where we say what we really want to say about the things that really matter and drive us, have flung wide open.
But Seattle has always been the sort of town that wears its values like a chip on its shoulder, as a new retrospective of protest photos by George P. Hickey at the Washington State Historical Museum, called “Loyal Opposition,” makes clear.
From huge workers’ strikes in the early 20th century to civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War protests, from gay-rights and anti-globalization protests to anti-Iraq War marches, from Occupy sit-ins to Tea Party rallies, from immigration marches to Black Lives Matter gatherings, we’ve put it all on the line — and on a multitude of signs.
By coincidence, Cunningham and I speak in the wake of President Donald Trump’s remarks calling on the NFL to fire players who kneel or sit during the national anthem to raise awareness of racism in policing and in the criminal-justice system, reinforcing the Black Lives Matter campaign.
Polls show that a majority of Americans agree with Trump that kneeling is disrespectful.
Cunningham grew up in Detroit. Until he was 6, his mother was a city police officer. Still, she taught her son to be on his best behavior around cops because, as a young black male, an encounter with the police could end with his death.
“All black parents have to tell their children that at some point,” Cunningham says. “I was raised by a police officer and have a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign in my yard — those two things are not in contradiction.”
Cunningham says he just feels lucky to have a yard on which to place the sign. The city has seen its historic black, middle-class enclave — the Central District — transformed into a majority white and more expensive neighborhood.
How strange it must be, he tells me, for former black residents of the CD to drive through and see “Black Lives Matter” signs on streets that used to represent the hub of black life in Seattle, but that actual black people have been priced out of.
Cunningham, who rents the house where he; his fiancee, Sarah Turner; and his 4-year-old daughter, Malayla, live, says those three words put him at ease.
“It’s very affirming to be able to come home and see a sign that says ‘Black Lives Matter,’ ’’ Cunningham explains.
It is a quiet welcome home, something just for him, though Malayla has a cute habit of reading the words aloud whenever the family pulls in the driveway.
IN SEATTLE, SIGNS reflecting America’s charged political atmosphere have appeared seemingly overnight, posted by people who prefer to stay under the radar.
Anti-Trump “Resist” signs are posted on surfaces all over town. Signs pointing to the anniversary of the presidential election have popped up on walls and light posts in recent weeks: “No! Nov. 4 it begins,” the signs read. “In the name of humanity we refuse to accept a fascist America. #TrumpPenceMustGo.”
Last year, someone spray-painted support for Trump’s proposed barrier along the United States-Mexico border on elevated highway pillars along East Marginal Way South with the words, “BUILD … THE … WALL.”
In the aftermath of violent confrontations between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., during which a woman was killed when a man drove his car down a crowded street, someone posted a sign on a condemned building in Pioneer Square proclaiming, “White privilege is a menace to society.”
On the back of that same building are signs on other hot-button issues. One expresses concern about the clearing of homeless encampments in the Seattle area: “Sweep leaves, not lives.”
Another sign focuses on mass incarceration of African Americans, and another, posted around the time of the massive women’s march the day after Trump’s inauguration, features an image of a little girl of color with the words, “Women are perfect.”
But even in a city that voted 87 percent for Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, a region that also leans Democratic, you’ll find the Republican president’s emphatic campaign slogan emblazoned on signs, bumper stickers and baseball caps: “Make America Great Again.” At the same spot on East Marginal where someone wrote “Build the Wall” last year, a new spray-painted message appeared in late summer: “Prez Trump 2020.”
More often than not, though, signs offer an occasion for group expression, amplifying the power of printed words.
In September, Trump announced plans to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, which allowed the children of undocumented immigrants to remain in the country legally. In a matter of hours, hundreds of people had joined a protest rally for so-called “Dreamers” at El Centro de La Raza, the Latino advocacy and service organization on Beacon Hill.
Among dozens of signs proclaiming “Dreamers make America great” and “Love has no borders,” one stands out — a piece of cardboard on which a demonstrator has written a quote originally tweeted by the comedian and son of Indian immigrants, Hari Kondabolu: “America hating immigrants is like a body rejecting its own blood.”
SUZANNE WOMBLE of Redmond takes it all in, democracy in action.
She has come with a piece of blue poster board scrawled with a message mocking the president.
“Every time I go to a rally or protest, I see deep wisdom in people’s signs that I never thought of myself, things that don’t come up in casual conversation,” she says.
This year has marked a turning point in Womble’s sense of her own status as a citizen — and as a white person.
Moved by the events in Charlottesville, Womble says she started attending trainings hosted by the Seattle-based Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites.
“The point is, it’s on us to engage with this issue and not just rely on our friends who are people of color to tell us what to do,” she says.
Womble, 37, who lives with her husband and their 6-year-old, Hannah, has tried to teach civic responsibility to her daughter.
She and Hannah were among thousands who protested at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in January, when Trump’s original restrictions on immigration and refugee admissions from seven predominantly Muslim countries were announced.
Womble used to work at a high school in SeaTac with a high percentage of Muslim students whose parents were airport employees. During the demonstration, she saw a number of female airport workers in traditional Muslim headcoverings crying while watching events unfold.
“It was powerful because that’s who we were there for,” she says.
Womble brings up a photo on her phone showing her daughter holding a handwritten sign at the airport that reads, “Black lives matter; Women’s rights are human rights; Water is life; No human is illegal; Science is real; Love is love; Kindness is everything; We belong to each other.”
It’s one of a few signs mother and daughter made to display at protests this year.
The day after Trump’s inauguration, Womble, her mother and her daughter joined upward of 140,000 people for the Womxn’s March through Seattle, on a day when millions took to the streets around the world to peacefully protest the incoming administration.
“There’s something cathartic and healing about rallying with an overwhelming mass of people,” she says. “I was on an emotional high for days after that.”
Womble says she felt “blindsided and traumatized “ by Trump’s victory.
“Figuring out how to act was the only thing that kept me sane and kept me from feeling like I was in a natural disaster,” she says.
THE SANDWICH BOARD outside Piroshki on Third Avenue in downtown Seattle is filled with food for thought. Written in colored chalk like a menu, the restaurant’s manifesto:
“In this bakery WE BELIEVE
Women’s Rights are Human Rights
BLACK LIVES MATTER
In Religious Freedom
LOVE IS LOVE
Kindness is Everything
Everybody is WELCOME”
Expressing your beliefs in a public way comes with risks.
Half a block away, at the intersection of Third Avenue and Cherry Street, visitors to Biscuit Bitch cafe are greeted with signs on the front door and a side window telling everyone who enters: “We support our Muslim neighbors.” At the counter, pinned to a rainbow flag, another sign reads, “NO RACISM SEXISM FEAR.”
Workers at the cafe say that in June, when demonstrators protesting Islamic (or Sharia) law rallied on the grounds of the nearby City Hall complex, some of the participants approached the cafe and pressed U.S. flag-adorned bodies against the windows, evidently to show their disapproval for the Muslim neighbors sign.
At the anti-Sharia rally, sign-waving participants and counterprotesters got into shouting matches and in a few cases scuffled with each other. Police intervened to keep them separated.
But the Northwest is not the sort of place where the risk of opposition outweighs the value of saying what you believe and support.
Tea Party and libertarian demonstrations attracted attention in part for hard-hitting signs and banners opposing government overreach, such as the yellow “Gadsden flag” featuring a coiled rattlesnake poised to strike, accompanied by the stark warning, “Don’t tread on me.”
The Occupy movement, which decried Wall Street excess and income inequality, gave us signs declaring, “I am the 99%.”
The “Battle in Seattle” in 1999, when tens of thousands of peaceful, sign-wielding demonstrators marched through downtown streets to protest the World Trade Organization, unfair labor practices and environmental degradation, all while overextended riot police skirmished with small groups of unruly protesters, proved just how dedicated we are to activism.
That commitment gets reinforced every year during the annual May Day march, when signs of support for immigrants and workers, among many other causes, fill the route.
NAOMI FINKELSTEIN likes to keep things gloriously blunt at demonstrations.
She’s holding a handmade sign that gets right to the point, when I first meet her at the immigration rally at El Centro de La Raza: “Another disabled Jewish queer out in the streets to save DACA — P.S. Borders suck.”
A resident in the apartment complex that surrounds the rally site, she’s come down in her wheelchair with the aid of a friend to make her opinion known.
For Finkelstein, 55, protecting immigrants is personal.
As an adopted child in a traditional Jewish household in New York’s South Bronx, she had a strict father who taught her that to resist bigotry, Jews should never hide who they are. Her adoptive grandparents were Jewish immigrants who escaped anti-Semitism in Russia and built a good life in America.
The neighborhood was a stew of cultures and nationalities — African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese. By the time she reached her stop on the uptown train from Manhattan, she was the only white person.
Her parents sent her to a Yiddish school that also happened to be socialist-leaning.
“I would come home and say, ‘We’re never crossing a picket line — over our dead bodies,’ ” she tells me when I visit her home.
Having black friends taught her the cold realities of racial prejudice and segregation.
She was already devouring books by famous African-American authors as a little girl.
“I started reading James Baldwin when I was 10 years old,” she says.
Coming out of the closet in a traditional household wasn’t easy. Finkelstein set out on her own as a teen, eventually forming a close network of LGBT friends who crashed together.
By getting involved in the gay-rights struggle, she learned consensus-building skills — and how to paste up homemade political posters using condensed milk as glue.
She says she helped occupy the building in New York’s West Village that would become a gay community center. Once, she got to meet Bella Abzug, a former U.S. Representative and women’s-rights and LGBT-rights activist.
At Hunter College, Finkelstein gained inspiration from one of its instructors, the poet, feminist and activist Audre Lorde, who famously spoke about taking your differences and making them strengths.
Born to a Latina from Texas, Finkelstein says she also has a special place in her heart for vulnerable members of the Hispanic-immigrant community.
These disparate backgrounds, encounters and struggles have shaped Finkelstein’s political consciousness.
The details are written in metaphorical invisible ink on her “Save DACA” sign.
“I’m standing firm for my grandparents” and everyone who made sacrifices, she says. “My [Jewish] family would be dead without this country.”
When Trump won the presidency, Finkelstein says, she cried for 14 days straight. She feared for what would happen to the country with him at the helm.
She committed then to stay engaged, despite dealing with a severe respiratory illness that restricts her mobility.
“My prayers became, ‘Please make me strong enough to fight,’ ” Finkelstein says.
The women’s march, Trans Pride, Dike March, a demonstration against the sweeps of homeless encampments, the Dreamers rally — Finkelstein has attended them all, sometimes breathing through a respirator mask.
When anti-fascist and anti-Trump demonstrators squared off against participants in a planned pro-Trump event billed as a free-speech rally in Seattle, a day after the chaos in Charlottesville, Finkelstein was there, too, standing firm against what she sensed were echoes of the hatred her father had warned her about.
“I want people to know that it’s so important to me to get up out of my sick bed and come out here,” she says at the Dreamers event.
But Finkelstein wonders: “How do we put on suits of armor without becoming bastards ourselves?”
It’s an important question at a time when conflict rules.
For now, instead of putting on armor, Finkelstein will put it in writing.