Images are more powerful than words.
That’s why the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong became global news. When somebody says “What’s happening in Hong Kong?” you don’t picture crowds of people with signs, which could be a protest in Manhattan or Mumbai.
You picture umbrellas.
Maybe one umbrella, like the photo above. Or thousands of umbrella.
But you see umbrellas, and they mean something, because it’s what protesters are using ward off tear gas and pepper spray while they march for free and open elections, like they were promised.
Right there, the terms of the debate are framed. You sympathize with the protesters, who are organized and determinedly non-violent. Students taking part are doing their homework and picking up trash from the street.
Citizens might have used something else, say garbage bags, to protect themselves from tear gas and mace. It wouldn’t be the same.
The simple, common umbrella is a powerful symbol and tool. It’s not fancy. It’s not expensive. Everybody, rich or poor, has an umbrella.
You don’t need to join a political group. All you have to do is grab an umbrella from your hallway closet and walk outside. People around the world, folks who don’t speak the language or understand Hong Kong history and politics, they all the message.
Average people don’t remember the details and words of a tax dispute between the American Colonies and the British Empire — but we have the image in our heads, despite the lack of cameras, of the Boston Tea Party.
Say, “I have a dream,” and what pops into your head? Grainy, black-and-white film of Martin Luther King, Jr., standing on the steps and speaking.
You see these things, easily, instantly: Mahatma Gandhi going on his long salt march, Nelson Mandela breaking so many rocks in prison that the stone dust clogged his tear ducts and made it impossible for him to cry, the lone man standing in front of the line of tanks outside Tiananmen Square.
Words matter. I’m a wordsmith, and if you cut me, I still bleed newsprint.
But images, they linger and burn.
I covered a protest or three as a reporter, and did a series of articles about how citizens can combat the power of the state, even if the state controls the media and cracks down on the free press. You can get to those stories by clicking this link: Doing battle with rumors, lies and propaganda
Times have changed quickly. Even 20 years ago, a state could keep things from people a lot easier. States could own the newspapers and TV stations (or pressure them) and jam radio broadcasts coming from outside the border. And yes, this was a big deal during the Cold War.
Today, it’s tougher, if not impossible, to prevent citizens from seeing outside sources of news. Thank the Series of Tubes for that, since anyone with a smart phone can get local and world news in about two seconds. Sure, you can block certain websites and try to stop them, but they’ll get around it by reading The London Times or The Willapa Valley Herald while traveling abroad or with technology like TOR. (Don’t ask me how TOR works. I ONLY KNOW ENOUGH TO BE DANGEROUS.)
Citizens in Hong Kong are using a novel app that sends messages with an ad-hoc network created via BlueTooth and WiFi, and good luck trying to stop that.
Unless you close your borders and cut the internet cord forever, there’s no real way for any state, even ones that control much of the media like China and Russia, to effectively stop citizens from getting access to the free press, or to block all photos on Instagram, all video on YouTube or every blog on five zillion different platforms. There are so many outlets, censoring them all isn’t Whack-a-Mole, it’s a fool’s errand.
Any person with smart phone is now a journalist, if they want to be. And that’s a good thing for citizens everywhere.