Signs of the Times: Bodies in Protest

It’s one thing to hear the sounds of dân oan, aggrieved Vietnamese citizens who have been evicted from their land, protesting. But the sight is another thing to behold.

On November 24 of last year, the sentencing of 15-year-old Nguyên Mai Trung Tuấn to four-and-a-half years in prison shook Vietnamese people around the world. A photo of Tuấn protesting this past April after his family’s land was seized, fist up and yelling, began to circulate online along with the news of his sentence.

Take a look at the photo and you’ll notice first his age and his facial expression: his mouth wide open in mid-scream. It reads passion and perhaps desperation. The other striking element of the photo is his yellow shirt. It is painted with red text: Phòng Trào Liên Đới Dân Oan Tranh Đấu Việt Nam, “The Movement for Mutual Support of Aggrieved Citizens of Việt Nam.”

Tuấn is pictured both declaring his grievances through voice, but also through signage, he is wearing his protest sign.

When you reflect on protest signs you have seen around the world, you’ll notice that symbols and signs abound. Think: the rainbow flag of the LGBTQ movement or the “Pray for Paris” peace symbol, a circle with an Eiffel tower in the middle. There are countless other visual examples that one can conjure up.

Protests signs around the world often include eye-catching art and easy-to-remember key words and slogans. Meanwhile, the signs of dân oan are frequently bare--devoid of adornment, drawings and symbols, but loaded with text.

There is so much text that one might even mistake the well-aligned, font-like penmanship for a print job done by machine. But they are often meticulously painted by hand, onto t-shirts, blouses, skirts, and even nón lá, the Vietnamese conical hat.

In one photo, eight women stand together with white t-shirts with hand-painted pink text that look nearly identical. They declare: “200 people are homeless because the Hải Phòng government destroyed their houses.”  

Together, they hold a sign: “Denounce: three levels of Hải Phòng government organized to destroy 24 houses, rob the land at Đồng Linh…”

In another protest photo, you see an older woman splayed on the ground. She appears to have fainted, a protest sign covers her body. It reads:

“Aggrieved citizen of Bình Định province. The Bình Định government blatantly took my house, the 160 square meter orchard my family has owned since 1937. Please…” and the rest is cut off.

They are dense texts that read of accusations of government land grabs, sometimes even listing out the specific dimensions of the land that was seized, and often listing vital information that one would include on a petition.  

You could deem the signs straightforward, many of them directly addressing local authorities, demanding back land or the release of imprisoned land rights activists, and when analyzing the reason for this, that seems fairly straightforward as well: Most of them live and work as farmers. They have limited education. Branding is not generally a part of their lives, and thus it doesn’t appear in their campaigns and protests.

The Stand-out Feature: Coordination.

From color-coordination to apparel coordination, it appears that what the dân oan lack in drawings and art on their signs, they make up for in symbolic coordination. This brings us back to the text seen on Nguyễn Mai Trung Tuấn’s shirt, which is the same shirt worn by every member of his family during the April protests: Phòng Trào Liên Đới Dân Oan Tranh Đấu Việt Nam, “The Movement for Mutual Support of Aggrieved Citizens of Việt Nam.”  

In these straightforward protest signs, we begin to see organized collaboration--the foundation of a movement.

“Our family is willing to die to fight the communist robbers on April 14, 2015. We are ready to spill our blood to alert 90 million citizens of the tyrannical communist party,” the banner reads.

Regardless of one’s political stance, the dân oan’s banners and signs tell the stories of homelessness, desperation and determination. Their demands are often written and worn on their bodies. It’s a powerful message, that while their land has been seized, they will use what’s left that has not be seized--their bodies--in protest.