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Anarchists have employed certain symbols for their cause, including most prominently the circle-A and the black flag, although anarchists have historically largely denied the importance of symbols to political movement. Since the revival of anarchism around the start of the 21st-century concurrent with the rise of the anti-globalization movement, anarchist cultural symbols are widely present.
The black flag, and the color black in general, have been associated with anarchism since the 1880s. Many anarchist collectives contain the word "black" in their names. There have been a number of anarchist periodicals entitled Black Flag.
The uniform blackness of the flag is in stark contrast to the colorful flags typical of most nation-states. Additionally, as a white flag has been used to request parley or to surrender, the counter-opposite black flag would logically be a symbol of defiance and opposition to surrender.
The black flag represents the absence of a flag, and thus stands in opposition to the very notion of nation-states. In that light, the flag can be seen as a rejection of the concept of representation, or the idea that any person or institution can adequately represent a group of individuals. Modern anarchism has a shared ancestry with – amongst other ideologies – socialism, a movement strongly associated with the red flag. As anarchism became more and more distinct from socialism in the 1880s, it adopted the black flag in an attempt to differentiate itself. Some anarchists at the time, such as Peter Kropotkin, preferred to continue using the red flag rather than adopt the black.
Both the black and red flags first gained notoriety for their use by Buccaneers, who were pirates of French origin operating in the West Indies. The black flag (later the "Jolly Roger") was displayed, or 'run up' the mast, first as an indication that the lives of the crew would be spared if they surrendered. If the crew resisted, the red flag would then be displayed to indicate that the offer of amnesty had been withdrawn; no prisoners would be taken (see also Jolly Roger/Pirate flag below).
During the French Revolution, the red flag was adopted by the Jacobin Club, whose members controlled the insurrectionary Paris Commune during the assault on the Tuileries, the September Massacres, and throughout the Reign of Terror. In 1831, the black flag was displayed as an emblem of protest during the first Canut revolt, an uprising of silk workers in Lyon; it was also flown in the 1840s during hunger riots, as a symbol of the desperation of the starving urban poor.
It first became associated with anarchism in the 1880s. The French anarchist paper, Le Drapeau Noir ("The Black Flag"), which existed until 1882, is one of the first published references to use black as an anarchist color. Black International was the name of a London anarchist group founded in July 1881. Louise Michel, participant in the Paris Commune of 1871, flew the black flag on March 9, 1883, during demonstration of the unemployed in Paris, France. An open air meeting of the unemployed was broken up by the police and around 500 demonstrators, with Michel at the front carrying a black flag and shouting "Bread, work, or lead!" marched off towards the Boulevard Saint-Germain. The crowd pillaged three baker's shops before the police attacked. Michel was arrested and sentenced to six years solitary confinement. Public pressure soon forced the granting of an amnesty. According to Michel, the "black flag is the flag of strikes and the flag of those who are hungry."
The black flag soon made its way to America. On November 27, 1884, the black flag was displayed in Chicago at an Anarchist demonstration. According to the English Language newspaper of the Chicago anarchists, it was "the fearful symbol of hunger, misery and death."
In the Russian Revolution of 1917, Nestor Makhno's anarchist forces were known collectively as the Black Army. They fought under a black flag with some success until they were crushed by the Red Army (see Black Guards). Emiliano Zapata, a Mexican revolutionary in the 1910s, used a black flag with a skull and crossbones and the Blessed Virgin Mary on it. The flag's slogan was "Tierra y Libertad" ("Land and Liberty"). In 1925, Japanese anarchists formed the Black Youth League, which had branches in the then-colonial Taiwan. In 1945, the group named their journal Kurohata ("Black Flag").
More recently, Parisian students carried black (and red) flags during the massive General Strike of May 1968. In the same year, these flags were seen at the American Students for a Democratic Society national convention. Also at about the same time, the British based journal Black Flag was started, and is still in existence today. Black flags remain a symbol of anarchists today.
The Circle-A is almost certainly the best-known present-day symbol for anarchy. It is a monogram that consists of the capital letter "A" surrounded by the capital letter "O". The letter "A" is derived from the first letter of "anarchy" or "anarchism" in most European languages and is the same in both Latin and Cyrillic scripts. The "O" stands for order. Together they stand for "Anarchy is the mother of Order," the first part of a Proudhon quotation. This character can be written as Unicode codepoint U+24B6: Ⓐ. In addition, the "@" sign or "(A)" can be used to quickly represent the circle-A on a computer.
The first recorded use of the A in a circle by anarchists was by the Federal Council of Spain of the International Workers Association. This was set up by Giuseppe Fanelli in 1868. It predates its adoption by anarchists as it was used as a symbol by others. According to George Woodcock, this symbol was not used by classical anarchists. In a series of photos of the Spanish Civil War taken by Gerda Taro a small A in a circle is visibly chalked on the helmet of a militiaman. There is no notation of the affiliation of the militiaman, but one can presume he is an Anarchist. The first documented use was by a small French group, Jeunesse Libertaire ("Libertarian Youth") in 1964. Circolo Sacco e Vanzetti, youth group from Milan, adopted it and in 1968 it became popular throughout Italy. From there it spread rapidly around the world.
As noted above, the circle-A long predates the anarcho-punk movement, which was part of the punk rock movement of the late 1970s. However, the punk movement helped spread the circle-A symbol more widely, and helped raise awareness of it among non-anarchists. This process began with the use of anarchist imagery when members of the band Crass become aware of the symbol while traveling through France. With time the symbol, and "anarchy" as a vague synonym for rebelliousness, were incorporated into common punk imagery. This led to gradual appearances in mainstream culture over the course of several years, at times far removed from its political origin (described by Situationists as "recuperation"). These appearances typically connected it with anarchy and were intended as sensationalist marketing ploys, playing off of mainstream association of anarchy with chaos.
While the black flag and circle-A have been associated with anarchism as a whole, there are various other symbols used by certain groups of anarchists.
The black cat, also called the "wild cat" or "sabot-cat", usually with an arched back and with claws and teeth bared, is closely associated with anarchism, especially with anarcho-syndicalism. It was designed by Ralph Chaplin, who was a prominent figure in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). As its aggressive stance suggests, the cat is meant to suggest such ideas as wildcat strikes, sabotage, and radical unionism.
The origin of the black cat symbol is unclear, but according to one story it came from an IWW strike that was going badly. Several members had been beaten up and were put in a hospital. At that time a skinny, black cat walked into the striker's camp. The cat was fed by the striking workers and as the cat regained its health the strike took a turn for the better. Eventually the striking workers got some of their demands and they adopted the cat as their mascot.
The name Black Cat has been used for numerous anarchist-affiliated collectives and cooperatives, including a well-known music venue in Austin, Texas (which was closed following a July 6, 2002 fire) and a now-defunct "collective kitchen" in the University District of Seattle, Washington.
The Anarchist Black Cross organization's primary goal is to eliminate all prisons. It originated in Tsarist Russia as a support organization for political prisoners. Their symbol is a black cross, with the upwards-facing line being replaced with a raised fist, a symbol also associated with anarchism, defiance of authority, and personal empowerment (black power, youth power, women's liberation, American Indian Movement, International Socialist Organization, 'power to the people', etc...). The fist also represents union, as "many weak fingers can come together to create a strong fist".
The cross is a modification of the Red Cross emblem used by International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (founded 1863), the world's largest group of humanitarian organizations. Originally called the Anarchist Red Cross, the name was changed around 1920 to avoid confusion when the Red Cross started organizing relief for prisoners as well.
Black Rose Books is the name of the pre-eminent anarchist bookstore in Montreal, an anarchist infoshop in Portland, Oregon, and a small press imprint headed by anarchist philosopher Dimitrios Roussopoulos. Black Rose was the title of a respected journal of anarchist ideas published in the Boston area during the 1970s, as well as the name of an anarchist lecture series addressed by notable anarchists and libertarian socialists (including Murray Bookchin and Noam Chomsky) into the 1990s.
The Jolly Roger as a black flag with skull and bones has recently gained a popularity among anarchists.
Some claim to use the Jolly Roger as a form of appreciation for the Pirate way of life in freedom and a lack of authority. Many Pirate ships were loosely democratic and most crew mates were working class fugitives from the highly repressive societies in which they were born. Anarchists may find affinity with the concept of pirate utopias, especially the island of legend, Libertatia. The Libertatian pirates have been identified as precursors to anarchists. Several articles relating to the connection between anarchism and piracy can be found in the libcom.org library Some anarchist hacktivists and infoanarchists consider themselves pirates due to their free lifestyles in the world of technology and their defiance of intellectual property laws by way of copyright infringement, patent infringement and software piracy, all of which are called piracy. See also Free software movement and Free culture movement
The sabot or wooden shoe (also known as clog) was used symbolically by anarchists in the 19th and early 20th century, although it has largely faded from use since then. The French word for wooden shoe, sabot is the probable root of the word sabotage: and refers to the tactic by early Dutch unionists of throwing sabots into the gears of factory or farm machinery, effectively stopping work until the equipment could be repaired. The American analogue of this tactic is "monkeywrenching," referring to the similar practice of throwing a monkeywrench in the machinery to damage it and prevent strikebreakers from being able to replace striking union members.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there is an anarcho-syndicalist bookshop called The Wooden Shoe, and from 2001 to 2003 there was an anarchist magazine in Denmark called Sabot. There is also an American record label focusing primarily on punk-rock and genres revolving around it called Sabot Productions, which uses exactly the same sabot picture seen on the right as their logo.
A flag depicting a regular leather shoe of a type worn by peasants in the 16th century was carried by the peasants in the German peasants war of 1524-1525, a proto-anarchist rebellion.
The Squatting sign is used by squatters all over the world. Sometimes as a graffiti, often on the walls of the occupied building. But it is also used in the graphic design of posters and flyers. The sign might have originated in the squatters scene in Amsterdam (The Netherlands) in the late 1970s.
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