The human armada of protesters at the Women’s March on Washington the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, like all the fleets of demonstrators in cities around the world, was acutely memorable for the many colors of its flags. However one experienced the protests—whether via social media, on TV, or at firsthand (as I was lucky enough to do, with my wife and son, on the National Mall in Washington)—the signs that the marchers carried dominated the view. Bold, wildly varied, and often cuttingly funny, idiosyncratically veracious with their homemade drawings and hand-painted lettering, the signs gave instantly communicable and immediately sharable form to the manifold strains of discontent the marchers had gathered to express. The grabby, fast-working visual shorthand of signage emerged through the postinaugural marches as the lingua franca of protest in our time—the age of memes, Twitter, and emoji, including the life-size frowny-face emoji now tweeting from his bed in the White House.
On the day of the marches, while people were still filling the streets, Slate posted a feature headlined “The Best, Nastiest Protest Signs From the Women’s March on Washington.” The first image on the page was of a woman smiling for the photographer with a sign held over her head. The placard displayed, in pink and purple, a drawing of female reproductive organs surrounded by an inscription in big capital letters: This Machine Kills Fascists.
I’ll assume the feature’s curator thought of this as one of the best signs, rather than one of the nastiest, at the march (although nastiness, as a measure of offense in the defense of values under siege, can surely sometimes qualify as the “best” approach). The message of the sign was strong, and it worked on multiple levels, effectively repurposing a motto used by Woody Guthrie in the early prime of protest music for a new day in which songs, though they remain all around us, no longer function as cultural currency with the efficacy of visual messages.
It is now more than 75 years since Guthrie, a radical young musician and newspaper columnist in 1941, affixed a label to his guitar warning, with the ominous cheekiness that laced his songs, “This machine kills fascists.” Sometimes he placed the word “kills” alone on the middle line, written in black block letters thicker than the rest. As Guthrie made clear, his contempt for the fascism of the Nazi regime was unfettered in the wake of Hitler’s abandonment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Guthrie had no interest in nonaggression, political or aesthetic, attacking both Hitler and Mussolini in a string of wartime musical assaults like “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave,” “Tear the Fascists Down,” “Talking Hitler’s Head Off Blues,” and “All You Fascists Bound to Lose,” many of which he co-wrote and recorded with the Popular Front vocal ensemble called the Almanac Singers. At the same time, Guthrie saw a kind of fascism in the repression of the poor by the monolithic forces of capitalism.
Guthrie’s protest songs were tough-minded but leavened with doses of homespun wit and schoolyard playfulness to help make them palatable to a public unaccustomed to hard-hitting social and political statements on records or the radio. In “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave,” for instance, Guthrie and the Almanac Singers repurposed a lighthearted folk song, “Old Joe Clark,” with lyrics that toggled between the jokey and the severe: