Sign of the Times

How Umbrellas Became the Symbol of Seattle Protests

Those things we never use? They're here now, linking local demonstrations to everything from Hong Kong to Amazon.

By Allison Williams June 3, 2020

Real Seattleites don't use umbrellas. It's one of our foundational city myths, alongside the Seattle Freeze, bad fashion game, and coffee addiction. But Tuesday night, as thousands of protesters faced police in a tense Capitol Hill standoff, the front lines were awash in dozens of umbrellas—and not because it was raining.

For one, they are a sign that Seattleites marching against police brutality have turned an eye abroad. The bumbershoot tactic has roots in the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement of 2014 when tens of thousands of protesters, demanding open elections, used umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas released by police. Among the modern protest tactics developed by Hong Kong youth, the yellow umbrella became especially symbolic.

In Seattle, the iconic umbrella was bright pink. As crowds faced Seattle Police Department at the corner of Cal Anderson Park on Monday, only a few comers brought the accessory—including one in such a rosy magenta, you could spot it easily from nearby roofs. Language and posture had grown tense after 9pm when a police officer snatched the pink umbrella, starting a brief scuffle with its holder. Police deployed tear gas; flash bangs followed. Livestreamed to the world from on the ground and above, it appears that the exchange sparked the transformation from protest to chaos.

Tuesday night, the umbrellas multiplied. The front lines of the protest, thick against police barricades at Pine Street and 11th Avenue, were stacked half a dozen deep with domes of black, yellow, gray, and multicolor stripes. The crowds behind them held Black Lives Matter signs and chanted the names of police brutality victims, then demands like "Take off your riot gear/we don't see no riot here."  

Seattle's anti-umbrella sentiment has long been a heavy dose of braggadocio, like when Wisconsinites insist on flip flops when it snows. The rainy city can take it. (Never mind that our city actually receives less precipitation than New York City or Houston; rain is our thing.) To be honest, the bulky devices aren't much use against the drizzle that hangs in our air anyway.

A sea of umbrellas can project whimsy or grim acceptance; they're Mary Poppins or the universal sign of a dreary day. Tuesday's protest collection served double duty: Besides repudiating the pandemonium of the night before, they were concrete protection from the expected tear gas. Golf-sized versions striped in orange and white, some scrawled with anti-cop slogans, layered the collection with an extra Seattle-specific meaning. Purloined from Amazon's office building supply, they're used by white collar workers on trips to midday meetings and takeout restaurants. 

Tuesday's protest signs referenced Monday's clash.

As Tuesday's evening protest creeped into the night—and past a last-minute, 9pm curfew—it looked as though the tool may have actually defused tensions; several protesters lowered their umbrellas when SPD officers removed their gas masks, a shared detente. "The umbrellas give the front line a kind of nightmare pillow fort vibe," reported a participant via Twitter.

But around 11:30pm, in a sequence almost identical to the night before, the peace broke. Police deployed flash bangs. Remaining protesters ducked behind their makeshift ceiling as clouds of tear gas hung low over Pine Street. As the crowd dispersed, one livestreamer videoed a police officer destroying an abandoned umbrella.

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