Take Back Red

International Women’s Day demonstration at UC Berkeley campus

Berkeley’s local election continues to provide fuel for celebration as Kate Harrison won her race for the District 4 seat vacated by Jesse Arreguin when he became mayor.  The city council now has a 6-3 progressive majority. No doubt it’ll be a challenge to keep that bloc from splintering, but that’s another story.

Meanwhile another hopeful event took place on the UC Berkeley campus on International Women’s Day, March 8. The organizing group focused the rally on the grievances of university non-academic employees, the great majority of whom are women. What I found particularly heartening was that the rally organizers called on participants to “wear red.”  And indeed, many participants in the rally crowd made a vivid circle of bright, resplendent red. Yes!

Republicans have stolen the color red, and it’s time to take it back. The appropriation of red by the party of billionaires ranks high among the monstrous hypocrisies of our time. This hijack rips off not only a symbol, an element of a brand. It ruptures the chain of continuity between the progressive peoples of today and a long history of revolutionary struggles.

In Royalist France, the Garde Nationale raised the red flag to try to terrorize demonstrators on the streets.  “L’étandard sanglant” — the bloody banner — warned that the authorities would shoot.  And shoot they did, killing 50 people in a demonstration on July 17, 1791. Thereafter, the most fearless revolutionaries adopted red as their own flag, to commemorate the martyrs and to demonstrate that they would not be intimidated. The democratic revolutionaries of 1848 raised the red flag on their barricades.  Red was the color of Garibaldi’s struggle to unify Italy.  The Paris Commune of 1871 fought under the red flag, as did the Russian workers in the October revolution a century ago.  At the time I was a college student, the so-called “red states” were Russia, China, Vietnam, Albania, Cuba, and so on.

Red has for ages been the color of everything left of center in the British parliamentary democracy.  In most of Europe, red is the color not only of the Communist parties, but of the whole spectrum of social-democratic and left-liberal movements. It was no different in the U.S. Red was the color of the left, blue the color of the right throughout the twentieth century.  During the McCarthy persecutions — the “Red Scare”– nobody who read newspapers or listened to radio would associate millionaires and billionaires with the red flag.

How did we get to the current chromatic perversion?  A 2012 article in the Smithsonian points to the election of  2000 as the flipping point.  From the advent of color TV to the end of the century, TV newscasts by CBS and NBC generally showed Republicans as blue and Democrats as red. Only ABC experimented with the opposite. But within days of the 2000 vote, the New York Times and USA Today published detailed county maps using red for Republicans and blue for Democrats. According to Archie Tse, senior graphics editor for the Times, quoted in the Smithsonian piece, “I just decided red begins with ‘r,’ Republican begins with ‘r.’  It was a more natural association. There wasn’t much discussion about it.”  That became the new standard under which we suffer today.

At the risk of disclosing my native streak of paranoia, I have to say that I don’t buy this explanation.  The claim that the senior graphics editor for the major metropolitan daily of its time never eyeballed the political implications of the color scheme, and that nobody higher up said anything about it, insults the intelligence.  Nevertheless, until someone comes forward with a more credible story, we’re stuck with this one.

Today’s reportage from Moscow says that the Putin regime intends to ignore the 100th anniversary of the October revolution later this year, largely because it does not want to celebrate citizens taking up arms and overthrowing their rulers. There’s an argument to be made that the implosion of the Soviet Union in the late 80s, and its internal purge of most of its revolutionary history, amounts to a forfeiture of its moral claim to the color red, placing red, as it were, in the public domain, for anyone to grab. Once detached from its Soviet historical linkage, the color red is an attractive commodity. It’s warm, and it comes forward to the eye. It expresses love, passion, emphasis.  In Chinese culture, red stands for courage, loyalty, honor, prosperity, and other good things. All things the Republican party is not.

All the more reason for the people’s progressive movement to reclaim red as our color.  The great Women’s March this past January boldly established pink as a color of protest on an unprecedented scale. That was a great step toward red. The International Women’s Day rally on the UC Berkeley campus clearly and strongly put red back on the progressive banner.  Let’s take back red!

Sources:  Smithsonian, Wikipedia


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