Collectors discuss art of poltical buttons

By ISABELLA ALTHERR
For The News-Letter

Even very small objects can have immense political and social power. Such power was on full display at Station North’s bookstore-coffeeshop collective Red Emma’s last Friday as three Baltimore activists and avid collectors of protest buttons, Fred Pincus, Natalie Sokoloff and Dean Pappas, organized a talk to kick off their exhibit “Social Movements Through Political Buttons: 1960s, 1970’s and 1980’s.”

The speakers had all selected several of their favorite or most memorable buttons on which to speak. However, this task must have been difficult as they all posses large collections — Pincus, for example, has 1,500 buttons. His buttons ranged from a 1980s button in support of Martin Luther King Day to those distributed by the United Farm Workers of America. Many of the causes of the buttons are still debated today, particularly unions and workers’ rights.

Pappas, in an introduction to his selection of buttons, spoke of buttons as memories. He remembered his pin advocating the march on the Pentagon in 1967 as his first experience of civil disobedience. The button he has from that event was described as part of the overall “theatre of civil disobedience,” while the many anti-Vietnam buttons in Mr. Pappas’ collection were connected with historic memories of burning draft cards.

Solokoff’s collection of feminist and gay liberation buttons allowed viewers to trace the history of those specific movements. Simply by wearing a button that supported the Equal Rights Amendment or protested violence against women, activists could spread awareness of these issues.

Visibility seemed to be the main draw of the button.

“You wear it publicly and you tend to wear them a lot, and you can find people and start talking about the issue,” Solokoff said.

They became a way of self organizing, especially important before activists were able to find each other over social media.

“[Political buttons] were the tweets of the earlier generation,” Pincus said.
However, sometimes the images on these buttons can speak louder than their words. When asked about their favorite buttons, both Sokoloff and Pappas gave examples of buttons with no words at all. Sokoloff spoke about the feminist symbol button, the combination of the female gender symbol and a fist. The symbol means strength, power and solidarity to so many people, and is easily identifiable.

Pappas said his favorite button is the button distributed by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, depicting a black hand and a white hand shaking hands.

The speakers were all incredibly eager not only to reminisce with others who shared the memories that the buttons represented, but also to educate the younger generation. The idea of bringing the exhibit to college campuses was raised.

“[I hope] young radicals will want to learn more about those past movements and what our strategies were and where we messed up and learned from our mistakes,” Pappas said.

The exhibit, which will run through the month of October, is not so much a collection of plastic tokens as it is a gathering of memories, each of which marks a point in a significant part of social and political history.

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