What is the meaning of the umbrellas in Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Revolution”?

Under my umbrella.
Under my umbrella.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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The ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong have co-opted an unusual symbol: the umbrella. After the publishing of striking images of front-line protestors parrying jets of pepper spray with nylon shields, social media began dubbing the protests the “Umbrella Revolution” and the “Umbrella Movement.”

Image for article titled What is the meaning of the umbrellas in Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Revolution”?
Image: Reuters/Stringer

The protestor in one photo, arms and umbrella raised amid clouds of tear gas, has been called “Umbrella Man” on social media, a reference to to the iconic image of Tank Man from the Tianamen Square protests of 1989. (Another Umbrella Man was the focal point of a John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory.)

Umbrella Man is 2014’s Tank Man.
Umbrella Man is 2014’s Tank Man.
Image: AP/Jeff Widener

In another photo, umbrellas are piled with other objects, blocking a subway exit.

Why umbrellas?

Umbrellas are common accessories during Hong Kong summers, used for shade in sweltering heat. In the past few days, temperatures have risen above 30 degrees Celsius. In a protest this June, umbrellas were as ubiquitous as they are now.

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters gather to march in the streets to demand universal suffrage in Hong Kong July 1, 2014. Pro-democracy protesters gathered for a mass march in Hong Kong on Tuesday, with one burning a photograph of the city's leader and another calling for him to be sacked, in what could be the biggest challenge to Chinese Communist Party rule in more than a decade. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3WKCK
Umbrellas aplenty during a July 1 protest in Honk Kong.
Image: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

According to Ho-Fung Hung, a Johns Hopkins sociologist and an expert in contemporary China, umbrellas have been used as a protestor’s self-defense “sporadically.” This time, given the scale of the protests, organizers expected a strong police response and came prepared.

“The police have been using pepper spray quite liberally in their attempts to contain protests,” said Hung.  ”The protestors are organized, they’re very prepared. So you see this ocean of umbrellas on the front line.”

The umbrellas are probably reasonably effective in defending against pepper spray, said Hung, but less so against tear gas.

The image is a poignant one, and emphasizes the asymmetry of force: an innocuous household object held up against helmeted police officers wielding poisonous substances for crowd control. As one protestor wrote to the Atlantic: “When we felt threatened, we opened umbrellas and raised our hands.”