Protest signs: the messages of the movement

Black Lives Matter protests have sparked conversations as well as creativity. For protesters and allies in Iowa, posters and graphics during the marches have helped tell the stories and express the emotion and messages of protesters across Iowa.


Iowa State senior, Jo Allen, participates in a protest in Des Moines, IA. Contributed by Jo Allen.

Megan Conroy, Arts Reporter

While wearing a mask that read, “I can’t breathe” written in black lettering, Jo Allen, an Iowa State senior, attended the first of weeks of protests in downtown Des Moines on May 29. Even amid a global pandemic, the protest was a part of history that Allen wanted to see for herself.

Allen is a photographer, and she originally attended the protest to capture the history happening in front of her eyes. After taking many photos, Allen decided she had captured enough, and it was time for her to join the movement. Inspired by the protests, she decided to help organize the Black Lives Matter protests in Ames.

“I didn’t plan on becoming a part of it, but then I realized that nothing was really happening in Ames,” Allen said. “That’s an issue, you have a stadium named after an African American that was killed playing for your team. Yet, there’s no uproar. Eventually, I got connected to the right people and now here we are, Ames BLM trying to start up our own thing and see what we can do.”

Lisa Truong carries the portrait of George Floyd drawn by her sister at a protest. Contributed by Tammy Truong.

Capturing history with a camera displays one form of expression, but to Allen, the signs are also a reflection of what everyone is feeling inside. Allen explained that for white people, the signs show empathy and solidarity in caring for their Black neighbors, friends, stepchildren, students, and more.

“[The signs] are important because it’s their way of showing that they’re supporting us, they’re here for all of us: Black lives, Black trans lives, Black queer lives, Black disabled lives,” she said. “For Black people, it’s a way to tell their stories. If it’s not with signs, it’s with chants to use their voices as well.”

Artist and Davenport resident Tammy Truong opts out of attending local protests due to social anxiety but creates the signs that her sister, Lisa Truong, carries. For her first-ever sign, Tammy drew a black alcohol-based marker portrait of George Floyd and wrote “I can’t breathe” in red on a large piece of cardboard.

Tammy said she knew that she wanted the signs she created to be large in order to display the message loud and clear. She said she contemplated selling her art and donating the money to BLM charities, but decided that without a strong social media following, the idea may not be as productive as she intended.

The artist added that in the future she would make more signs for friends and family, and even participate in painting a mural with a group of people if the opportunity arose.

“In my opinion, signs are a great way to say, ‘Hey, this is important, and don’t you forget!’” Tammy said. “Art and media in general are important in everyday life and can be used in an impactful way to advocate for what you believe in, especially if you’re more soft-spoken like I am.”

Lisa Truong said she made the decision to join the protests amid a pandemic in order to be a better ally and advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement. Before going to the protest, Lisa said she knew she wanted to bring a sign to show solidarity with the movement.

“I realized my sister could create something even more meaningful [than I could]. It was a truly amazing experience to showcase her work and see how many people were in awe of the signs she created. This is the value of signs. It is when someone looks past the crowds of people and can see why everyone came together to create change in a single poster.”