Color Coded

Can Slacktivists Stop Gun Violence? When Fashion Meets Activism

On Tuesday, we were encouraged to wear orange in a bid to combat gun violence. Are such fashion-oriented campaigns in any way effective?

Via Twitter

On Tuesday, gun-violence provention group Everytown for Gun Safety sparked a global campaign for activists and the social media-obsessed.

The plan of action was simple: You were to wear anything orange, post an image or a statement to social media with the hashtag #WearingOrange, and bring gun-safety awareness to the masses while at the same time honoring those who have been victims of gun violence.

“Everytown has done a great job of presenting intellectual arguments to people about gun-violence prevention, common-sense laws and public safety measures, but we really weren’t engaging people emotionally,” Jason Rzepka, the director of cultural engagement for Everytown told The Daily Beast. “But for some reason it felt like the movement wasn’t moving as quickly as it could. We hadn’t made it easy enough for people to show their support for the issue.”

So, they joined forces with a group of high school students from the south side of Chicago who had formed a nonprofit called The Orange Tree Project in honor of their friend, Hadiya Pendleton, who was killed by a stray bullet in 2013. She was 15 years old. June 2 would have been her 18th birthday.

The orange color that they chose seemed “powerfully symbolic,” according to Rzepka, because supporters were “wearing it in the way that hunters wear orange when they go in the woods, to protect themselves and others.”

Everyone from Sarah Silverman and Melissa Joan Hart to government officials pledged to wear orange and take a stand.

Announced 2½ weeks ago, the event saw over 40,000 tweets and was trending on social media both domestically and globally.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) definitely thinks it “pointless,” and some cynics may think this is a hollow act of goodwill, but even if 1 out of every 100 people did more than throw on an orange shirt, that still makes for a significant awareness-raising exercise.

Other groups, like the American Heart Association (red), the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (purple), and Susan G. Komen’s for the Cure (pink), have adopted color campaigns to raise awareness for their causes. Each year they are backed and endorsed by celebrities and the masses.

It’s not the first time a fashionable statement has dominated the activism world.

The wearing of yellow ribbons can be dated back to the early 20th century, when a military marching song, titled “Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon,” embodied the fashionable methods of war-time activism and hope. Whether tied around a tree or pinned to the lapel, it soon became an icon of families waiting for their loved ones to return.

By 1986, the AIDS Faith Alliance and, in 1992, the Visual AIDS Artists Caucus had adopted the red ribbon to symbolize the urgent crisis swiftly taking the lives of loved ones across the globe.

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The New York Times declared 1992 “The Year of the Ribbon.”

From then on the ribbon became symbolic of whichever campaign adopted it. The affected, survivors and their friends and loved ones could silently stand out among a crowd in support of their fight—AIDS, breast cancer, heart disease, or a loved one sent to war.

More abrasively, the silent (but effective) approach to activism has been seen on T-shirts fashioned with impactful slogans.

In 1984, British designer Katharine Hamnett attended a reception for the fashion elite at then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street office. There, she quickly changed into a T-shirt bearing the words “58% don’t want Pershing,” referencing Thatcher’s previous decision to allow the U.S. to store Pershing missiles in the UK, despite the majority public’s opposition.

Thatcher let out a “shriek of horror,” according to Hamnett, while the design became an infamous look for anti-Thatcher activists.

There were be-sloganed LGBT Pride T-shirts, and others which proclaimed your support for Reagan/Bush 84. If you believed something, you wore it on your chest. Or you pinned it to your lapel.

But with the dawning of the media age, the act has transformed from standing out in a crowd among your peers and confronting your aggressor face-to-face to exposing yourself to thousands, and potentially millions, of your social network followers. From slogans and buttons, we have moved to the simple, symbolic power of block color.

Still, it’s difficult to ascertain whether or not these types of movements impact the causes at hand more than a brief Instagram exposure.

“It’s extremely hard to measure for various reasons,” Seth Adam, a spokesperson for GLAAD told The Daily Beast. “We know our campaign received over a billion media impressions in 2013,” but when factoring in exposure from the Empire State Building being lit purple or a dozen screens in Times Square blasting inspirational messages, “it becomes very difficult.”

GLAAD’s “Go Purple for Spirit Day” campaign kicked off in 2010 during a year when LGBT-related suicide, specifically in relation to bullying, was flooding the media.

“The campaign is really about building visibility around bullying,” Adam said. “And also to let LGBT kids know that there is a support system and there are people out there that have their backs. When you’re an LGBT kid and you feel isolated and are struggling to come out, walking out on Spirit Day to a wave of purple and literally seeing your support around you can be a really strong message.”

Similarly, the American Heart Association’s “Wear Red for Women” and Susan G. Komen’s “Passionately Pink” craft the same network of support for their communities.

While Everytown is doing just that for a growing network of anti-gun violence enthusiasts, the organization is also pushing the event one step further on Wednesday by “sending the message that it is now time to roll up your orange sleeves” and actually get involved, Rzepka says.

“It’s fantastic that people are putting on orange clothing, that they are showing support for this,” Rzepka said. “But what is even more important is that those people who raised their hand and made a public statement realize that just putting on orange clothing doesn’t solve this problem. So our hope is to point them in the right direction of organizations that connect with their issues.”

The organization will implement a way of connecting those who take a stance with various existing groups tailored to specific interests within the realm of gun safety—mental health and suicide prevention, violence against women, or groups for moms, among many others.

While #WearingOrange might not put an immediate end to gun violence, and some might think it’s a pointless, purely gestural endeavor, it created all the right social media waves.

Indeed, with such a divisive and emotive issue as gun ownership and violence, too often played out on the news in stories of bloody tragedy, the campaign’s apparent innocence and simplicity may count as success enough.