Fists Up and Other Silence Gestures
The Western repertoire of gestures for silence is not vast, and this scarceness conveys the difficulties faced when trying to create silence in a quotidian city environment, not to mention an emergency situation. The index finger held to the lips proves insufficient in these circumstances, effective only in situations of proximity and not easily distinguishable over a larger area. It can be extremely emphatic when performed quickly and more delicate and somber when performed slowly; typically, persons performing it close their mouth, which makes them enact silence, at least the silence of speech. The person silenced is being beckoned to stop both speech and the physical production of noise – hitting the ground with a hammer or walking loudly, for example – with a gesture directed specifically towards them. Nevertheless, it is a gesture that remains contained, dependent on the proximity of the silencer and the silenced.
Another gesture, covering one’s mouth with a hand, is associated with censorship, with a sense of shame regarding the inappropriateness of words or sounds coming out of one’s mouth; the hand physically attempts to stop the mouth’s movements and its sounds, creating an imposed, violent silence – a self-imposed censorship. In many parts of Latin America, the hand on mouth has recently been part of the imagery surrounding violence against women as an expression of the silence imposed on victims, their stories being censored by the system, perpetuating general injustice: a male hand covering a woman’s mouth. Besides these negative connotations and background, in a rescuing area, a hand on the mouth has the same disadvantage as a finger on the lips: it can only be perceived by those in close proximity. A more radical gesture for silence is to pull one’s hand, straight as a knife, across one’s neck towards the shoulder: a (mock) threatening or vengeful gesture, either serious or playful. However, in a post-earthquake context, in which the gesture needs to highlight collectivity and collaboration rather than imposing silence, this gesture appears inappropriate as well as inefficient.
When enquiring into the different layers of meaning present in a gesture, such as raising a fist in the air, it is necessary to enact it, to embody it: what immediately comes to mind is the “go, team!” or “victory!” gesture, a loud shout, nearly a reversal of a conductor’s gesture to silence musicians. In a spatial conflation of events, I also remember the stunning Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, after receiving their medals and while the USA anthem was playing – the black fist raised in the air, with lowered heads – immediately both celebrated and vilified. That fist was particularly threatening to entrenched power and inequality because it implied a response, a fight, not just a passive acceptance of injustice, while the bowed head implied a sense of grievance and ongoing struggle, not a proud, completed victory.
When I think of different scenarios – a classical concert, a rock concert, a protest, an Olympic games ceremony – the subtleties within the movement emerge. To raise a fist, closed and tight from the beginning, high up with a punching arm movement, is intrinsically different than to hold a palm in the air first and then, once people’s attention has been caught with tiny vibrating movements, close it tight for their eyes to see. The second was the one employed by the rescuers: holding palms up in a brief movement and then closing with a sense of holding something – noise and voice, breath and activity. Two fists raised in the air ends all other activity by the hands, and the physical stance seems to demand a more fixed, stable ground; the body seems equally fixed and tense, with less movement, less activity, less noise. One fist in the air allows the other hand to hold on to something, making the gesture slightly weaker.
There is no consensus on how the fists-up gesture began to be used across the city. It was a spontaneous idea that quickly spread during the first hours following the earthquake and was incorporated into the body language of those working in the disaster areas. It is effective in that it both can be seen from afar and necessitates a stop in one’s labor. If silence is often conceptualized as an opposition to speech, in this context it was an opposition to activity and motion. Everyone in the rescue areas was creating noise with their hands one way or another: using sledgehammers, moving rocks or buckets full of rubble, handling noisy machinery. Raising both fists in the air compelled everyone to stop all activity and to allow the most precarious signals to emerge within a field of silence: a person screaming from under the ground, a cell phone ringing next to someone incapable of speech, an animal trying to escape.