By Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
The Impact of a Sign

Since the beginning of the student protests in early December, one of their core principles has been “no politicization of the protests,” meaning that the protests could not be claimed or represented by any member of the current Albanian political class; the protests were beyond petty party politics. Indeed in the first weeks of the protests it indeed seemed as if – and this took many by surprise – the student movement, without any visible leadership, managed to avoid being drawn in the tiresome logic of Albanian party politics.

This was shown also by the wide variety and creativity of the signs carried by the students:

 

The long days of protests, the extremely cold weather, the barrage of false promises by Prime Minister Rama, and the complete lack of any type of support from the spineless and atrophied international diplomatic community in Tirana – which in the appropriate ambience (i.e., safe distance) would be the first to tout “civil society” as one of its “core priorities” – seem, however, to have taken their toll on the students’ vigilance.

Because the main image above this article raised serious concerns in me. It was taken today, in front of the US Embassy of Tirana. Perhaps for the ordinary viewer, this photograph is not different from many others that have circulated over the last weeks. However, this one is fundamentally different for one specific reason: the typography on the signs. All the signs we can see in the hands of the students have been professionally printed, not handwritten. Moreover, they are printed in a very specific typeface: Impact.

Readers may recognize this typeface from its more recent use in memes, but its usage in Albanian politics definitely predates that development. Impact is, in fact, the main typeface of the Albanian political class, and has been used in protests, announcements, banners, and official events, by government and opposition alike. In fact, over the years I kept a small blog documenting its frequent appearance in Albanian public space.

Here are some examples, from a broad political spectrum:

For me, the appearance of print signs typeset in Impact at a protest always means the same thing. This is protest that has the support of (a part of) the political class and is no longer a spontaneous civil movement, no matter its claims. But Impact, that is the typeface of “politicization.” Impact is the font that signals the inevitable moment that some bag of money or favor has found its way into the hands of some of the organizers. Because Impact is used by both the government and the opposition, it is difficult to say which party the signs “represent,” but they certainly represent the current political class.

Now, because it is leaderless, the damage that this obvious, albeit partial, political capture of the student protest may have caused is limited by nature. However, a good rule of thumb may be: when it is not hand-painted or printed at home, and whenever you see that typeface designed in 1965 by Geoffrey Lee, know that someone somewhere has sold out.