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In an authoritarian state with mass censorship, simple words and images can become crimes. Owning silence under such circumstances creates power, says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian specializing in modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine. When a protester joins a crowd and says nothing, they deny the state the tools to suppress. A silent citizen’s words cannot be taken away or used against them.

In September 1968, tens of thousands of students staged a silent march calling for greater democracy in Mexico. Contradicting the Mexican government’s accusations that they were resorting to violence, the students protested by simply carrying flags. (Around this same time, civil rights activists in the United States wielded flags with similar goals in mind.) “You’re taking the symbols of the regime and exposing the illegitimacy of the regime at the same time,” says David Meyer, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine.

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