A makeshift noose and gallows ominously erected outside. In many ways this hate-filled display was the culmination of many others over the past few years, including the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that gathered extremist factions from across the country under a single banner. “These displays of white supremacy are not new,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Now it’s just reached a fever pitch.”
Extremist groups, including the pro-Trump, far-right, anti-government Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, a loose anti-government network that’s part of the militia movement, were among those descending on the halls of power on January 6.
The hateful imagery included an anti-Semitic “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt created years ago by white supremacists, who sold them on the now-defunct website Aryanwear, said Aryeh Tuchman, associate director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
Also among the rioters were members of Groyper Army, a loose network of white nationalists, the white supremacist New Jersey European Heritage Association, and the far-right extremist Proud Boys, along with other known white supremacists, Tuchman said.
While not all the anti-government groups were explicitly white supremacist, Tuchman said many support white supremacist beliefs. “Anyone who flies a Confederate flag, even if they claim it’s about heritage and not hate, we need to understand that it is a symbol of white supremacy,” Tuchman said.
Brooks said it was also important to note the demographics of the riotous crowd, which was overwhelmingly white. Within that context, even more traditional symbols of American patriotism, like the American flag, or political preference, like Trump 2020 signs, served to give the symbols of hate a pass. “You can wrap yourself in the American flag and call yourself a patriot and say you’re acting on behalf of the country, that you’re serving to protect the country. … But what America were you standing up for?” she asked.
“One that continues to support and advance white supremacy? Or one that welcomes and embraces a multiracial, inclusive democracy? That’s the difference.” The proliferation of white supremacist symbolism has a long history, with two clear peaks in the civil rights efforts following Reconstruction and during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Brooks said.
Now, as the US reckons with systemic racism following the police killing of George Floyd, she said Confederate symbols have been displayed more prominently, including at smallerscale white supremacist rallies and by counterprotesters carrying Confederate flags at Black Lives Matter gatherings across the country. “This is a response, and it’s not a new response,” Brooks said.
“Every time there is progress in asserting civil rights, there’s a backlash. Confederate iconography is a means to reassert white supremacy when it is thought to be threatened.” Karen Cox, a historian of the American South and Confederate symbols, said the phenomenon echoes the socalled “Lost Cause” mythology, the pseudo-historical ideology that the cause of the Confederacy during the Civil War was just and heroic — an assertion that lives on in the hearts of many who tote the Confederate flag today. “We are 150 years after the Civil War and people are still waving that flag,” Cox added. “This has been here for so long, it’s going to take a long time to go away — if it can.”