By Jonathan Wynn
There are plenty of articles and posts that explore how sociological concepts can inform our understanding the Capitol siege on January 6th, 2021. (There’s a great post, titled “Sociology of the Siege” here). Of all the things going on that day, symbolism was a big part of it.
On the one hand, you have one of the great symbols of American democracy, the U.S. Capitol Building—such a significant symbol that was the alleged fourth target of another symbolic act, the 9/11 attacks. But there, among the crowd laying siege to it, was a wild mass of signs and imagery that was quite difficult to decipher for those who might not know what all of it means.
She was right, and it was all on display at the Capitol Siege.
We could start with one recognizable symbol, the confederate flag. Someone who sees that might think of it as symbolizing general resistance or specific resistance to “political correctness.” Someone else would, rightly, see it as a symbol of white supremacy. Maybe you would recognize the yellow Gadsden (Don’t Tread On Me) Flag, which has a meaning that keeps shifting, but the right has embraced it nonetheless since Tea Party movement of the 2000s. Other recognizable symbols included military garb, and flags that support the former president. Perhaps you’re familiar with conspiracies around QAnon and saw the ubiquitous “Q” on some flags.
Symbols, for Emile Durkheim, were of central importance to understanding religion and, therefore, culture. A well-known takeaway from his The Elementary Forms of Religious Life is that every culture is a collection of things and the meanings we attach to those things. Religion categorizes objects as sacred and profane, famously, but that the secular world does as well. Conveniently, Durkheim uses a flag as an example (1953: 87): just some cloth and dye, really, and yet when arranged in a particular manner, it holds a significance even embodying the very soul of a community, so much so that someone would die for it. Anything can mean anything, of course. Durkheim would have likely been unsurprised to see so many flags—Trump, Gadsden, 3%, AF, U.S., a green flag, even the South Vietnamese flag—at the Capitol Riots.
Flags were just one symbol there, however.
There were many modern totems of the far-right movement on display, well beyond what the average observer might recognize. What is it about orange instead of the usual black and yellow for supremacists? What’s “WWG1WGA?” 3%? AF? What’s with the frog? Why so much pagan and Norse imagery? What about 6MWE? What is the Punisher (skull) logo mean? Why do we see so many pictures of people flashing an okay sign? What’s a “Proud Boy?” What’s a “Boogaloo Boi?”
It was a smorgasbord of symbolism. We cannot analyze everything going on there. I’ll unpack just a few of the symbols. The green flag is a kind of joke among 4Chan (an anonymous discussion forum site) followers, about a fake country for Kekistan, inspired by a cartoon image called “Pepe the Frog. What’s the okay sign about? It’s a hand gesture that arranges the fingers into a WP for “White Power.” (Read more unpacking of the symbolism here, if you or your campus has a New York Times subscription or here if you have a subscription to the Washington Post.)
Participants wore some of these symbols together, but they show a loose affinity among the riot members.
One thing I find interesting about symbolism is how symbols get dislodged from their origins. Fred Perry clothing has a history (detailed here), that led it to becoming one of the preferred brands of white supremacists. Three roman numerals, for example, is a symbol that represents (incorrectly) the idea that only 3% of American colonists fought in the Revolutionary War against the British.
And some symbols become unmoored from their original intent and their original creators, too. For example, the creator of Pepe the Frog actually loathes that it has become an alt-right, white supremacist symbol, and has gone to court to get the rights for his image. Similarly, the creator of the comic book character, The Punisher, does not care for how police and para-military have embraced his imagery, but he’s also confused why the logo is so misunderstood: The Punisher, as a character, was vehemently anti-cop. (Jeez, people—at least read a comic book!)
Why, though, use such symbolism in the first place? Well, symbols are used to obscure ideological commitments from everyday folk while still communicating those ideological commitments to those insiders who share the beliefs.
For example, The Southern Poverty Law Center, when commenting on the “Kek” subcultural imagery, says that the use of these symbols, is to obscure and render unavailable to non-members (“normies,” as they say) their membership, and to signal “to fellow conversants online that the writer embraces the principles of chaos and destruction that are central to alt-right thinking, as it were.”
Thinking about dress and symbols isn’t new, and it should remind you of the subcultures literature. (We’ve talked about subcultures on this website before, with Karen Sternheimer discussing the concept broadly, and specifically with the case of the Amish, I wrote about football, foie gras, and subcultures, and Teresa Gonzales wrote about Mexican pointy boots.) What we learn from subcultures is how much symbolism helps to cohere a group and communicate to each other.
Take a different context. Look at this clip from a documentary on the “Punks, Skinheads, and Skaboys of Dublin” from the late 1970s/early 1980s. Listen to how skinheads talk about their subculture. What’s important to them? Being an individual on the one hand, being a member of the white working class (and anti-immigrant) on the other. The shaved heads, the white t-shirt and thin red suspenders—all symbolism that brings the group together.
To talk about the symbols of the insurrection is not to discount the other factors that made January 6th such a monumental moment in American history, but to explore its significance in greater detail. Symbols allow us to understand who took part, showing the siege was a mix of online subcultural groups, QAnon conspiracy theorists, average Trump supporters who wouldn’t know what 4Chan is, militia extremists looking for a fight, and straight up racists.
It also shows how collective action works with the deployment of such symbolism. Book two of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms spends a good deal of time on the words, names, and symbols of religion and the ways they crystalize their significance in collective gatherings (p.212). Highly emotional gatherings fuse these symbols and meanings together far more than their original intent ever could. In that way, the Capitol Riots were not the last time they will deploy these symbols. Their efficacy, if anything, has been further cemented.
To learn more about white supremacists, look at this article, “Addicted to Hate: Identity residual among former white supremacists,” and this primer from the American Sociological Association.