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What We Saw at the Capitol Hill Insurrection

Much of the imagery at last week's invasion of the Capitol was familiar from past right-wing rallies. Much of it, however, was not.
January 12, 2021, 5:19pm

We are part of a team of researchers at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Columbia University’s Engineering and Journalism schools that has been developing a tool called VizPol, which helps journalists identify unfamiliar political symbols, since April 2019. Nina had the idea to help improve journalists’ understanding of visual political symbols at a right-wing rally in 2018 after she saw a TV journalist fail to point out a contradiction between what an interviewee was saying and what a symbol she had tattooed on her forearm suggested about her political beliefs. As part of keeping the app’s database up-to-date with the constantly evolving landscape of symbols, we have paid close attention to the various symbols appearing at political rallies across the political spectrum in the United States.

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At the January 6 “Save America” rally, and the subsequent violent storming of the Capitol, Donald Trump followers telegraphed their ideologies through a variety of familiar and unfamiliar flags and logos. Some of these, particularly many well-known right-wing symbols and groups including the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, the Gadsden Flag, and 2nd Amendment references, have already been chronicled by other journalists, so there is no need to delve into every symbol photographed at the Capitol. However, after scanning over a thousand photographs and hours of video from the event, we identified characteristics unique to the event, distinct from its antecedents, that were evidenced by the presence of some specific symbols.

Christian imagery

In addition to group prayers and Jericho marches, which are ritualistic prayer walks, notable Christian symbols appeared at the January 6 rally.

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Group prayers. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

“Jesus Saves” signs and an enormous "Jesus 2020" banner could be seen on the east side of the Capitol shortly before it was breached.

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Large “Jesus 2020” banner. Photo by Nina Berman.

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“Jesus Saves” and other evangelist messaging. Photo by Nina Berman.

The 20th-century Christian flag was flown by many attendees.

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Christian Flag amidst the crowd outside the Capitol. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images​.

Below we can see a symbol of the cross on a man’s T-shirt under a sign reading “In God We Trust,” transplanted from a cross that was popular during the Crusades.

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Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images

This evokes a reading of the pro-Trump movement as a white, Christian war on the other. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former advisor, has often been quoted saying the West is in “the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism,” which he places within the long and selectively chosen history of Christian-Muslim conflict going back to the Crusades. As demonstrators climbed on government vehicles and cheered from the Capitol steps, one supporter read a message on his phone saying, “Yahweh let good prevail over evil in your mighty name. Praise you for your army. Put your badge of protection all around them. Amen.”

While Christian imagery at right-wing demonstrations is not a new phenomenon (demonstrators at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 flashed some Crusades symbols), the overwhelming presence of it at the Capitol suggests the importance of this event in particular to the religious right. 

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As a complement to overt Christian imagery, some demonstrators flew the “Straight Pride” flag, designed by Super Happy Fun America, a far-right pro-Trump organization known for organizing the 2019 “Straight Pride Parade” in Boston. They chartered six buses to transport about 300 agitators to the Capitol on January 6.

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A demonstrator waves a “Straight Pride” flag. We can also see pro-Trump writing on a Rainbow LGBT Pride Flag and an Anti-Chinese Communist Party sign. Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

The presence of QAnon symbols has been growing at right-wing rallies, but on January 6th QAnon clearly took center stage.

QAnon supporters with their T-shirts and flags were a visible presence throughout the rally and in the storming of the Capitol. This was to be a day of reckoning in their violent cosmology, which involves a deep state populated by human traffickers, pedophiles, bloodsuckers, and cannibals led by Democrats, including Joe Biden and others who are burrowed into the bureaucracy of government. Adherents believe that Trump is waging a secret war against these people, which will culminate in the day of reckoning, or “the storm,” when prominent Trump foes will be brought to justice and executed.

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QAnon supporter telegraphing messaging about “the storm.” Photo by Nina Berman.

Proponents of QAnon include disgraced Lt. General Michael Flynn and newly elected Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. QAnon in its current form began in October 2017 when someone called “Q”, claiming to be a high-level government operative with “Q”-level clearance, began posting anonymous “intel drops” on a 4chan thread titled “The Calm Before the Storm.” In recent months, Trump’s lawyers Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, who have become heroes to QAnon adherents, unable to find any true evidence to support their allegations of voter fraud, released almost 200 pages of documents, mostly containing conspiracy theories. When interviewed about these documents, Powell said their contents would “release the kraken”, a reference to the gigantic sea monster from Norse mythology. At least one demonstrator carried an “Unleash the Kraken” flag.

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Demonstrator brandishing an “Unleash the Kraken” flag. Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

We found many images of people brandishing “Q” imagery, slogans with the hashtag #SaveOurChildren,” flags with “Where We Go One, We Go All,” and messaging asking other Q supporters to “Trust the Plan” (a call to still keep faith in Q even after Q incorrectly predicted that Biden would lose the election).

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QAnon and a Confederate flag with the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the background. Photo by Nina Berman.

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A QAnon supporter with a t-shirt exhorting other Q supporters to “Trust the Plan.” Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Blue Lives Matter flag

In the last days leading up to the election, pro-Trump rallies were awash in Blue Lives Matter flags hoisted by law enforcement and its supporters and indicative of nationwide police union support for Trump. “Back the Blue'' was chanted as enthusiastically as “We want Trump.” On January 6, the Blue Lives Matter flag, while present, was vastly reduced in number. That is not to say that pro-Trump law enforcement did not particpate in the march or in the storming of the Capitol, and clearly there were individuals with Blue Lives Matter patches and some with flags. But their density had markedly reduced. The reason for the decline is unclear. One theory is that recent conflicts between militant Trump supporters such as the Proud Boys, who recently clashed with D.C. police, have made some reconsider—at least temporarily—an alliance with law enforcement. Insurrectionists storming the Capitol could be heard screaming “Fuck the blue” as they attacked Capitol Police.

America First Groypers

Photographs and videos of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 prominently show the symbols of white supremacist groups like Vanguard America, the Detroit Right Wings, the National Socialist Movement, Identity Evropa, the Traditionalist Worker Party, and the League of the South, among others. From our perusal of photographs and video, the symbols and logos these groups use appeared to be mostly absent at the Capitol on January 6. In large part because of the actions of antifascist activists and lawsuits, these groups have dwindled in visibility since 2017, with some disbanding entirely and others rebranding themselves with new identities. Whether because these groups are no longer as active or because their members have assumed different affiliations, their symbols were notably not visible on January 6. Instead, we saw a robust presence of America First (AF) flags. America First is an organization led by 22-year-old far-right activist and Trump supporter Nicholas J. Fuentes, who sees himself as a contemporary Patrick Buchanan—a white nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, conservative Catholic who believes the Republican Party isn’t far right enough. His followers fashion themselves the “Groyper Army” or just the “Groypers." Fuentes himself was present at the “Save America” rally and his followers were seen storming the Capitol.

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“America First” flags. Photo by Nina Berman

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A young man waves an “America First” flag inside the Senate chamber. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Revolutionary War-era imagery

The refrain of needing to fight to preserve a mythical "real America” has pervaded all aspects of right-wing politics. One of the ways it manifested on January 6 was through references to the American Revolutionary War, seen as the ultimate example of when Americans took it upon themselves to break their chains and claim their rightful homeland from the British. Flags like the Betsy Ross and Bennington Flags (representing the 13 original colonies) and the pre-Revolutionary Gadsden flag popular among gun-rights advocates have been steady presences at right-wing rallies, from Trump rallies to the anti-lockdown rallies of mid-2020 to countless conservative rallies before them. However, at the Capitol on January 6th, other flags and symbols from this era, not as common at other right-wing rallies we have studied, were prominently flown. 

We saw many Pine Tree flags with the words “An Appeal to Heaven” written on them. This phrase, excerpted from John Locke’s argument against the divine right of kings in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, is an expression of the right of revolution in the face of tyranny.  The flag itself was reportedly first used by a squadron of six cruisers under George Washington’s command in 1775. It is sold on USFlags.com as “Washington's Cruisers Flag”. It was flown over the Illinois State Capitol in March 2019 to draw attention to the upcoming “National Day of Prayer.” Illinois GOP state representative Chris Miller—husband to recently elected Illinois Congresswoman Mary Miller of “Hitler was right” fame—was photographed with it.

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Demonstrators wave the Pine Tree flag featuring the words, “An Appeal to Heaven.” Photo by Nina Berman

Another, less popular Revolutionary War era flag on display was the Bunker Hill Flag, commemorating the battle of Bunker Hill, flown by men dressed as Revolutionary War soldiers.

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Men dressed as Revolutionary War soldiers fly the Bunker Hill flag. Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

Neo-Confederate and state’ rights imagery

In addition to Revolutionary War Era imagery, symbols of the Confederacy, which take the idea of fighting for the homeland into a more overtly white nationalist context, were abundant. Much has been written about the symbolism of the Confederate flag being paraded within the halls of the Capitol. However, other symbols of the Confederacy, not as popular at previous right-wing demonstrations, littered the crowd outside the Capitol on January 6th.

Two historical South Carolina flags were flown—the Revolutionary War-era Moultrie flag, and the Revolutionary- and Civil War-era South Carolina navy ensign.

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South Carolina Moultrie Flag in lower left. Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

At a demonstration featuring speeches by Trump loyalist Roger Stone and far-right activist Ali Alexander at Freedom Plaza in Washington D.C. the night before the violent storming, a demonstrator carried an 1860s South Carolina secession flag, which flew over Charleston shortly after the state seceded from the Union.

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South Carolina Secession Flag. Photo by Nina Berman

The flag of Taunton, Massachusetts, adopted in 1774 to commemorate the Sons of Liberty (a revolutionary organization founded in 1765 to fight taxation by the British) driving American Loyalists out of Taunton was also flown. A militia-like organization branding itself the Sons of Liberty, New Jersey was present at the rally.

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Flag of Taunton, Massachusetts featuring the words, “Liberty and Union.” Photo by Nina Berman.

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Sons of Liberty, Militia group from New Jersey. Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

There was a variant of the Texas flag with the words “Come and Take It,” a popular expression among gun-rights activists emblazoned upon it.

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Texan Flag with a gun the words “Come and Take it” added on. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

These words were written on a flag dating to the 1830s and the Texas revolution against Mexico, and are themselves a reference to the epigram, first used by Spartan king Leonidas in 480 BC, to defy the Persian king Xerxes’ demand that he lay down his arms. White nationalists have exalted Sparta and Spartan ideals of battle to preserve the European purity of their homeland against the brown, Persian invaders. In a similar vein, white supremacists put great stock on Norse symbols. Like the Nazis in the 20th century, they see Nordic symbols as a symbol of an imaginary pure white European-descenced society. Jake Angeli, perhaps the poster child for Wednesday’s attempted coup, was wearing Viking horns and had a tattoo of a Valknot on the left side of his chest. According to the ADL, though non-racists use the Valknot too, “white supremacists, particularly racist Odinists, have appropriated the Valknot to use as a racist symbol. Often they use it as a sign that they are willing to give their life to Odin, generally in battle.” He also has what appears to be Thor’s hammer tattooed onto his stomach.

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Jake Angeli, the “Q Shaman”, in Viking Horns, with a Valknot prominently tattooed on his chest and what appears to be Thor’s hammer on his stomach. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Several flags flew the cartoon lion logo of a supposedly new “Continental Army flag” designed by VDare, an anti-immigrant organization, SPLC-designated hate group and website known for publishing many well-known white supremacists. One had superimposed the lion onto a map of Minnesota. Others simply flew a flag featuring a lion. This could be related to the VDare lion or to Lion Guard, a group of vigilantes that patrol Trump rallies.

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VDare’s Lion design on map of Minnesota. Photo by Nina Berman.

We also saw logos promoting the Patriot Party of Mississippi and what appears to be a new entity called the Great American Patriot Party, both using similar lion-themed iconography.

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A sign for the Great American Patriot Party. Photo by Nina Berman.

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A sign for the Patriot Party of Mississippi. Photo by Nina Berman.

Finally, we saw several current flags of U.S. states, including but not limited to North Carolina, Texas, Florida, Missouri, Tennessee, Indiana, Idaho, and Kansas. Taken together, and especially seen among the historic Revolutionary- and Civil War-era versions of other state flags, the state flags echoed the historic American conservative commitment to federalism and states’ rights.

The Epoch Media Group

The Epoch Media group, a pro-Trump disinformation media company used the rally as a branding opportunity. Giant flags with photographs promoting Epoch’s NTD.TV journalists could be seen waving in the wind amid the crowds at the Washington Monument. Started in 2000 in New York City as The Epoch Times, a free newspaper which advocated for Falun Gong dissidents and against the Chinese Community Party, the Epoch Media Group now counts billions of social media views annually. It has emerged as a full-on Trump PR machine promoting conspiracy theories including the patently false claim that antifa operatives were behind the Capitol breach.

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Epoch Media Group’s “New Tang Dynasty” News, or NTD.TV. Photo by Nina Berman.

Along with Epoch Media branding, Trump voters displaying anti-China propaganda were present with large banners and posters. The narrative being peddled is that under the Democrats, America will turn into communist China.

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A woman flaunts an Anti-Communist sign. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images​.

Though it is also popular among Vietnamese-origin immigrants as a symbol of identity, the flag of South Vietnam, seen at the Capitol could be interpreted as a symbol of a fight against Communism, as South Vietnam fought against Communist North Vietnam in the Vietnam War. Along with “antifa,” “fake news,” and “libtards,” the expression  “Chicom” has entered the Trump ecosystem of insults.

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Flag of South Vietnam. Photo by Nina Berman.

In all

Law enforcement efforts to identify insurrectionists following the storming of the Capitol may deter protesters in the weeks and months ahead from publicly signaling, through flags, patches, logos and the like too much specific information about their personal affiliations like what militia they’re in, for instance, or what state they come from. We’ve already seen how the Proud Boys discarded their signature black and yellow Fred Perry shirts and their patches on January 6th in favor of a more generic look, in an effort to operate more stealthily.

By doing so, however, political actors lose out on the visual promotion of their brand identity, which is a large reason they show up at political rallies in the first place. The rallies provide a perfect broadcast stage to be seen, to livestream, to spread their message, and to gain followers.

Moving forward, while examining right-wing rallies we’ll be looking at the proliferation of groups using “patriot”-branded signaling and advocating for a return to state’s rights or employing secessionist messaging, and the presence of the Epoch Media Group as a welcome amplifier. While security restrictions may limit the size of crowds and potential disruptors at the Inauguration, protests will no doubt continue at state capitols, as they have been for the last several years. As the FBI warns, some of these might evolve into potential attempts at armed incursions. We will also be paying attention to the intersection of symbols seen on January 6th—particularly the religious and Q symbols—and the symbols that appear at the annual Right to Life March in D.C., which will take place on January 29th this year and always brings thousands of marchers. January 6 was not the beginning of anything; it will not be the end of it, either.