Many Americans are trying to gain a deeper understanding of what was behind the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and, most importantly, why it happened.
At The Conversation, we asked several scholars who study symbols – including ancient Norse images and more recent flags from U.S. history – to explain what they saw during the riot, and what those symbols mean.
Reading their work, it’s inescapable that white supremacy is a common thread connecting many of the different groups who converged on Washington that day. Here are five articles from The Conversation’s recent coverage, explaining what many of the symbols mean.
1. The Confederate battle flag
Perhaps the most recognized symbol of white supremacy was the Confederate battle flag.
“Since its debut during the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag has been flown regularly by white insurrectionists and reactionaries fighting against rising tides of newly won Black political power,” writes Jordan Brasher at Columbus State University, who has studied how the Confederacy has been memorialized.
He notes that in one photo from inside the Capitol, the flag’s history came into sharp relief, as the man carrying it was standing between “the portraits of two Civil War-era U.S. senators – one an ardent proponent of slavery and the other an abolitionist once beaten unconscious for his views on the Senate floor.”
2. The yellow Gadsden flag
Another flag with a racist history is the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag. It was designed by slave owner and trader Christopher Gadsden when the American Revolution began, as Iowa State University graphic design scholar Paul Bruski writes.
“Because of its creator’s history and because it is commonly flown alongside ‘Trump 2020’ flags, the Confederate battle flag and other white-supremacist flags, some may now see the Gadsden flag as a symbol of intolerance and hate – or even racism,” he explains.
It has been adopted by the tea party movement and other Republican-leaning groups, but the flag still carries the legacy, and the name, of its creator.
3. Powerful anti-Semitism
Another arm of white supremacy doesn’t target Blacks. Instead, it demonizes Jewish people. And there were plenty of anti-Semitic symbols on display during the riot, as Jonathan D. Sarna explains.
He is a Brandeis University scholar of American anti-Semitism, and describes the ways that “[c]alls to exterminate Jews are common in far-right and white nationalist circles.” That included a gallows erected outside the Capitol, evoking a disturbing element of a 1978 novel depicting the takeover of Washington, D.C., along with mass lynchings and slaughtering of Jews.
4. Co-opted Norse mythology
Among the most striking images of the riot were those of a man wearing a horned hat and no shirt, displaying several large tattoos. He is known as Jake Angeli, but his full name is Jacob Chansley, and he has been arrested for his role in the riot.
Tom Birkett, a lecturer in Old English at University College Cork in Ireland, explains that many of the symbols Chansley wears are from Norse mythology. However, he explains, “these symbols have also been co-opted by a growing far-right movement,” and Chansley appears – from other tattoos he wears – to be among them.
Birkett traces the use of Norse symbols back to the Nazis, and points out that they are a form of code hidden in plain sight: “if certain symbols are hard for the general public to spot, they are certainly dog whistles to members of an increasingly global white supremacist movement who know exactly what they mean.”
5. An outlier, of sorts
Another flag was prominent at the Capitol riot, one that doesn’t strictly represent white supremacy: the flag of the former independent country of South Vietnam.
But Long T. Bui, a global studies scholar at the University of California, Irvine, explains that when flown by Vietnamese Americans, many of whom support Trump, the flag symbolizes militant nationalism:
“[S]ome Vietnamese Americans view their fallen homeland as an extension of the American push for freedom and democracy worldwide. I have interviewed Vietnamese American soldiers who fear American freedom is failing,” he explains.
Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives