The Bizarre Outfits At The Capitol Weren’t Just Costumes. They Were A Message.

Capitol Symbols
Manuel Balce Ceneta, Katherine Nagasawa / Associated Press
Capitol Symbols
Manuel Balce Ceneta, Katherine Nagasawa / Associated Press

The Bizarre Outfits At The Capitol Weren’t Just Costumes. They Were A Message.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Correction: An earlier version of this report identified Matthew Heimbach as one of the people pictured inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 during an attempted coup. On Feb. 4, law enforcement officials arrested another man whom they have identified as the person in the photo. The online and audio versions of this story have been edited to remove references to Heimbach. WBEZ regrets the error.

An attempted coup at the nation’s Capitol on Wednesday brought disturbing and, in some cases, bizarre images of insurrectionists to audiences worldwide.

But the face paint, flags, tattoos and attire of some of those white extremists weren’t just for shock value. They carry meaning within far-right and hate movements.

WBEZ’s Odette Yousef chronicled the rise of the modern day hate movement in the most recent season of the Motive podcast.

She deciphers some of the meaning behind those images.

Jake Angeli
Jake Angeli, a QAnon conspiracy theorist and supporter of President Donald Trump, chants outside the Senate Chamber inside the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington. Associated Press

Photos of a shirtless man in the Capitol, wearing face paint and a horned fur cap, were seen all over the world. Parse that out for us.

That was QAnon conspiracy theorist Jake Angeli. If you looked at his torso, there were several tattoos of Nordic pagan symbols. Those symbols have been appropriated by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, who use them as racist symbols. Angeli’s include the Valknot, which looks like a knot of interlocking triangles and symbolizes the Norse god Odin; the Yggdrasil, an ash tree that is sacred in Norse cosmology; and the Mjolnir, or “Thor’s Hammer.”

What were some of the other images that jumped out?

We saw Confederate flags and also a green flag used in the white supremacist movement that’s modeled after the Nazi flag. 

Some folks are claiming that antifascist activists were responsible for these events. But to anyone familiar with all this symbology, it was clear members of the organized white supremacist movement, including neo-Nazis, had breached the nation’s Capitol.

Trump crowd Capitol
Crowds wave flags as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. Evan Vucci / Associated Press

You spent the last year steeped in the modern history of the organized white supremacist movement and how it’s more or less grown, unchecked, over the last four decades. What was your reaction to Wednesday’s chaotic events?

I expected pre-election, election and post-election unrest, such as intimidation at the voting polls or possibly street violence like we saw after the May police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis. But I never imagined insurrectionists storming the U.S. Capitol.

Neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach
Insurrectionists confront U.S. Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber inside the Capitol. Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press

There’s something in the movement known as the “accelerationist wing.” What is that concept and how is it related to the attempted coup?

Accelerationism aims for a complete societal collapse. The concept really existed only within the most extreme fringe of the white supremacist movement a few years ago. Its adherents claim that western civilization and democracy have failed, and so the only way forward is to sow chaos — to “accelerate” the downfall of society through violence and government overthrow — so that a new fascist state could be built from the ashes.

Storming the U.S. Capitol fits squarely within accelerationist goals. So do other acts of chaos or terrorism. One thing that’s not been as widely scrutinized was the discovery this week of suspected pipe bombs at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee.

What’s so disturbing is that a few years ago, accelerationist ideology only existed on the most extreme fringe of the white supremacist movement, in terrorist groups such as Atomwaffen Division. But after the disaster and tragedy of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, many more white supremacists jumped onto the accelerationist bandwagon. And more recently, with the emergence of far-right groups such as the Boogaloo Boys, we’ve seen accelerationism creep from the margin closer to the mainstream as it gained acceptance by even more extremists.

Unite The Right rally
Alt-right members hold Nazi, Confederate, and Gadsden ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flags at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. (Courtesy of Anthony Crider)

What’s to come?

Close observers of the far right are worried that this was an optics win for extremists, and that these events will be used to recruit more to their cause.

We should all be concerned that law enforcement was, at best, unprepared for the mob that descended on the Capitol. That’s in spite of the fact that plans for violence and chaos had been discussed openly on social media channels in the days prior. According to Advance Democracy, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that conducts public-interest research and investigations, between Jan 1 and Jan 6, there were thousands of calls for violence on platforms including Twitter, Parler, TikTok and TheDonald, a far-right, pro-Trump internet forum.

As the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris nears, and even beyond it, experts have grave concerns that worse may yet come.

Odette Yousef is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.