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A day that began with President Trump telling his most ardent followers to continue to fight back against the results of an election he lost spun out of control on Jan. 6 when a violent mob broke down the doors to the U.S. Capitol and went on a rampage inside. Assembled in the crowd were a range of far-right groups, including self-described militias, white nationalists, and sundry conspiracists and agitators. They broke windows with flags poles, raised banners on scaffolding assembled for the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and charged police lines, attacking officers as they surged forward. Some wore tactical vests and helmets adorned with far-right symbols and slogans.
Here’s what we know about the groups involved and what their symbols mean:
SYMBOL DETAILS: Orange hats, orange tape
The Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence and a reputation for instigating roving street fights with counterdemonstrators, announced in the days before the short-lived insurrection that members would forgo their traditional black-and-gold garb in favor of all-black attire and bright orange hats. Some members still donned the Proud Boys logo on patches, clothing and helmets.
The Proud Boys were founded in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, who has since distanced himself from the group. It rose to national prominence this year when Trump told members to “stand back and stand by” during a presidential debate — a message that many in the Proud Boys took as marching orders.
Historical and far-right flags
The flags seen throughout the sea of rioters symbolize their support for far-right causes, white supremacy and anti-government militias. Watch the video above to see examples.
SYMBOL DETAILS: Hand gesture forming in the shape of ‘OK’
The hand gesture commonly used to connote “OK” was co-opted in 2017 by members of the far-right and white supremacists who recast the symbol to mean “white power” — indicated by the W and P formed by the hand. The use of the hand gesture has since become a common occurrence at far-right rallies and among some Trump supporters who make it to taunt opponents.
The Three Percenters, a right-wing anti-government militia group, also utilizes a similar symbol — outstretched middle, ring and pinkie fingers to represent the Roman numeral for three — that can at a glance be mistaken for the “OK” gesture, though Three Percenters is not explicitly white supremacist.
SYMBOL DETAILS: The year 1776 surrounded by stars in a circle
References to the year 1776 and the American Revolution have grown substantially among the far-right as Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists have hinted at the possibility of a revolution in the wake of Trump’s election loss, which they view, falsely, as illegitimate. Trump allies and surrogates, including first-term Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), referred to Jan. 6 as Republicans’ “1776 moment.”
An online shop dubbed “1776.shop” that was founded last year by members of the Proud Boys, including its chairman Enrique Tarrio, hawks merchandise that co-opts 1776 as a symbol, along with other slogans and emblems touting the far-right.
SYMBOL DETAILS: The roman numeral III, surrounded by a circle with stars
The Three Percenters, often connoted by the Roman numeral for three, is an anti-government paramilitary group that formed in 2008 around the idea that a small number of “patriots” protect Americans from the tyranny of big government. The name itself is a reference to the debunked claim that only 3 percent of the population fought against the British in the American Revolution; historians say the percentage was actually much higher. The organization is considered by extremism experts to be a “traditional” self-described militia group that espouses right-wing, libertarian ideals, but has in recent years become an ardent supporter of Trump and has mobilized in opposition to more restrictive gun regulation, coronavirus-related shutdowns and racial justice protests.
SYMBOL DETAILS: The letter ‘Q’
QAnon is a sprawling online conspiracy theory whose adherents believe Trump is leading a crusade against a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who encompass a majority of the nation’s elites, including politicians, celebrities and executives. The loosely organized group exists largely online and follows cryptic messages and instructions from an anonymous person known only as Q. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has said the QAnon belief that elites are abducting children to harvest their blood for a chemical used to extend people’s lives is a variation of an anti-Semitic trope that has existed for centuries. Its online campaigns under the hashtag #SaveOurChildren have also been used as an anti-LGBTQ dog whistle. In 2020, QAnon believers began to coalesce around anti-mask and anti-vaccine coronavirus conspiracy theories.
SYMBOL DETAILS: Yellow words spelling ‘Oath Keepers’ or image of a male militia figure
The Oath Keepers is one of the largest self-described militia groups in the United States. Founded in 2009, the anti-government group is focused on recruiting law enforcement and active or former military members — those the group’s leaders believe will follow its notion of what it means to take an oath to protect the Constitution against “all enemies both foreign and domestic.”
The Oath Keepers has had a presence at many high-profile incidents over the past decade, including the 2014 standoff at the Bundy ranch in Nevada and the Ferguson, Mo., protests. Its yellow logo takes inspiration from the U.S. Army Ranger tab.
SYMBOL DETAILS: A red flag with a blue cross and stars
The Confederate battle flag was first flown during the Civil War by the 11 states that supported secession from the United States and the continuation of slavery. Certain groups now claim it represents “Southern heritage,” but according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the symbol is commonly used by white supremacists both inside and outside of the United States.
SYMBOL DETAILS: The letters ‘AF’ surrounded by a circle
“America First” is the name of a podcast hosted by far-right activist Nick Fuentes, who appeared at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and later taunted people protesting the killing of George Floyd in police custody. Fuentes’s followers and associates call themselves “Groypers” and use Pepe the Frog imagery. According to the ADL, the “Groyper Army” has tried to distance itself from the white supremacist label but continues to espouse racist and anti-Semitic views.
Pepe the Frog
SYMBOL DETAILS: A smirking green frog
Pepe, a humanoid cartoon frog created by artist Matt Furie, is an Internet meme appropriated by the far-right community online. While many depictions of the meme are innocuous, it is commonly depicted alongside extremist imagery, such as a Pepe clad in the uniform of the Waffen-SS, the military wing of Hitler’s security force, and it has become associated with far-right Internet culture despite Furie’s denunciations of such usage.
SYMBOL DETAILS: A green and black symbol spelling the words ‘Kek’
The term “kek” originated in the gaming world but was absorbed into far-right culture, according to the SPLC. Coincidentally, users on the 4chan website discovered that an ancient Egyptian deity called “Kek” could appear as a man with a frog head, something they saw as a parallel with the use of Pepe the Frog as a symbol. Users have created a flag for the fictional country of Kekistan, where political correctness is supposedly decried. The flag is based on the Nazi swastika.
Noose/Day of the Rope
SYMBOL DETAILS: A hanging noose
The nooses seen on Jan. 6 echoed the “Day of the Rope,” a fictional insurrection described in a 1978 novel written by prominent white supremacist William Luther Pierce. In “The Turner Diaries,” white supremacist rebels lynch politicians, journalists and White people in interracial relationships — groups they consider “race traitors.”
In the weeks leading up to the real-world insurrection on Jan. 6, posts on far-right forums referenced hangman knots and hanging “traitors” who betrayed Trump’s cause, including Supreme Court justices and lawmakers.
SYMBOL DETAILS: Three triangles interlinked
The Valknot tattoo and garb seen on Jacob Anthony Chansley, known as the “Q Shaman,” are nods to Nordic culture and heritage. The Norse symbol has been associated with Odinism, a strain of white supremacist thought that claims to hark back to pre-Christian belief systems, but is also used by non-racist Pagans, according to the ADL.
SYMBOL DETAILS: An image of a lion with red, white and blue stripes
The red, white and blue lion imagery seen on a flag on Jan. 6 is associated with the xenophobic, ethnonationalist website VDARE, which gets its name from Virginia Dare, supposedly the first White child born in the New World, according to the SPLC.
VDARE is known to host far-right writers and intellectuals. The organizer of the 2017 “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville was a contributor to VDARE. In 2019, the Trump campaign came under fire after using an almost identical lion graphic in a promotional video.
About this story
Reporting and analysis by Marissa J. Lang and Razzan Nakhlawi. Editing by Peter Finn. Copy editing by Frances Moody. Design and development by Yutao Chen. Video and photo illustrations by Daron Taylor. Video by Adriana Usero. Video editing by Nicki DeMarco. Project editing by Julie Vitkovskaya.