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Symbols Matter

By: John J. Pitney, Jr.
November 23, 2015

Symbols matter. Take the Confederate battle flag, for instance. During the Civil War, the soldiers who fought under it were committing treason. During the 1950s and 1960s it came to represent resistance to racial integration. People have a First Amendment right to wave the Stars and Bars, but this symbol has no place on public flagpoles. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley won praise this year for signing a bill that removed it from the capitol grounds. As she rightly said, “It should never have been there.”

The Claremont protesters would surely have objected to any display of the Confederate flag. But they seemed to lack self-awareness when it came to their own symbolism. If you look at photos of the infamous confrontation at the Hub patio, you may notice that at least one of the protesters was wearing a t-shirt bearing the likeness of Che Guevara. This communist revolutionary helped Castro seize power in Cuba, then ran a prison where he oversaw the summary execution of political prisoners. Here’s what Che said:

“Hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.”

I mean no microaggression to those who put Che on their chests, but I respectfully submit that he makes a poor symbol for inclusion and reconciliation.

One might argue that a Che image or two is not overly significant -- though many Cuban Americans would disagree. In any event, a much larger symbolic display occurred soon after the Hub fiasco, when hundreds marched through the five colleges. At the request of organizers, most wore black shirts.

A single black shirt is a fashion statement. A sea of black shirts is a political statement. The organizers apparently meant to show solidarity with protests around the country, but the black shirts carried another, more ominous, connotation.

The original Blackshirts, of course, were Benito Mussolini’s fascist paramilitary forces, who wore such garments when beating up political opponents. After Mussolini came to power, writes sociologist Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, “the black shirt constituted the basic piece of party members' uniforms and a constant of fascist attire spanning more than twenty years of variations in fashion. All participants in the numerous fascist organizations, from women's fasces and children's groups to school associations and sport clubs, also wore the black shirt.”

Teachers had to wear black shirts in the classroom, and students could be subject to denunciation for refusing to don them. (If the Internet had existed at the time, the government could have set up an anonymous site for informers called Il Duce Listens.) Fascist movements in Britain and other countries also adopted the black shirt as their preferred clothing. All over the world, various extremist groups still do.

Just because the marchers wore a longstanding international symbol of fascism, it does not follow that they were actually fascists themselves. After all, not everybody who has ever displayed the Confederate battle flag is a segregationist. But picture hundreds of marchers waving such flags: some onlookers would regard them as vaguely intimidating. The same idea applies to the Claremont marchers, especially because they were chanting slogans such as “silence is violence,” implying that anything other than vocal agreement is a crime.

Symbols matter. If the protesters are really serious about healing our community, they should avoid symbols that say the opposite.