Introducing: This Week in Political Symbols

Vizpol Research
7 min readSep 29, 2020

By Ishaan Jhaveri

For over a year, a multidisciplinary team of researchers at Columbia’s Journalism and Engineering schools have been developing an app called VizPol which helps photographers and reporters recognize and classify symbols they see at political events. In developing this tool, we have paid keen attention to symbols appearing on tattoos, hats, t-shirts, flags, and elsewhere, at recent demonstrations and protests across the country.

Starting today, we will be publishing short weekly posts on VizPol’s Medium page discussing symbols at recent political events. Our goal is to highlight popular symbols, call for information about new or unfamiliar symbols, and provide journalists with resources on how symbols can (or cannot) be used to glean information about the people and events they are associated with.

On Saturday, September 26th, the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group, held a rally in Portland, OR. Several journalists and activists have already posted very helpful Twitter threads (Tess Owen, Ford Fischer, It’s Going Down News, AntiFash Gordon, among others) explaining the significance of symbols and slogans seen at this event. Here I will highlight a few symbols from my own perusal of photographs from this event from Getty Images’ database.

For now we will link to the photos, though we hope to secure full image rights for future posts.

Photo 1: Proud Boys flash the OK hand signal

Photographer: Nathan Howard

In the foreground of this image, we see a sign with the Black Lives Matter fist and a symbol with three arrows pointing to the bottom left, both crossed out. These arrows represent the Iron Front, a German paramilitary organization from the early 20th century that was opposed to totalitarian ideologies on the right and left. In the US today, it has come to be synonymous with antifascist activism. Both Black Lives Matter and antifascist activists are associated with the left. By sporting a sign that depicts them as crossed out, this demonstrator is likely telegraphing his opposition to the politics these groups signify.

Next, both this demonstrator and the one in the middle-right of the image are flashing “OK” hand gestures. This gesture has many meanings, but in the context of a far-right rally it is very likely that these demonstrators are signaling the “white power” meaning of this symbol. The seemingly innocuous “OK” gesture highlights how context-dependent symbol meanings can be. While much can be gleaned from the correct reading of context, one should tread delicately when inferring extremist messaging from ambiguous imagery.

Further, the middle demonstrator and the demonstrator at the right edge of the image are sporting a symbol that has come to be closely associated with the Proud Boys, a yellow laurel wreath derived from the Fred Perry logo. Just this week, Fred Perry announced it will discontinue production of its yellow polo shirt with the yellow laurel wreath logo, in an effort to distance itself from the Proud Boys.

The demonstrator on the right edge is wearing a t-shirt depicting a skull with “PB” (likely standing for “Proud Boys”) and a US flag superimposed on it, contained within a Proud Boys laurel wreath. The skull is in the style of the Punisher logo, a symbol originally associated with the Marvel comics character (a vigilante military veteran who wages a violent one-man campaign against crime). It has become increasingly popular recently with the pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement, and is often seen at Trump rallies. While we cannot know how this demonstrator interprets this symbol without asking him, its prevalence within pro-police and pro-Trump demonstrations helps us determine its significance in this context. Further, other demonstrators at the same event sported slogans openly advocating support for law enforcement, such as this “Back the Blue” sticker.

Photo 2: An attendee wears a “Three Percenter” patch during a Proud Boys rally

Photographer: Maranie R. Staab

In this photograph we see similar themes. On the left, there is an amalgam of the Punisher skull with what appears to be the Hello Kitty Japanese cartoon kitten. I am not yet clear on what the melding of these two symbols could signify. In the middle we see a crossed out symbol depicting a red flag and a black flag, signifying opposition to Antifa, a decentralized network of antifascist activists. Finally in the patch on the right of this demonstrator’s vest we see “III%.” The Three Percent movement is a loosely organized coalition of militia groups with chapters across the country. Its name derives from the inaccurate belief that 3% of the Colonial population fought in the Revolutionary War. Other demonstrators sported III% symbology too:

Photo 3: A man wears a “Three Percenter” patch

Photographer: Maranie R. Staab

Moving onto other events, in the last week, there have been waves of protests against a Louisville grand jury’s decision not to charge 2 white police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a black woman. At these demonstrations across the country, the fist logo of the Black Lives Matter movement was prominently on display (here seen in Cincinnati on September 23rd):

Photo 4: Demonstrators hold up signs in protest at the Hamilton County…

Credit: NurPhoto

Some people sported variations of the fist like on this “good night white pride” flag seen in Cincinnati on September 23rd:

Photo 5: A man holds a Good Night White Pride flag during a protest…

Credit: NurPhoto

The graphic on the flag shows the Black Lives Matter fist smashing a Swastika, evoking the goal of the Black Lives Matter movement to end white supremacy in the United States. In this case both the Black Lives Matter fist and the Swastika are well known and documented symbols, so the meaning of the graphic is quite clear.

In Louisville itself, the Louisville Cardinals men’s basketball team led a protest in the wake of the decision, on September 25th. At this protest we can see the Cardinals’ bird logo alongside the Black Lives Matter symbols and slogans:

Photo 6: The Louisville Cardinals men’s basketball team leads a protest march…

Photographer: Jon Cherry

Here the bird logo serves to openly and publicly associate the Louisville Cardinals team with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Two days before this, also in Louisville, at a street march in response to the grand jury’s verdict, some demonstrators sported a sign that said, “Abolish the pol(ice)”.

Photo 7: Demonstrators march in the street following the Grand Jury verdict…

Photographer: Brandon Bell

This sign is laden with symbolism. The “A” of “Abolish” has a circle around it to point to anarchy. The parentheses around the “ice” of “police” suggest that the demonstrators support the abolition of both the police and the United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The three arrows pointing downwards on the right of the sign are a reference to the Iron Front, discussed above. Finally, “F12” likely stands for “Fuck 12,” with the number 12 referring to the police. The etymology of the police/12 association is contested, but it could come from the phrase, “All Cops Are Bastards” or ACAB, which is also sometimes written as 1312 (A=1st letter of the alphabet, C=3rd letter, and so on). The “12” is a possible abbreviation of “1312”.

On September 25th, at a “Latinos for Trump Roundtable” a demonstrator waved a Blue Lives Matter flag, highlighting the close association between support for Trump and support for the police:

Photo 8: Supporters of US President Donald Trump rally

Photographer: Marco Bello

I saw a symbol on the hat of a Black Lives Matter demonstrator who was escorted out of a Trump rally in Jacksonville, FL on September 24th that I had never seen before.

Photo 9: Protestors showing support for “Black Lives Matter” are removed from…

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski

When confronting a symbol I’m unfamiliar with, I try to describe it and search for it on Google and Twitter, or reverse image search a crop of the symbol using Google, Bing, Yandex or TinEye. In this case, none of these approaches yielded anything, so I don’t know whether the symbol on this demonstrator’s hat has any political significance.

Finally, a semicircular symbol amidst the words “We Are Wide Awake” came up at small demonstrations outside Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham’s homes in Washington, D.C. in response to their decision not to wait until after the Presidential election to nominate a Supreme Court judge to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Photo 10: Demonstrators gather outside the residence of Senate Majority Mitch…

Credit: Bloomberg

Photo 11: A small group of demonstrators protests outside the home of US…

Photographer: Alex Edelman

I hadn’t seen this symbol before, but symbols attached to slogans are generally easy to identify since one can simply text-search the slogan. A text search of the slogan “We Are Wide Awake” yields the website of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led movement that advocates political action on climate change.



Vizpol Research

A collaborative research project at Columbia University building apps to help journalists identify unfamiliar political symbols in the field.