The murder of George Floyd has sparked increasingly violent protests across the United States in an outpouring of fury and frustration, and an eruption of long simmering racial tensions. An analysis of the social media platforms Gab and Telegram, in the week following his death, has demonstrated how white supremacists are capitalising on this civil unrest to disseminate propaganda and gain support for their accelerationist and racialist ideologies.
On 25 May 2020, police officers in Minneapolis responded to an emergency call at the convenience store Cup Foods, regarding a customer who had allegedly bought a packet of cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Arriving at the scene, officers pulled the suspect, a 46-year-old black man by the name of George Floyd, from his car and placed him in handcuffs. Minutes later, Floyd was laid down beside the rear tyre of the police car, whereupon white police officer Derek Chauvin proceeded to place his knee on Floyd’s neck, refusing to remove it despite Floyd’s protests that he could no longer breathe. After three minutes, Floyd became unresponsive, and later died in police custody; the autopsy revealed the cause of death to be ‘asphyxiation from sustained pressure’. In the days that followed, hundreds of people gathered in Minneapolis to protest about his murder, to which the police, in riot gear, responded by firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds. On 28 May, protesting crowds gathered outside the Third Police Precinct in downtown Minneapolis and proceeded to set the building on fire. The ensuing riots, led to the destruction of around 170 businesses, through vandalism, looting, or arson and, in the following week, demonstrations continued across the United States and reached Europe and the United Kingdom.
The murder of George Floyd is just the latest in a series of racially charged confrontations that have become more publicly recognised in recent months. Some of the most notable incidents include the killing of jogger Ahmaud Arbery by two white men, the police shooting of Breonna Taylor during a drugs raid, and the misleading emergency call from white dog-walker Amy Cooper regarding the African-American birdwatcher Christian Cooper (of no relation) in Manhattan’s Central Park. Subsequent protests have drawn in thousands of activists from groups across the political spectrum, from Black Lives Matter and Antifa on the left, to the patriot militia movements The Three Percenters and The Oath Keepers, and the Boogaloo Movement, who want to see a Second American Civil War. With lockdown measures, millions of people are spending more time online, and consequently the opportunity for extremist propaganda to exploit the ensuing societal discontent has grown exponentially. Members of neo-Nazi organisations have already been utilising the Coronavirus pandemic to gain support for their accelerationist ideology, and the George Floyd protests appear to be fuelling the fires of the inevitable ‘Race War’ that these extremists deem essential to destroy the current ‘system’ for a fascist state to rise from the ashes.
American neo-Nazi James Mason outlined in Siege, a compilation of essays written in the 1980s, that the last yielding form of resistance among the ‘White race’ was complete societal ‘drop out’ from ‘the system’. Mason was a key advocate of accelerationism, a term frequently used to refer to an eschatological ‘last stand’ for white supremacists seeking to hasten the collapse of society in the belief that events are not currently going well for the Aryan race. His seminal work inspired a generation of neo-Nazis to form a violent online subculture, Siege Culture, dedicated to Mason’s calls for a leaderless resistance, and the use of terrorist action to bring about a ‘Race War’ resulting in the downfall of the capitalist system. This online forum hosts an array of radicals, many of whom have a contempt for law enforcement, which, they believe, has ‘sat back’ and obstructed the advancement of white supremacy. Federal agents, in particular, have become an increasing target for white supremacists, being accused of slandering fascist ideologies in the media, and manipulating the law to illegally seize firearms from civilians. Encouraged by the rise in anti-government sentiment following the George Floyd protests, propaganda previously disseminated on the platforms Ironmarch and Fascist Forge is being redistributed on Gab and the Telegram channel, The Sternenkrone Division, utilising images to foment hatred of the police and reignite support for accelerationism.
Hostility to a police state is central to Siege Culture; strict directives outlined on the forum state that anyone who subscribes to the ideological left or right, or supports any type of political system, is not a part of Siege Culture, and thus is with the police state. Neo-Nazi propaganda pays frequent reference to George Orwell’s novel 1984, the story of Winston Smith, an ill-fated middle-aged bureaucrat governed by constant surveillance by a police force, the ‘Thought Police’, and constant reminders, on posters, that ‘Big Brother is Watching You’. The propaganda emanating from Siege Culture retitles the concept of ‘Big Brother’ as ‘The System’ to provide supporters with a clear picture of what is supposedly happening in society. Evidence has shown that conspiracy theorists have been capitalising on the Coronavirus pandemic to promote the view that it heralds an even darker future of comprehensive technological state surveillance, enforced by the clandestine totalitarian global government ‘The New World Order’. Supporting these claims, neo-Nazis have released images on Gab suggesting supporters are either ‘with them’ or with ‘the police’, a message that resonates all the more powerfully following the death of Floyd, an event reinforcing their assertion that a ‘Race War’ is inevitable.
In addition to neo-Nazi and white nationalist propaganda advocating accelerationism, many of the images released on platforms synonymous with the extreme right portray African-Americans in a negative light, employing caricature stereotypes that hark back to the days of Jim Crow. Jim Crow is a synonym for both racial segregation laws and ‘Blackface’, the term used for white actors using makeup to caricature black persons, first popularised through Minstrel shows; together these activities shaped and reflected attitudes towards African-Americans throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Arguably, no group in history has been caricatured as much, and in as many ways, as African-Americans, and the repackaging of longstanding tropes within memes is being used to rationalise and justify discrimination. For example, images like the one above invoke a negative connotation between black people and fried chicken, a stereotype that combines historical prejudices with distinctive imagery. Just as ‘Blackface’ reflects the persecution displayed on the Minstrel stages, the ‘black people love fried chicken’ stereotype is designed to invoke negative feelings through its racial undertones. This typecast can be traced back to D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 silent movie titled The Birth of a Nation, throughout which black elected officials were portrayed as ostentatiously eating fried chicken. Chickens had long been a staple of southern diets, but particularly for slaves, as they were cheap, easy to feed, and a good source of protein. Consequently, in modern society, fried chicken has become a mainstay in racist depictions of black people, particularly as a way to express racial contempt without being labelled a bigot.
The Minneapolis area is one of the biggest centres in the United States for Somali-Americans, many of whom settled as refugees, and provides the basis for the conspiracy theory, to which the above image refers, namely that former President Barack Obama settled 70,000 Somalian refugees in Minnesota during the course of his administration. Further controversy was ignited in August 2018, when Ilhan Omar D-Minn won the democratic primary for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, and, in November of the same year, became the first Somali-American elected to the House of Representatives. Subliminally, this image invokes the ‘Brute’ caricature, which historically portrayed black men as innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal, deserving of punishment, and consequently intimates that violent riots are inevitable because of the demographic makeup of Minneapolis.
Propagandists frequently utilise humorous narratives to solidify social divisions, whilst normalising unpalatable ideas. Thus, when analysing propaganda created to coincide with a particular event, it is important to look beyond the immediate impact of the image to identify any insidious discriminatory messages embedded within ‘humorous’ memes and radical caricatures. All too often, the common defence of ‘it was just a joke’ is employed by individuals to justify the sharing of, or commenting on a meme, that could otherwise be deemed racist, thereby using humour to excuse taking responsibility, or feeling remorse for their actions. As a result of such excuses, the audiences of such propaganda could be persuaded the imagery is an innocuous joke, and not recognise the underlying discriminatory content.
Analysis of propaganda disseminated in the week following the murder of George Floyd suggests that white supremacists are singing from the same hymn sheet as the ‘Race War’ accelerationists of the 1980s. However, what this new wave of accelerationist advocates have, which their predecessors did not, is the opportunity to capitalise on the already growing social discontent that has resulted from the Coronavirus pandemic. The reality of widespread unemployment and impending deep economic recession have left millions of people marginalised and holding a grievance with the state, thereby sowing the seeds for violence and civil unrest. When white supremacists now use the term ‘Race War’ it is typically not employed to describe racial violence in a narrow or specific sense, but, to signify a large-scale, almost apocalyptic clash between races. The anti-government sentiment resulting from the Coronavirus pandemic and further exacerbated by the recent George Floyd protests and riots have opened a door for extremists to exploit deep-seeded frustrations with the state and gain support for their malevolent ideologies. Thus, analysis of the evolving and recycled narratives of white supremacists has contributed to better understanding how actors on the right are manipulating this unrest for recruitment, and has helped anticipate the consequences these calls for violence could have on future radicalisation and violent extremism.
Ms Ashton Kingdon is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in Department of Economic, Social and Political Sciences, University of Southampton. See her profile here.
© Ashton Kingdon. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).