Last week locals reported on Facebook that dozens of posters depicting Nazi imagery went up on various signposts around Congress Street. At a quick glance, the poster depicted a black swastika, but a closer inspection revealed that the poster was actually intended as an antifascist one with the word TRUMP arranged to create a swastika in the negative space.
The signs prompted a tricky question among Portlanders: could a symbol of hate be reappropriated?
Seemingly, whomever put up the sign deliberately meant to equate Trump’s widely perceived hatred toward minorities on the same moral plane as the atrocities once committed by Nazi Germany. (The poster prints the message “join the resistance: indvisibleguide.com” on the bottom, but a spokesperson for the site said they have nothing to do with the posters. It’s not even clear that this poster wasn’t part of some smear campaign from a right-wing agitator).
“While Trump’s equivocation on the evils of white supremacy and neo-Nazism should not be tolerated, the image depicted on the poster is offensive and hurtful, and the use of our website without our knowledge is disingenuous,” said Sarah Dohl, the Communication Officer for Indivisble.
While it’s a safe bet that many Trump supporters would condemn this poster, what proved more interesting in the online conversation is the extreme difference in opinion amongst those that would agree that Trump emboldens Nazis.
When local jazz singer VIVA (who preferred being identified by this name for this story) posted the photo of the poster on her Facebook page, it generated a heated discussion about whether the poster functioned as an appropriate form of protest.
Opinions seemed divided into two schools of thought. The first one being that hate symbols should never be re-appropriated regardless of the good intentions behind it. People viewing the poster quickly or at a distance could easily mistake it as a “legitimate” Nazi poster, rendering its original message as ineffective and needlessly offensive.
“It reads as a swastika,” said Don Marietta, a longtime resident of Portland, and political organizer who worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign, to the Phoenix. “If you disregard the small print, it could read as pro-Trump and proNazi. It's trying to argue using the opponent's paradigm. Which is never a winning proposition. Ultimately, calling Trump a Nazi is not going to do as much good as pointing out how he encourages hate.”
Musician Sean Libby, a member of the band Johnny Cremains, said that he tore down about 100 copies of the poster last week, on the grounds that no matter the intention, swastikas have no place on Portland’s streets.
“I took them down because I've been brought up that swastikas, when aligned with the tri colors of white, red, black, are a powerful hate symbol,” said Libby to the Phoenix. “Seeing these every 30 feet down Congress wasn't something I wanted people walking to work or kids going to school in the morning having to see. The idea that it was a resistance poster seemed a little far fetched.”
For Libby, simply slapping the words “Resist Trump” doesn’t sanction the use of an image that was used to promote genocide. He said that one doesn’t have to be “black, Jewish, gay or otherwise to recall that the symbol once stood for murderous oppression, instead of a Trump resistance.”
Representing at least 24 progressive organizations, the political action group Mainers For Accountable Leadership also denounced the posters, saying that “slurs and epithets of this kind have no place in Maine politics and are completely inconsistent with Maine values.”
“We stand in defense of diversity, equality, compassion, and plurality. Ideologies that promote white supremacy, fascism, white nationalism or ethnic hatred are completely inconsistent with those values or American traditions,” wrote a spokesperson for MFAL in a public statement. “Whatever our view of President Trump, the posters are equally shameful and unacceptable.”
Others vehemently disagreed, arguing that one of Maine’s largest progressive groups equated the violent actions of white nationalists as tantamount to a symbol on a poster. The counterpoint, which was voiced by some Jews and people of color in Portland, was that symbols are not tantamount to violence and that the swastika could be an effective, albeit shocking way to raise awareness of the injustices happening in Trump’s America.
“This is a matter of feelings over existence,” wrote one person who identified as Jewish who will remain anonymous because they couldn’t be reached for comment. “Don't spare our feelings when trying to maintain our lives. We are fighting against fascists. Sorry that a symbol of our oppression makes you white people so uncomfortable. I, for one, would rather see it stay up so that I don't have to suffer another holocaust.”
Local resident James Melanson said that he “absolutely supports resistance tactics that challenge the status quo.”
“People are often angry if you wake them up abruptly,” said Melanson. “And it's easy, in a place like Portland, for people to stay in a place of deep sleep. Violence against people of color, LGBTQIA people, immigrants, Muslim people, is often not made visible. Things get swept under the rug here, for various reasons, and the image of Portland as a safe haven gets privileged over the truth.”
“VIVA,” a woman of color, expressed disappointment that so many white people are horrified at the poster without acknowledging that they represent what white America is for someone who doesn’t pass as white/cis/straight in this moment of time.
“These posters made everyone here feel the proximity and ugliness of the hate going on in this country,” said Viva. “Protest is still not illegal and still not lethal.” VIVA wrote a comment on her page addressed to her white friends and fans that she agreed to share here:
“I wonder if you've considered what it tells me that you are so uncomfortable seeing this close to home you'd rather tear down these posters than allow them to do their job in spreading the conversation to people who would rather ignore them. You don't like Nazi imagery, so you take it down? That's privilege in action. As a woman of color I can't just choose not to see this problem. I do not have that luxury.”
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