The Daily Heller: A Laundry List of Hate Shirts

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With so-called "Federal Agents" wearing military-style khaki camo field uniforms riding roughshod over anarchists on the streets of Portland (and who knows where they will be deployed next) without distinct insignia, this is an apt moment to reflect upon the practical and symbolic use of color by paramilitary organizations. Khaki is not the only shade associated with political militias but it has been used often in the past as a unifying element. The militarized forces (police? militia? marshals? deputies? mercenaries?) now making arrests in Portland are an ominous presence at best, and illegal force at worst. Uniforms are designed to clearly distinguish the roles and, therefore, the behaviors of those who wear them. They combine branding, identity and information design; or in other words, uniforms distinguish friend from foe, protector from harasser — they provide clarity. The color of a uniform (as well as emblems and insignia ) is fraught with meaning.

Khaki camo wearing "federal agents" (note green and black reversed flag emblem on helmet).

The color of extra-legal, paramilitary uniforms—especially the shirts—has played a major role in hate-branding for long over a century. The spectrum of military colors has a long, rich heritage but colors of the uniforms of contemporary racism start more or less with the Ku Klux Klan’s unmistakable “Glory Suit,” the white robe and sharply pointed hood with two ghostly cut-out eye holes that is the basic attire. It is not known who originally designed it, but the conical hat, mask and robe appear to have drawn inspiration from Christian ritual in Spain, worn by such brotherhoods as the Nazarenos (the hat or capirote—which is similar to the dunce cap that was inspired by John Dun Scotus, a 14th-century Scottish theologian who used it as a sign of those who believed in outmoded doctrine—is also the symbol of the Catholic penitent). If you accept that white is the color of purity, then it fits the Klan’s protocols, but the KKK's whiteness is not the only color of racist ideology in the Americas.

Ku Klux Klan.

In the early 20th century, a splinter group called the Black Legion (see the 1927 film Black Legion starring Humphrey Bogart) was founded as a security force called Black Guard (think of Hitler’s SS and their black uniforms) to provide protection for KKK leaders. The Michigan Legion was organized in the 1930s as a military hierarchy, purportedly with as many as 30,000 members in that state alone. Historically, there have been numerous styles of uniforms for violent fringe groups, sects and cults. Black was adopted for its linguistic connections: the black death, the black hand, the black hat. Pirates used black for their flags. Black connotes power, death, mystery and secrecy (e.g., black ops, black hole).

Garabaldi Shirt or Camicia Rossa was a sign of liberation.

Other colors signified similar insidious ideologies. Take the Redshirts, a white supremacist paramilitary group that originated in Mississippi in 1875 to oppose Reconstruction and operated in the South during the late 19th century as the fighting arm of the White League, determined to help white Democrats regain political power in the South. The red mockingly symbolized a bloody shirt that was waved in Congress as a sign of resistance to Southern Republican rule in the South. The red shirt also played a role in Europe where, known as the “Garibaldi jacket” or “Camicia Rossa,” it was the brand of Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose Redshirts fought against Austrian rule of Italy. Obviously red had (and has) both positive and negative implications depending on who is wearing it.

Italian Fascist Black Shirts.

Blackshirts: Sir Oswald Mosley (second from left), leader of the British Union of Fascists.

Later in Italy, in 1923, Benito Mussolini formed the Voluntary Militia for National Security, or Blackshirts, the militia of the paramilitary National Fascist Party, which was comprised of nationalist intellectuals, former army officers and eventually violent rabble. The black shirt was also adopted by the Union of Fascists in the U.K., formed in 1932 by Sir Oswald Mosely. In Ireland during this time a nationalist/fascist group called The Army Comrades Association (also named Young Ireland) were known as the Blueshirts. They believed that their freedom of speech was being suppressed by the Republic, and began to provide security for their leaders. Another group known as Blueshirts were the paramilitary gang of Spain’s Fascist Falanage party that formed the resistance in Franco’s anti-democratic civil war. Blue was chosen for the uniforms because it was the same color as that of workers’ coveralls.

Irish Blueshirts.

William Dudley Pelley, leader of the Silver Shirts.

Silver Shirt Legion magazine masthead.

Back in the USA, the Silver Legion of America, commonly known as the Silver Shirts, was an American fascist movement based
in Asheville, NC, and founded in 1933 by the supremacist William Dudley Pelley. That same year, as Hitler and his uniformed gang of thugs, the Brownshirts (the SA), assumed parliamentary power in Germany, the German American Bund marched through the streets of New York City in their brown shirts. Not coincidentally, also that year, a revolutionary right-wing Mexican gang, Accion Revolucionarira Mexicanista, adopted the name The Gold Shirts. It was founded by Nicolas Rodriquez Carrasco and named after Pancho Villa’s “golden” band of elite fighters. Their agenda was to deport Jews and Chinese from Mexico.

The Nazi Brownshirts reviewed by their leader.

American Brownshirts Marching in New York’ s Madison Square Garden.

American Brownshirt (in gray), Nazi Bund Leader, Fritz Kuhn.

Color has a role in all shades of the political spectrum—left, right and center. But the ultra nationalist, supremacist and racist organizations, while not holding the monopoly on symbolic color, are most commonly referred to by the color of their clothes. So potent is this symbolic power of color that in Weimar Germany, the Brownshirts’ (Braunhemden) khaki-colored shirts (originally adopted because there was an excessive surplus from the Great War for colonial troops in Africa that were cheaply purchased) were temporarily banned. Instead they left their chests bare or wore white shirts until the ban was lifted.

Never underestimate the power of color to send a clear or deliberately ambiguous (as with "Federal Agents" in Portland) signal.