A harrowing photo shows a Trump supporter carrying a Confederate flag inside the US Capitol, flanked by portraits of Civil War figures

Capitol protest
A supporter of President Donald Trump storm the US Capitol Rotunda on January 6, 2021.

  • Photographer Saul Loeb captured an image of a pro-Trump rioter storming the US Capitol on Wednesday.
  • Though the Confederate flag originated during the US Civil War, it never entered the Capitol building during that time.
  • Behind the rioter in the photo, two portraits reflect the fractured nation of the country during the 1860s.
  • To the man’s right is a portrait of Charles Sumner, an abolitionist. To his left is a portrait of Charles Sumner, a defender of slavery.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As rioters stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday, photographer Saul Loeb managed to encapsulate the siege’s dark historical context in a single image. His photo shows a Trump supporter waving a Confederate flag in front of two portraits of Civil War figures in the Capitol Rotunda.

To the man’s right is a portrait of Charles Sumner, a former Massachussetts Senator who protested slavery. To his left is a portrait of John C. Calhoun, the seventh vice president of the United States, who was a staunch defender of slavery and the chief architect of succession during the Civil War.

The proximity of the two portraits calls to mind the fractured nature of US civil society in the 1860s – and the recent cleft that has widened in the lead-up and response to the 2020 election.

“What I find fascinating about that juxtaposition is its connections to violence, because of course [Sumner] was a victim of violence in the Capitol when he was attacked for having had made a speech critical of slavery,” Judith Giesberg, a Civil War historian at Villanova University, told Business Insider. “What that image should remind us of is that there’s a history of having violent political confrontations in Congress.”

Congress met on Wednesday for a joint session to oversee the counting of electoral votes. Around the same time, thousands of Trump supporters gathered in downtown Washington, DC to protest the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

Trump urged his supporters to head to the Capitol building, and with Congress in session, rioters stormed the Capitol, forcing the House and Senate to abruptly go into recess. Lawmakers, Hill staffers, and reporters took shelter in their offices before being evacuated. Protesters sat in Vice President Mike Pence’s chair in the Senate chamber, vandalized congressional offices, and looted items like podiums from the building.

Multiple police officers were injured in the violence and evacuated from the Capitol area. A woman was shot in an altercation with law enforcement and later died, MSNBC’s Pete Williams reported. Finally, shortly after 5:30 p.m. local time, the House of Representatives’ Sergeant at Arms announced the Capitol building had been secured.

The photo’s historical significance 

The Confederate flag originated during the Civil War as a battle flag for the pro-slavery Confederacy, but historians say its significance as a political symbol emerged in the 20th century as a sign of resistance to racial integration. During the entire Civil War from 1861 to 1865, the Confederate flag never entered the US Capitol building.

“The flag’s significance during the Civil War has been grossly overstated,” Giesberg said. “We have projected our experiences backward.”

For a plurality of Americans today, the Confederate flag has come to represent racism in general, according to a January 2020 YouGov poll. It’s also a common sight at rallies for President Donald Trump, who has defended people’s decisions to fly the flag in public. 

Giesberg said there’s a deep irony behind the rioter carrying the Confederate flag in front of Sumner’s portrait.

“It’s striking to see [Sumner] juxtaposed with this person who represents what he most was offended by and what he stood against,” she said.

All the more ironic, she added, is the fact that Calhoun’s portrait hangs to his left.

“Calhoun is perfect in this way, in so many ways, because this is a man who was no stranger to treason,” Giesberg said. “He had done more probably than anybody else in the country to rehearse the events that would lead to succession, starting in November of 1860.”

capitol protester
A Trump supporter sits on the second floor of the US Capitol near the entrance to the Senate, beneath a portrait of Charles Sumner.

In July, the House voted to approve legislation to remove statues of Confederate figures, including Calhoun, from the Capitol building.

The decision was in part a continuation of Sumner’s legacy. In 1865, the abolitionist proposed that paintings hanging in the Capitol shouldn’t portray scenes from the Civil War. In particular, he objected to a bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who ruled in 1857 that African-Americans could not be considered citizens.

Sumner “was certainly a vocal and resolute abolitionist,” Giesberg said. “He was uncompromising in his critique of slavery and for that he paid, ultimately, a very heavy price.”

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Wish.com removes most Confederate merchandise, citing policy against hate, but it still sells items glorifying dictators

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The online retailer Wish.com formally prohibits the sale of “hate symbols,” but many still slip through the cracks.

  • Before Christmas, visitors to the online retailer Wish.com could purchase a number of items celebrating the Confederacy, from flags to shirts to hats.
  • After Insider pointed out the items last week, the company removed most but not all related merchandise.
  • “Wish prohibits the listing of products that glorify or endorse hatred towards others,” a company spokesperson said Monday.
  • But visitors can still purchase items that violate the company’s policy, including merchandise glorifying dictators Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

This holiday season, visitors to Wish.com – the online retailer whose name is featured on jerseys worn by LeBron James and other members of the Los Angeles Lakers – were able to buy an item that is officially prohibited for promoting hate: the battle flag of the defeated Confederate States of America.

Paid ads on the site actually featured Mississippi’s recently scrapped state banner, which included the Confederate flag in the top left corner. In the ad, the symbol of the Confederacy, and the lost cause of chattel slavery, is featured prominently; hundreds of people purchased these items, according to the site.

Following an inquiry from Insider, most but not all of that merchandise has now been purged.

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Confederate flags were available for purchase on Wish.com throughout the holiday season.

“Wish prohibits the listing of products that glorify or endorse hatred towards others,” a company spokesperson said Monday, noting it “deploys a number of measures to prevent these types of listings and removes them if prevention was unsuccessful.”

Led by billionaire and former Google engineer Peter Szulczewski, the e-commerce site, akin to eBay and Amazon, brought in just under $2 billion in revenue in 2019. It also raised $1.1 billion when it went public on the stock exchange in November 2020.

Like its competitors, Wish has an explicit policy on “hateful symbols“: it does not allow them. Nazi memorabilia, the alt-right “Kekistan” flag, and “dictator glorification” are all expressly prohibited.

The company’s policy threatens to impose a $10 fine on those who sell prohibited items. The company spokesperson did not immediately respond when asked if the penalty had been imposed on those who listed the Confederate merchandise.

Although Wish has a clear policy against symbols of hate, enforcement is uneven.

In 2019, for example, Wish and Amazon were both forced to apologize after The Auschwitz Museum revealed that the sites were selling Christmas tree ornaments with photos of the concentration camp, as Wired reported.

Confederate merchandise also remains just one quick search away, including a “Confederate States Cavalry” flag and matching baseball cap, despite the renewed effort to clean up the site.

Screenshot_2020 12 28 Saddam Hussein Wish
Items celebrating the Confederacy continue to be listed at Wish.com, despite a policy prohibiting their sale.

As of Monday night, visitors could also purchase t-shirts, hoodies, and face masks celebrating Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian strongman whom the US concluded used chemical weapons along with indiscriminate bombing campaigns that have killed hundreds of thousands and forced millions of other people to flee their homeland.

Screenshot_2020 12 28 Wish   Shopping Made Fun(1)
Numerous items featuring Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad are available to purchase at Wish.com.

Users can also buy t-shirts and cell phone cases featuring Saddam Hussein, who over the summer of 2020 was featured in a seemingly algorithm-driven social media campaign from the company that highlighted a $20 framed photo of the deceased Iraqi dictator.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Lakers, which announced a corporate partnership with Wish in 2017, did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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