In a photo that went viral over the weekend, 61 high schoolers in Baraboo, Wisconsin, gave the Nazi salute for a group photo taken before their junior prom. The prom photo is the latest chilling example of a disgusting rise in white nationalist culture around the world, and of a toxic American political culture that reaches the most ignorant members of society.
In the prom photo, all of the teens save one or two are giving the “Sieg Heil” salute, the gesture used by Nazis at political rallies. One teen on the front row of the prom photo isn’t giving a Nazi salute but is instead making the white power “OK” hand gesture that has made headlines over the past few years for its use as a low-key white nationalist gesture. (Though it has been said the “OK” hand gesture’s double meaning as a white power symbol started as a joke on 4chan, a social media platform that has been a white nationalist breeding ground, it’s clearly being used now as an intentionally hateful gesture.)
Journalist Jules Suzdaltsev — a contributor for Vice, The Young Turks and Now This — uncovered the photo and posted it on Twitter yesterday with the comment, “If anybody from Baraboo High School in Wisconsin can clue me in on why it appears the entire male class of 2018 is throwing up a Sig Heil during their prom photos – that would be great.”
If anybody from Baraboo High School in Wisconsin can clue me in on why it appears the entire male class of 2018 is throwing up a Sig Heil during their prom photos – that would be great.
— Jules Suzdaltsev (@jules_su) November 12, 2018
We now know the teens in the photo are actually the class of 2019, so are currently in their senior year of high school.
Baraboo Schools Superintendent Lori Mueller has said in a statement, “The school district is investigating this situation and is working with parents, staff and local authorities. If the gesture is what it appears to be [editor’s note: Is there really ANY ambiguity over the gesture?], the district will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address the issue. With that, we want to be very clear: the Baraboo School District is a hate-free environment where all people, regardless of race, color, religion, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin or ancestry, are respected and celebrated.”
Since posting the image, other current and former students have reached out to Suzdaltsev to share their own stories of hate at the school in question, which it should be said clearly contradict Mueller’s claim of the school district being “hate-free.” One student spoke of students shouting “White Power!” in the hallways of Baraboo High School. Another shared an Instagram comment in which she was called a racial slur by a fellow student, only to have the school refuse action.
Another says one of the boys in the prom photo shared a photo of her on Snapchat calling her “Trump’s #1 supporter” because she didn’t support the U.S. president. She says the school had him delete the image, but he faced no punishment. A student who graduated earlier this year says racial slurs were hurled around Baraboo High School rather nonchalantly.
We now know the prom photo was taken by a man named Peter Gust. He’s a local photographer, a former teacher, a parent of one of the students in the prom photo and lists himself as a director for the Wisconsin Education Association Council on LinkedIn. Gust initially posted the photo to his photography website. A Twitter post of the photo initially joked, “We even got the black kid to throw it up #BarabooProud.”
Gust has since removed the photo from his website, replacing it with a statement that reads in part, “Due [to] malevolent behavior on the part of some in society; this page has been modified. It is too bad that there are those in society who can and do take the time to be jerks; knowingly and willingly to be jerks! … To anyone that was hurt I sincerely apologize.”
In the prom photo, one student named Jordan Blue at the top right is refusing to give the Nazi salute. Having reached out to Suzdaltsev, he had this to say: “The photographer took the photos telling us to make the sign, I knew what my morals were and it was not to salute something I firmly didn’t believe in. I attend BHS, these classmates have bullied me since entering middle school, I have struggled with it my entire life and nothing has changed.” Blue makes clear that racist acts like this are commonplace at his school, which has done nothing to stop them, and he questions whether the school will address them even still.
I spoke with the only student who is visibly not comfortable with the “salute”, he provided this statement. pic.twitter.com/HbNBc8xLOK
— Jules Suzdaltsev (@jules_su) November 12, 2018
Today marks one year and three months to the day since white nationalists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, for a “Unite the Right” rally, carrying tiki torches and proclaiming to non-white races, “You will not replace us!” One person, a 32-year-old counter-protester named Heather Heyer, was murdered on that day.
Following the prom photo of these Baraboo teens giving the Nazi salute, the Auschwitz Memorial released a statement on Twitter: “It is so hard to find words… This is why every single day we work hard to educate. We need to explain what is the danger of hateful ideology rising. Auschwitz with its gas chambers was at the very end of the long process of normalizing and accommodating hatred.”