What makes an image a symbol of hate? Is it the image itself? Is it the context of its use? The question can get complicated, especially when dealing with images whose origins are several centuries old.
Last week, local activist Evan Parish Matthews posted a photo he took at the DNC of Philadelphia Police Officer Ian Lichterman, a longtime veteran of the force who was named Officer of the Month in July 2014 by the 2nd Police District Advisory Council.
The photo of Officer Lichterman, which has since circulated widely on social media and brought condemnation from politicians and pundits, shows his forearm tattoo of a German Imperial eagle. Above the eagle, the word “Fatherland” is tattooed in large Gothic letters.
Multiple media outlets have referred to Lichterman’s body ink as a “Nazi tattoo” and noted its similarity to the Parteiadler, the emblem of the Nazi Party.
In fact, after seeing a photo of Lichterman’s tattoo on Twitter, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney released a strongly worded statement: “The imagery on display in the tweet is disturbing,” he said. “I find it incredibly offensive, and I know many others do as well. This image is particularly offensive to our WWII veterans who fought valiantly to free Europe from Nazi Germany, as well as all victims of Nazi atrocities.”
But Fraternal Order of Police Chief John McNesby has dismissed such concerns, telling philly.com, “I’ve seen it. It’s an eagle. Not a big deal.” He also told 6ABC that Lichterman is a member of the German-American Police Association, which also uses a German imperial eagle as part of its logo.
“He’s a military veteran, he’s a father, he’s a great cop,” McNesby told 6ABC reporter Dann Cuellar. “On the other arm, he has a tattoo of an American flag. Is that offensive? If he had a black panther on his chest or his back or his leg, would that be offensive?”
People on social media are now digging into Lichterman’s past — everything from the fact that he went by username “Panzerhund0311” on Flickr and had a dog named Rommel to the fact that he shares a name and email address with an Ian Lichterman who was outed in 2010 as a member of the white supremacist online network, Blood and Honour. Photos have also been posted showing an Iron Cross tattoo on his elbow.
But McNesby cited Lichterman’s exemplary record and said, “And now, he’s being crucified, his family is being crucified. He had to change his phone number over a tattoo that he’s had for over a decade? Stop it. Come on.”
The police department has referred the matter to internal affairs but said in a statement that it “does not condone anything that can be interpreted as offensive, hateful or discriminatory in any form. This is a very sensitive topic for both the citizens that we serve as well as the officers providing service to the public. We must ensure that all constitutional rights are adhered to while at the same time ensuring public safety and public trust aren’t negatively impacted.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s Nancy Baron-Baer was careful to provide plenty of context for the various images that Lichterman seems to be sporting.
“The Nazi eagle, which was developed in the 1920s, contained an eagle holding a swastika,” she said. “Sometimes extremists leave the circle blank where the swastika would appear, oftimes because there are many countries that prohibit a swastika being in print. Here, there was no swastika. Not every image of an eagle is a Nazi eagle, and so we can’t in and of itself say that that particular symbol makes the individual an anti-Semite.”
Regarding the Iron Cross, Baron-Baer said, “It started as a famous German military medal dating back to the 1800s and then the Nazis superimposed a swastika on it and it became it a symbol of the Nazi era. However, in the United States, the Iron Cross was adopted first by outlaw bikers — mostly to signify rebellion or shock people — and then in the early 2000s, skateboarders and other extreme sports enthusiasts started to use the Iron Cross and even companies that produced equipment for these groups used the Iron Cross. So it has a non-racist context in the United States. So again, in isolation, without a swastika or something, we can’t determine that it’s a hate symbol.”
That being said, Baron-Baer continued, “when you’ve got a number of different symbols that are questionable, it at least calls upon us and the police to look at the situation with a critical eye to see if these are more than just symbols — to see if these are, in fact, hate symbols.”
Parish Matthews noted in a subsequent Facebook post that a formal complaint had been filed against the officer, and encouraged others to do the same. He said that the idea of being stopped by Lichterman was “terrifying,” adding, “If Philadelphia police officer Lichterman was to put you in a chokehold, you would be staring directly at a PPD uniform and the insignia of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party.”
The Philadelphia Police Department has no policy regarding tattoos, but “will quickly move to assess and determine the appropriate policy moving forward.”
“The Chicago Police Department recently instituted regulations that police officers must cover up any visible tattoos while they’re on duty,” Baron-Baer said. “We believe that it’s a police officer’s obligation to try to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. That’s of utmost importance. If there is no trust, the police can’t do their jobs effectively and all of us will be less safe. The trust starts with how the police officer appears to you … and while everyone’s got a First Amendment right to free speech, the department probably should have the right to have a professional-looking department with some uniform restrictions.”
Mayor Kenney referred to trust in his statement as well. “In this environment — in which open, honest dialogue between citizens and police is paramount — we need to be building trust, not offering messages or displaying images that destroy trust.”
“We would hope that the police department would institute more and continuous training on hate symbols, on tattoos, on anti-bias work, et cetera,” said Baron-Baer, “so that there’s an understanding within and among the police how these kinds of things might affect the community.”
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