On Monday, May 10, a post appeared on the @blackatpotomac Instagram account regarding a student’s choice to have Blue Lives Matter and Three Percenter emblems on his backpack. Blue Lives Matter is a pro-police slogan that has been widely perceived as a countermovement to the Black Lives Matter movement. The Three Percenter group is a right wing militia group associated with violence, racism, and xenophobia.
The body of the post read, “There is a student walking around the high school now with a Blue Lives Matter flag on their school backpack and 3 percenter (a white supremacist militia organization) merchandise on their backpack as well. The school has done NOTHING and continues to allow a student to represent a terrorist organization on the materials he brings to school. So where is this ‘environment of diversity, equity, and inclusion’ that administrators brag about to incoming parents? Because it’s not here.”
The post spread, rapidly gaining over 300 likes on the account, which now has almost 1,300 followers. Two days after the post went up, another appeared, citing similar concerns of a student in the Intermediate School who had a Blue Lives Matter flag on his water bottle.
Senior Christian Herald described her initial reaction to the post. “When I saw the post, I felt really uncomfortable, weirded-out, and disappointed,” she said.
Many students also felt that Potomac should have taken action to remove the Three Percenters emblem before the post was shared on social media.
Christian said, “I don’t know how this wasn’t caught earlier, because from what I’ve heard, students have noticed this for quite a while, and someone had to have seen it, so I’m confused as to why there wasn’t some sort of action taken before they got put on blast on social media.”
The publication of the post also raised questions about students’ lack of trust in the Potomac administration’s ability to address concerns that the school environment is not safe for all students.
Mr. Westermann said, “I think people went to the posting because they don’t know what measures of accountability there are, so they don’t trust that their concerns won’t fall on deaf ears. We want to not just symbolically say that we do care, so we have to put in a system that shows we care and shows how we will respond.”
Junior Destiny Attagba also expressed doubt about what Potomac’s response would have been if the situation was not public. “Unfortunately, I think the main reason they intervened was because the post was so public, I would have loved to see how this would have gone down if the student had just reported it, instead of it being a post.”
Director of Equity and Community Initiatives Tamisha Williams, who is leaving at the end of this school year, emphasized the importance of understanding how symbols can be perceived differently depending on how one identifies.
“I think it’s important to be in conversation with people who have impacts different than the context you have with those symbols. We have to be knowledgeable about the way we’re perceived and there are folks, like myself, who look at symbols and who they’re attached to to understand safety because I don’t always have the privilege of sitting down and having a conversation to know that you were on the correct side of a movement before it got co-opted,” she said.
The student who put the patch on his backpack was told about the post by a friend. After learning about the post, he explained: “My first thought is, obviously that’s not what I think. I don’t believe in white supremacy or hatred or anything like that. My second thought was that this is what people think I believe now and that’s a problem for me because this is not what I believe.”
He said that after learning of the racist and hateful connotations associated with the Three Percenter group, he removed the patch.
“I did have really impactful conversations about making sure that I pick the right movement that represents me in my entirety and not wanting to be associated, even if I agree with the core idea, with the connotations of a movement, that I don’t agree with,” he said.
However, many students expressed skepticism about his alleged unawareness of the connotations of the Three Percenter organization.
“I was confused how you could claim to be part of an organization, have their merchandise on your backpack, yet not know how they’re being talked about in mainstream media, and also not know that they’re a part of all of these groups that have not been associated with being anti-federal government,” Christian said.
Moving forward, the importance of having conversations on a smaller scale was reemphasized by the public nature of this controversy.
Mrs. Williams said, “There are moments when we’re in safe places, in school, where we can have those conversations on a smaller level before it gets to a point, to a platform where then it’s hard to backtrack and the narrative has already been decided.”
Because the Three Percenter emblem made many students feel unsafe, it ignited conversations about Potomac’s role in moderating speech.
Christian said, “There is a difference between free speech and having a patch of an organization that maybe not everyone agrees with but that is not hate motivated, and then having one from an organization that is very much rooted in hate and has been known for hateful acts.”
Mr. Westermann also explained that, “we want students to be able to express themselves,” … [however], … “if your speech harms another person, that’s the limit.” He continued, “the definition of harm differs where you are; at a school, we should have a very low threshold for what is harmful.”
This story was originally published on The Potomac Current on May 17, 2021.