Dozens of cars also drove back and forth on Grant Street, honking and waving American flags and signs that read “End Excessive Lockdown” and “Freedom Trumps the Virus.” The scene was also a bit of a rally for conservative politicians. Some protesters were wearing MAGA hats, and signs for local Republican state legislative candidates Jeff Neff and Danny DeVito were present at the rally.
The protest started at noon and about 20 minutes in, a group of armed civilians joined the protest. The 10 or so armed civilians identified as the Iron City Citizens Response Unit, and most of them wore patches with the group’s insignia. Part of that insignia includes a symbol of three interlocking triangles called the Valknot, or Valknut. Some members of the Iron City Citizens Response Unit also wore separate patches that had larger versions of the Valknot.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Valknot is an old Norse symbol that often represented the afterlife and the Norse god Odin. The ADL notes it has gained popularity as of late with some white nationalist and white supremacist groups.
“Some white supremacists, particularly racist Odinists, have appropriated the Valknot to use as a racist symbol,” reads the ADL’s website. “Often they use it as a sign that they are willing to give their life to Odin, generally in battle.”
However, the ADL also notes that “nonracist pagans may also use this symbol.” Additionally, Viking and Norse imagery has seen an increase in popularity in many militia groups, including those without ties to white nationalism.
When pressed for an explanation about the symbol, the same member said to CP, “You are the enemy of America. Leave!”
According to a post from Iron City Citizens Response Unit’s Facebook page, the group attended the rally to “protest against the state government’s illegal and anti-Constitutional orders put forth by Governor Wolfe [sic]. We are attending to make known to every citizen that we are there to protect and defend their rights and liberties — a task we took a solemn oath to fulfil [sic].”
More than a dozen Pittsburgh Police officers were stationed at the perimeter of the protest for its duration.
Hate group experts say that white nationalist and white supremacy groups have a track record of introducing new and relatively unknown symbols as a way to rebrand, but still maintain their racist goals. “It’s a classic rebranding effort,” said Keegan Hankes of the Southern Poverty Law Center to Louisiana Weekly in 2018. “They have a noxious belief system, so they have to package it so they don’t totally turn off potential recruits.”
The Valknot was among several lesser known symbols that were used by white nationalists who attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, two “Neo-Völkisch” groups have chapters in Pennsylvania: the Wolves of Vinland and Wotan’s Nation. According to SPLC, “Neo-Völkisch” groups sometimes identify their spiritualism as Odinism and will sometimes adopt paganism. But some “Neo-Völkisch” groups are explicitly accepting white supremacy as part of their movement.
Daniel Burnside, a white supremacist Odinist from Potter County, told the news site Reveal in 2017 that some use Odisim as a way to further white supremacy.
“Turning the other cheek and it’s all going to be OK, that isn’t the answer a lot of people who are turning to Odinism are looking for,” said Burnside in 2017. “They’re looking for the idea of, do you want to be the nail, or do you want to be the hammer?”
However, Reveal noted that just a small sliver of Odinists appear to embrace racist ideas.
It’s also unclear where exactly in Pennsylvania the Wolves of Vinland and Wotan’s Nation are headquartered, as the SPLC only lists them as statewide groups.
Facebook page doesn’t include signs of white nationalism or white supremacy. However, nothing on the group’s Facebook page mentions Norse heritage or pagan identity, even though the many Iron City Citizens Response Unit members wore decals and patches during the protest that contained the Valknot. In fact, a March 24 post written by someone who identifies as "Hammer" (complete with an emoji of the tool after their name) mentions a “God” several times, and they capitalize the word the way it is referenced in the Bible.