The events of May 5, 2018, would eventually cast Phillip Zolper as an international symbol of racism in Donald Trump’s America.
But if he was worried about anything when he woke up that morning, it was dancing at his junior prom.
Like a lot of 17-year-old boys, Zolper wondered if he would embarrass himself in front of his date, a friend. And there were so many things to take care of first. Zolper had to buy a corsage. But he didn’t like any of the precut ones, so he bought untrimmed flowers instead. Then, there were the pictures. Around 10 in the morning, Zolper, his date, and the prom group met at a house in the bluffs west of town, where they posed for each other.
Afterward, Zolper, his friends, and their dates caravanned down the county trunk highway to the center of Baraboo, the small, middle-class Wisconsin city where most of them attended high school. When they arrived, the lawn in front of the Sauk County Courthouse was already mobbed. Promgoers had been coming here for years the day of the dance for big class photos; today it seemed like everyone’s families had turned out too.
The girls went first, lining up in rows in front of the grand limestone building, as parents and friends snapped away on their smartphones for nearly 10 minutes. Then it was the boys’ turn. Zolper, newly tall and with posture befitting a child of two chiropractor parents, climbed up to the top stair in his gray suit. His folks were on a service trip to Guatemala, so he scanned the crowd for his great-aunt, who had come to take pictures in their place.
Baraboo High School hadn’t hired an official photographer, as the courthouse gathering wasn’t technically a school event. But Pete Gust, the father of one of Zolper’s classmates and the owner of a small home-photo studio, had a nice camera and a tripod. Gust took charge, running the boys through the usual poses: turn left, turn right, make James Bond finger guns, make a funny face. It was hot that day, and the boys, mashed together on the stairs, were getting impatient. Gust told them to raise a fist in the air, Zolper remembered. Looking through the viewfinder and fiddling with his camera, Gust said that the fists looked funny — he didn’t like it.
His classmate’s dumb dad had seemed to inadvertenly order him to give a Nazi salute.
It’s unclear precisely what Gust, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, told the group to do next. Some of the boys remember him saying to give a quick wave to their parents. Months later, Gust would tell a reporter that he told the boys to “give me a high sign, a wave that you’re saying goodbye to your parents,” and that it was a “brain fart” based on past photos he’d taken of wedding parties. One Baraboo student told a Madison television station that Gust had demonstrated the gesture himself.
What happened next, though, is as clear as a digital photograph seen round the world. His arm still extended, Phillip Zolper opened his closed fist. He immediately knew what it looked like: a “Sieg Heil” salute, the greeting the Nazis had borrowed from the Italian fascists, whose “Roman salute” originated in Jacques-Louis David’s 1784 painting “Oath of the Horatii.” There was no question in his mind what he was doing.
But Zolper didn’t put his arm down. It was a ridiculous situation, he thought, and it was kind of funny: His classmate’s dumb dad had seemed to inadvertently order him to give a Nazi salute. Zolper was hot, and he was tired of standing there. He figured he’d play along.
So did at least 30 of the 63 teenagers, among whom there was confusion and a smattering of guffaws. The whole thing lasted for about 10 seconds, if that. “That’s ridiculous, guys,” Zolper remembered Gust saying. “Go on, have your prom, we’re done here.”
When Zolper’s parents returned from their trip a few days later, he told them about the photograph. While other Baraboo students would claim in retrospect that the gesture was a simple, misunderstood wave, Zolper was completely clear about what he thought had happened.
“A bunch of guys did the Sieg Heil as a joke yesterday, making fun of the cameraman,” he had told them. “And if it doesn’t get deleted, it will probably come back to bite us.”
For half a year, the image sat largely unnoticed in a gallery called “BHS Prom Pic’s” on Gust’s website, Wheel Memories. (Most of Gust’s photographs are of motorcycles.) Then, on November 11, the small Twitter account @GoBaraboo tweeted a screenshot of it, with a caption: “We even got the black kid to throw it up #barabooproud.” (The black kid did not, in fact, throw it up.) That night, a local woman named Carly Sidey tweeted a screenshot of the @GoBaraboo tweet. “This post has since been deleted,” Sidey wrote, “but I just want [the Baraboo School District] to be aware of the disturbing actions that are represented in this photograph. This is BEYOND sickening.”
Sidey did a Twitter search for “politics,” and the platform’s algorithm surfaced the New York–based journalist Jules Suzdaltsev, to whom she messaged her tweet. Early the following morning, Suzdaltsev tweeted the photo to his 85,000 followers, writing, “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 [sic] Heil during their prom photos – that would be great.” Suzdaltsev’s tweet contained two errors: First, nearly half of the students in the photo were not saluting, and second, the majority of the students were in the class of 2019. (Suzdaltsev later tweeted a correction.)
But the conditions for a viral outrage could not have been better concocted in a lab. Sixteen days before, a man yelling anti-Semitic slurs had killed 11 Jews in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Two months before, the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had centered on an alleged high school sexual assault and sparked a national discursive blood feud about the privileges afforded young white men — and the damage such privileges can inflict on others. And the previous several years had seen a rise in, and growing fear of, white nationalist violence and organizing throughout the country. Emboldened by the rhetoric of President Trump, white supremacist groups in the United States and abroad have swelled in their membership and intensified their propaganda efforts, especially online.
So here were dozens of fresh-faced American men, nearly all of them white, and many of them beaming, while displaying what looked like a gesture almost universally associated with the state-sanctioned murder of millions of people, including 6 million Jews. The world noticed. Suzdaltsev’s tweet has been retweeted nearly 27,000 times. The major national news organizations all ran stories, and many of them sent reporters to Baraboo. Sarah Silverman and Mia Farrow condemned the gesture on social media. So too did the organizations that most seriously wield the moral weight of the Holocaust.
“It is so hard to find words,” read a tweet from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Poland, addressing the photo. “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.”
Accommodating hatred: That was the key phrase. Not only were many of the boys making the hateful gesture, but they were doing so in front of an audience with no apparent fear of the consequences. Viral accounts of racism at Baraboo High School followed, as did a report that the school district had received 11 race-based harassment complaints the previous year. The photo and these reports seemed to implicate the entire city. “Disinfect poor Baraboo with sunlight,” wrote one popular Twitter user. “Well done America,” wrote another.
And then everyone moved on.
The spotlight shifted, as it always does — this time thanks to a video taken two months later on the National Mall of a standoff between prep school boys from Covington Catholic High School and a Native American, which started a related, but far more bitter, fight over the affect and behavior of white teenage boys.
Yet Baraboo was scarred. Here was a basically anonymous Midwestern city of 12,000 people, which had gone in the span of a week from being best known as the former home of Ringling Bros. Circus to being an emblem of resurgent American racial and religious intolerance. “This isn’t Baraboo. This isn’t who we are,” Ed Geick, the Baraboo city administrator, had told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in the days after the photo went viral, echoing a common sentiment among Barabooians — even several of those who recounted racist experiences. And yet to most of the outside world, the photo was exactly what Baraboo was.
Here was a traumatized community that in a desperate attempt to ward off a context-free national culture war had done lasting damage to itself.
Social media’s hyperfocus on Baraboo as the “Nazi town,” as it came to be known, missed a broader point: The salute, or something like it, could have happened almost anywhere in the United States. Since Baraboo, similar, though less dramatic, incidents involving high school students and Nazi symbols have taken place in Newport Beach, California; Minnetonka, Minnesota; and even in Washington, DC, at the exclusive, liberal Sidwell Friends School, which prides itself on diversity and is where former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama sent their children.
Days after students projected swastikas onto a screen during an assembly, Sidwell’s head of school, Bryan Garman, sent an email to the school’s alumni, including me. “The online world of instant and anonymous communication, memes, and hypertext have rendered language hyperreactive,” he wrote, “emboldening users to say things that would be unimaginable in an intimate setting, and eroding long-accepted standards of decency, civil discourse, and judgement.”
That the internet has changed the way teenagers test boundaries is obvious. But it has also broadened the audience for these behaviors from small, isolated, and socially contextualized groups of bored students to an entire contextless media ecosystem that also encompasses the internationally resurgent, internet-savvy, and sometimes lethally violent white nationalist right. This is a space where intentions don’t matter, where one person’s bad joke is another’s propaganda.
And yet much of the discussion in Baraboo after the photograph went viral focused on the intentions of the boys in the moment the shutter clicked. Those intentions were hardly as uniform or as sinister as they first appeared. But images now spread faster than the stories behind them, and this image met the residents of Baraboo with enough speed and force to uproot basic assumptions about their lives.
Indeed, in Baraboo the potential of decontextualized viral content to rend the American social fabric had been fully realized. Here was a traumatized community that in a desperate attempt to ward off the narratives of the national culture war had done lasting damage to itself. And despite the serious efforts of a brave few to confront what the photograph could mean for Baraboo, I found a city struggling to grapple with its own deep, commonplace history of intolerance, and unable to provide a model for the next place that something like this happens.
The night of November 12, one day after the Sieg Heil picture went up on Twitter, Kelly Dwyer sat in her pajamas in her living room and studied the faces in it. Dwyer, who is Jewish, moved to Baraboo with her husband 20 years ago, after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Drawn by the abundant natural beauty of the area — which served as the inspiration for the ecologist Aldo Leopold’s seminal A Sand County Almanac — Dwyer, a novelist, now taught creative writing and composition at a small branch of the University of Wisconsin perched on a hill overlooking the city.
When she first saw the photograph in her campus email, Dwyer didn’t think it was real. Baraboo wasn’t exactly a diverse place; 93% white and overwhelmingly Christian. But Dwyer had never experienced any anti-Semitism in town, apart from when an acquaintance used the phrase “Jew them down” shortly after she had moved there. Still, Baraboo friends insisted the photo was authentic, and emails started pouring in from friends around the country as Suzdaltsev’s tweet went viral: “Is this your town?” “Are there really Nazis there?” and so on.
Members of the city’s tiny, close-knit Jewish community called each other, alarmed. One woman, Marcy Huffaker, wondered if it had been a mistake to live there, as she also had, for 20 years, raising three children. Her husband, Buddy, worried there might be a real group of teenage neo-Nazis living in town; days earlier, some residents of nearby Reedsburg had found white nationalist pamphlets in their mailboxes — could this be part of a concerted campaign? Another friend, Mara Seals, the town veterinarian, found the photograph so upsetting she could hardly look at it. She knew many of the boys in photograph; she had cared for their pets.
Dwyer knew some of the boys in the photograph too. Her daughter, Alice, had spent her first two years of high school at Baraboo, before transferring that fall to a private school in Madison. She came home that night from dance class — where she had cried with the Huffakers’ 15-year-old daughter, Eva — and, as her parents listened, shocked, described a culture of unchecked racism pervading Baraboo High School’s hallways.
“She told us the extent to which she had heard the n-word at school,” Dwyer said. “And when we looked at the photo she showed us the boys who said the n-word. There were people who said it all the time. Like, these boys would say it in the halls and in the classrooms, even.”
As she sat with her family in the living room, Dwyer got a text from Phillip Zolper. The Dwyers had been friends with the Zolpers for years; Kelly Dwyer had known Phillip since he was a toddler. She had always known him as an earnest, conscientious kid. Could he come over, Zolper asked, and “offer an accounting” of himself? Dwyer told him he could.
So Zolper drove over that night, sat in the Dwyers’ living room, and apologized. He told them the whole story: the raised fist, the open palm, the gesture he had meant as an ironic joke given the situation and not because he hated Jewish people. There was no burgeoning group of neo-Nazis at Baraboo High School, he said, just a group of stupid teenagers, some of whom were good people, some of whom were, as Zolper later put it to me, “insensitive bastards,” and a small number of whom were, yes, outright racists. Zolper said he took responsibility for making the hateful gesture. The Dwyers forgave the young man, and they all embraced. To Kelly Dwyer, this was a tight-knit community working as it should, with long-lasting and resilient social bonds able to withstand even vicious shocks.
“His ‘salute’ was not done out of maliciousness or Antisemitism,” she wrote in a Facebook post that night, “But what I’ll call mob mentality, foolishness, and ignorance.”
Still, she told Zolper as she pulled out a notebook, she didn’t think he could apologize on behalf of everyone in the photograph, as he had offered to do. She wanted to know more about this group of boys. Zolper explained that the photograph was hardly a perfect snapshot of the very real racism within Baraboo High School. As Zolper said and Dwyer’s daughter confirmed, there was no particular correlation between the boys who appeared to make the Sieg Heil in the photograph and the boys who made racist comments at school. And Dwyer knew deep down that Phillip Zolper wasn’t an anti-Semite, yet there he was, making the sign.
Now, she looked again at the photograph. It was so clearly a snapshot of a chaotic moment in time. Not all of the boys were saluting. Four or five had their fists in the air. Others, maybe seven or eight, had their elbows cocked and held their hands palms up, clearly waving. Still others, at least a dozen, held their arms down.
“If there were 60 boys in the photo,” Dwyer told me, “there were 60 different stories.” She hatched an idea: With Zolper’s help, she would collect the individual stories of all of the boys in the photograph. It would be valuable for the town, Dwyer thought. It could be a way to heal.
By the time Zolper and Dwyer started thinking about how to get the stories of the boys in the photograph, state and national media had already descended on Baraboo, eager to tell their own version of what had happened. Reporters chased nervous local business owners hustling from their cars to their stores. TV trucks staked out the high school, Peter Gust’s house, City Hall. A siege mentality set in, and mouths went shut.
Inside the halls of Baraboo High School, though, students badly wanted to talk about what had happened, what was happening, and what would happen. Because of a rash of anonymous threats, the school suspended open campus, meaning students couldn’t leave for lunch; some parents held their children out of school, fearing for their safety. Despite the extraordinary circumstances, no school administrator addressed the students in an official capacity. Several teachers told classes that the school district had forbade them from discussing the photograph, a line Zolper suggested was a white lie to save them the awkwardness of such a conversation. The silence gave students the uncanny feeling that the entire world outside was talking about them, but they weren’t allowed to discuss what was going on in their own lives.
On Friday, November 16 — a full school week after the photo had blown up — Baraboo High School Principal Glenn Bildsten finally addressed the students. Over the school intercom, he explained that the school district was aware of what was happening, knew it was bad, and would provide support for students who needed it.
Over the nervous silence that had taken hold in Baraboo High School, one student spoke out loudly. Social media had seized upon Jordan Blue, a senior in the school, because of his obviously miserable expression in the photograph, and the fact that he hadn’t raised his arm.
Blue’s abstention, and the blitz of press around him that followed, briefly made him a national icon. It also made him a pariah at the high school and in the city. Classmates in the photograph who hadn’t bullied Blue felt that he had thrown them under the bus in his interviews. Friends stopped talking to him. Anti-gay persecution of Blue, who is openly gay, intensified. He received death threats on social media.
Rumors about Blue spread from students to their parents and quickly throughout town. Most damagingly, many Barabooians came to believe that Blue himself had surfaced the photo, for fame or money or both. Students claimed that Blue had been asking for photos from the steps in the days before the image went viral, which was technically true. But, as Blue told me and a Baraboo Police Department source confirmed, that was because he was helping out in yearbook class and he had wanted to find a photograph that included all of his classmates.
Many in Baraboo simply wanted to find a scapegoat. On popular local social media pages, people heaped scorn not just on Blue but on Carly Sidey for sharing the image with Suzdaltsev, and on Pete Gust, for keeping the photo on his website. Several people in Baraboo told me it was unfair what had happened to their city because Reedsburg, the next town over, was much more racist. Few wondered outwardly why none of the hundreds of people watching the photograph being taken said anything at the time, or in the intervening six months. And even as the opprobrium of the nation rained down on Baraboo, or maybe precisely because it did, very few Barabooians criticized the boys.
Some in town saw clearly what was happening in the photograph, but felt that condemning the boys was hypocritical; they themselves had done bad things in high school, they’d just been fortunate enough not to have it captured on camera and spread on Twitter. Others, including community leaders, felt the boys in the photograph were the victims of a smear by the national media. The same day Principal Bildsten addressed the students, Dan Gunderson, the pastor of Walnut Hill Bible Church, posted a long statement on Facebook titled “I Stand With Our Baraboo Boys.”
“We felt our boys were being swept up in a tidal wave of national attention that had far less to do with what they were thinking or actually believe than what people wanted to see them as thinking and believing,” Gunderson told me in an email, and that his post was an attempt to acknowledge the “second storyline” of what happened that day on the steps; the prompts from the photographer and the weird moment that followed. It urged the community to rally around the students.
“We are quick to stand for love and acceptance and diversity. Great, but who’s standing for our boys?” the post read, in part. “We know our boys. We know them. They are not racists and we need to stand behind them right now. They are being attacked and intimidated. They will remember whether their community stood beside them as they faced ruthless attacks on social media, merciless characterizations on news publications … It’s not funny, but nor is it racism, even if it enrages people who are reminded of racism when they see it … Dr. Mueller, Baraboo police department, and all others involved, you don’t have to appease the national mob and prove your commitment to diversity and tolerance by humiliating and further traumatizing our boys.”
Dr. Mueller is Lori Mueller, the Baraboo School district administrator. She was in a difficult position: accountable to families who sought to protect their children’s safety and college prospects, teachers who were under a siege of vituperative and threatening phone calls, and the demands of the outside world that something be done to punish the boys.
It was a balance she didn’t appear entirely capable of maintaining. Gunderson’s post criticized Mueller for a November 13 letter to school district parents in which she characterized the photograph as “hateful, frightening, and disappointing.” Then, at an open community meeting in the high school’s cafeteria on November 19, she seemed to tack in the other direction.
Mueller began her speech by acknowledging that the photograph had “caused hurt”: “I’ve heard from people across the globe call in and cry and have rage about that photo,” she said. But she spent much of the rest of the talk defending the school’s curriculum and communicating the hurt feelings and fears of students, including the boys in the photograph. “Many are angry, they don’t like being portrayed as a school that is racist. They don’t believe that or accept it,” Mueller said. She worried that students in the photo would be shunned. “I beg you to not sit in judgment without truly knowing them, and please don’t add to further discrimination.”
Kelly Dwyer and Mara Seals both felt that Mueller’s statement was unnecessarily defensive. She “basically stood up and said that Baraboo doesn’t have much of a problem and she supports the teachers and the kids,” Seals told me. “I know she was defending those poor teachers because there was a hailstorm of criticism, but I didn’t hear anything that first time she talked about why it was wrong, what those kids did.”
Under the national spotlight, as phones at her office rang continuously with angry callers, Mueller seemed “overwhelmed,” as one Baraboo parent put it to me. According to Mark Schauf, the Baraboo police chief, the school district and the city had hired separate crisis PR firms. The firms appeared to have instituted something just short of omertà. No employee of the Baraboo School District or the city of Baraboo (other than Schauf) agreed to speak to me in any capacity. Lori Mueller did not respond to emails, phone calls, or notes left at her office with her receptionist over a course of several months. Others have enacted their own codes of silence; the downtown Baraboo business association sent out an email warning business owners not to speak to the press. And according to a source, a recent meeting of a work group of Baraboo leaders dedicated to “sustaining the community-wide diversity efforts that have been started over the past several months” included a reminder not to speak to me.
To be fair, Barabooians had real reasons to distrust the press. Starting with the errors in Suzdaltsev’s initial tweet, many locals saw the national media as solely concerned with slotting the city into a narrative about intolerance in the age of Trump (whom Sauk County, like Wisconsin, very narrowly voted for in 2016). And, as Mara Seals told me, residents were extremely aware of the case of Claas Relotius, the Der Spiegel correspondent who fabricated details about right-wing intolerance in a Minnesota town in a March 2017 story.
Still, the public silence, coupled with sporadic protestations of the city’s fundamental good nature, produced an environment that felt to some Baraboo residents like denial. Of course Baraboo was standing by its boys. But by making them its top priority, it wasn’t standing by the people who felt threatened, isolated, or just plain angry about what had happened.
It was immediately clear to many people in Baraboo that, despite the silence and scapegoating around the photograph, some form of response was necessary to address tensions within the city itself.
At a school board meeting on November 12, a local attorney named Gregory Sacra stood up and angrily displayed photos from World War II: dead American GIs, corpses in a wheelbarrow outside a Jewish ghetto, German citizens forced to tour Buchenwald after the Nazis’ defeat. He demanded that the boys in the photograph be educated about the Holocaust.
“You’re gonna show this to them. They’re going to see this,” Sacra said. “Not funny.”
Kevin Vodak, the board’s president, said at the same meeting that the photograph “deeply disappointed me, shamed, appalled, and angered” him.
But it was never clear who was responsible for the city’s response. Individuals like the boys in the photograph and their parents? Or institutions like the school district, the city, and the police department? Nor was it clear what, exactly, that response should be. Punishment? Apologies? Education? Dialogue?
Phillip Zolper tried many of the above. As a senior, he had started training as an emergency medical technician, and after the photograph went viral, he seemed to be attempting civic triage. After he apologized to Dwyer and her family, Zolper kept talking. He apologized to more members of the Jewish community in Baraboo. And he started holding small meetings of what he called “the 63” — the boys in the photograph. Some of them were angry at the school district for not more forcefully defending the boys who didn’t salute, and for not explaining, as Zolper had, that the whole thing had been a terrible, circumstantial joke. Others maintained that they were just waving.
In early December, Zolper attended a meeting hosted by Dan Gunderson at his church, a low, beige building at the northern edge of the city. Chief Schauf was there, as were many of the boys in the photograph and their parents. One father grew irate. His son had been waving, not saluting, he said. Why did he need to apologize? Zolper stood up to respond. He told the man what he had learned from the Jews in town he had talked to: that they had been genuinely frightened and hurt by the photograph. The father admitted that might be true, but he still didn’t think his son had anything to be sorry for. Even that minor concession felt to Zolper like progress.
The more he explained what had happened, Zolper discovered, the less angry and fearful people in the community grew. He wanted to put together a group statement from the boys in the photograph apologizing for the upset they’d caused and laying out just how the day had transpired. He tried to arrange a meeting of the entire group of 63 at the high school. But many of the boys were reticent to gather. And Principal Bildsten told Zolper the school district couldn’t administer such a meeting; if school officials participated, Zolper remembers Bildsten saying, they would have to write it up as a school event, making a list of the participants public record.
Zolper turned his focus to a recorded statement, something that could be played on local radio. A small number of the 63 said they were interested. But a pattern emerged: A young man would express enthusiasm for the idea, go home and talk to his parents, then drop out. Some were afraid they would be identified by their voices. Others thought apologizing at all implied intentionality. Lawyers had advised against any type of public statement. In the end, only two of the 63 apart from Zolper recorded messages; none of them have been aired.
Dwyer’s efforts to write the boys’ stories weren’t going much better. Including Zolper, only five boys agreed to speak to Dwyer, who had offered them anonymity. One boy hadn’t raised his hand, he told Dwyer, because he had once role-played as a Holocaust victim at school. Two others who had raised their hands told stories similar to Zolper’s: a very offensive, very ill-considered joke, which was not intended to hurt anyone. The boys seemed “shell-shocked” to Dwyer, bordering on uncooperative. Just days after the photograph came to light, she discovered, many of the boys or their parents had already spoken to lawyers.
Meanwhile, slowly, local institutions had started to act, but not always in reassuring ways. Lori Mueller had sent a letter to parents on November 12 stating that “the school district and local authorities continue to investigate … how and why this photo was taken.” This was slightly misleading. It was true that Schauf led an investigation, but it was primarily focused on the barrage of violent threats to the school.
According to Schauf, Baraboo police did investigate the photo — but to determine if its publication was intended to harm one of the depicted boys, in violation of state harassment laws. Schauf figured if there were a group of neo-Nazis at Baraboo High School, it would become clear during the course of the investigation. (There wasn’t, he said.) The account that posted the photo, @GoBaraboo, was a shared account that was passed down every year from a few popular boys in one senior class to a similar group in the next. (Sample older posts: “Make sure that all of your nudes include the new Baraboo snapchat filter. #WeAreOnTheMap” and “School Wifi can suck a big ole’ dick rn.”) A Baraboo police source said the investigation determined that many people had access to the account, and that the department couldn’t establish probable cause to subpoena the IP address behind the post.
In a letter sent November 21, Mueller announced to parents that the school district wouldn’t sanction any of the boys in the photograph.
“We cannot know the intentions in the hearts of those who were involved,” Mueller wrote. “Moreover, because of students’ First Amendment rights, the district is not in a position to punish the students for their actions.”
It was true that punishing the boys could present serious challenges, including potential litigation by parents. And the logistics would be daunting: Should school administrators be in the business of measuring arm angles and hand positions to determine who was waving and who was saluting? But the lack of any official censure from the school district reaggravated the issue in the national media, bringing a new round of recriminations of the school district, and a sense among some in Baraboo that no one would take responsibility for the boys’ actions. Maybe the boys shouldn’t be suspended, one black resident of Baraboo mused to me, but what about a reprimand? Had any of the boys even missed prom?
With significant guidance from Marcy Huffaker, who had been visiting her daughter’s classes for years to explain Hanukkah, the school district did take some broad steps seemingly intended to address the Sieg Heil incident. Through a connection at Huffaker’s Madison synagogue, Mueller arranged restorative justice training for administrators, teachers, a select group of students, and a group of parents of the boys in the photo. Mueller hired a social equity expert. She organized an all-day peace assembly at which the former white supremacist Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Singh Kaleka, a man whose father was murdered at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin 2012, both spoke. And on March 25, the senior class traveled to the Holocaust museum in Skokie, Illinois.
Meanwhile, the city arranged a series of open meetings. At the first, called Baraboo Gathers, Huffaker invited the rabbi from her congregation to address the community. Mayor Mike Palm told the crowd that the day he saw the photograph was awful, but he was proud of his community: It was united against hate.
Dwyer couldn’t help noticing, though, that these events required the active leadership of one of the only Jewish families in Baraboo. Why did the people theoretically targeted by the photograph have to help the town find its way?
“Marcy and Buddy have worked so hard and been so proactive,” she told me. “If they hadn’t, what would be happening?”
And the meetings didn’t always assuage bad feelings. Indeed, sometimes they had the opposite effect, for the simple reason that they included community members who sympathized strongly with the boys in the photograph. Dwyer had found the first meeting to be helpful. She encouraged her daughter, Alice, and Eva Huffaker to attend the next one. There, Alice and Eva participated in a group talk called Moving On. Someone in the group compared the boys in the photo to survivors of sexual assault.
“It went 20 steps backwards for my daughter,” Dwyer said.
In his first public appearance after losing the Wisconsin governorship he had held for eight years, Scott Walker was asked about the Baraboo photo.
“I think they’re idiots. It’s as simple as that. They’re just a bunch of idiots,” the Republican told reporters on November 15.
Stupid kids doing something stupid, simple as that. This is how many people in Baraboo remembered the whole ordeal to me four months later. What almost no one in town seemed interested in asking was, “Why were our kids stupid in this particular way?”
Nancy Peidelstein moved to Baraboo in 1983 with her husband. A self-described “peacenik” from the North Chicago suburbs, she had honeymooned in the city, and she fell for the area’s forested synclines and the oak-ringed Devil’s Lake. A painter, she thought it would be a good place to raise a family.
When I visited Baraboo, south central Wisconsin was in its early spring muddy season. Ballfields, playgrounds, and farmland had flooded from the melting snow, which was now gathered about in grimy, dwindling mounds. Peidelstein, petite, emerged from behind one such pile to invite me into her modest wooden home and studio.
What almost no one in town seemed interested in asking was, “Why were our kids stupid in this particular way?”
Inside, she told me about the wonderful parts of her four decades in Baraboo. There was the countryside itself, of course, and for all the negative headlines, Barabooians could be remarkably altruistic. In recent years, someone in Peidelstein’s family had experienced a serious illness. “People came out of the woodwork,” she told me. During floods the previous year, hundreds of volunteers turned up to help with sandbagging and other preparations.
Peidelstein also told me about the intolerance. Letters to the editor in the local paper and passing comments made it “clear that many people around us felt that being Jewish was not sufficient when it came to having a relationship with God.”
And then there were the terrifying incidents of actual harassment. Peidelstein’s family’s car was egged for no apparent reason; on wide open roads, cars drove frighteningly close to Peidelstein when she was out for a walk; someone wrote “BH8T3D” — Be Hated — in chalk on the sidewalk in front of their house. One Jewish woman in Baraboo told me that her family had been targeted with a swastika. When the family reported the hate symbol to the authorities, she said, they initially treated it as a simple case of graffiti.
“It took courage to stay here,” Peidelstein told me. “It takes courage to stay here.”
Still, Peidelstein told me she thought Baraboo had become a significantly more tolerant community in the nearly 40 years she’d lived there. And while the photograph was a terrible reminder of past traumas, it was impossible to determine, she said, whether the boys in the photo “embodied white supremacist attitudes” or whether “they were being theatrical and not aware of the impact it could have.” But it wasn’t the photo itself that most alarmed her. She was more discomfited by the fact that no one associated with the photograph apologized to her, and that no one released an official statement about how the photograph had happened. She had no context.
“I was shocked by the silence,” she said. “And I still am.”
Peidelstein wasn’t the only Barabooian for whom the photograph opened old wounds. Rhea Ewing, a trans artist, lived in Baraboo for 10 years in her teens and twenties. As Ewing adopted a more masculine hairstyle and clothing, they said, people started to yell “Queer!” at them from passing trucks. Cashiers wouldn’t make eye contact with them. They received death threats from a student at a martial arts class they taught. These incidents were incredibly painful, Ewing told me, because they loved Baraboo, which was significantly more accepting than the town in Kentucky they grew up in. It was the first place Ewing ever felt at home.
When they saw the photo, they said, “I was surprised at how not surprised I was. All of the things about my experience there, if you distilled them down into one photograph, all the things that made me uneasy, that’s it.”
“Believe me, this has been going on in the Baraboo school district for a long time,” one Barabooian, who is black, wrote in a Facebook post the day the photo went viral. “And watch, those kids will get a slap on the wrist because mommy and daddy will protect them as they are ‘just being dumb kids.’ And this cycle of desensitization will continue.”
If intolerance in Baraboo was a cycle, it seemed to start young. A woman in Baraboo, who spoke to me on the condition that I not use her name, is the mother of two biracial children at Jack Young Middle School, which feeds Baraboo High. She said her daughter came home from school one day complaining that a boy in her class would stare at her and say, “Black. Black. Black.” The mother complained to school administrators, who promised to talk to the boy. Shortly thereafter, one of the boy’s friends approached the girl and asked her if it was true she was black.
On December 9, four weeks after @GoBaraboo posted the Sieg Heil photograph, a user named “BarabooAryans” posted a video titled “Those Baraboo Nazis” to Minds.com. The clip, which has been removed, claimed to be a “satirical short about current events” that was “Brought to you by Proud, White, BHS Students.” According to Schauf, the video superimposed Nazi uniforms on top of Baraboo School District staff and was “talking about how this photograph accelerated their plans and now we have to have the race war.” The next day, staff arrived at Jack Young to find flyers bearing what Schauf called “anti-Semitic messages.” Video from the outside of the building revealed at least two people had posted the flyers overnight. They had covered their faces.
“There are some things in the video that made me believe it was a local,” Schauf told me. “It’s hard to say what the motivation was.”
While I was in Baraboo, a white nationalist was accused of killing 50 Muslim men, women, and children during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The suspected shooter livestreamed the killings. Like many other reporters who cover the intersection of radical ideology and social media, I noted the laundry list of signifiers in the awful broadcast: the killer’s asides, his gun barrel inscriptions, and his musical choices, that perfectly au courant mix of absurdity and hate. It’s the same sensibility as “Those Baraboo Nazis,” part of the same ever-expanding visual universe of the far right in 2019. And no matter what was in the heart of each and every young man on the Sauk County Courthouse steps, so too, of course, is the fateful photograph. These images don’t, and can’t, exist within the simple context of boys being stupid in an anonymous town, not any longer. These images and the impulses behind them are part of a terrifying conversation happening all around the world.
And they propagate themselves. A few weeks after the viral photograph, Eva Huffaker, now with her twin brother Zach the only Jews in Baraboo High School, sat minding her business. A boy stood up, eyeballed her, and raised his arm in the Sieg Heil. A joke. Soon after, she was talking with friends in a classroom. She mentioned that she enjoyed the taste of burnt marshmallows. “Just like your ancestors,” another boy responded. A joke. Marcy Huffaker complained to the school. A school administrator told Marcy and Eva that an apology from the boys would be meaningless because he didn’t think they understood that their actions were hurtful. They weren’t punished.
Online, white extremism has often adopted the “are they or aren’t they” irony of troll and meme culture, allowing evil people to smuggle hatred into public spaces under a blanket of facetiousness. But it’s not just bona fide race warriors who encourage this dynamic, or find comfort in it. Incorrect, social media–fanned generalizations about Baraboo and the 63 boys guaranteed that the town’s response would be defensive. How could the national media know whether or not individual boys really “meant it” when they couldn’t even get the basic facts about the photograph right?
Incorrect, social media–fanned generalizations about Baraboo and the 63 boys guaranteed that the town’s response would be defensive.
Still, “are they or aren’t they” is the hardest question much of Baraboo wanted to ask itself after the image went viral. That’s because it is far easier to absolve individual boys of racism than it is to fathom how the city fits into decades of bog-standard American intolerance and hyper-connected modern race hate. Indeed, there’s nothing particularly exotic or unique about Baraboo’s legacy of racism and anti-Semitism. Three people I spoke to in Wisconsin who had moved to Baraboo after experiencing discrimination and harassment in the South stressed to me how much less bigoted the city felt than their old hometowns.
In his 2011 book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, the philosopher David Livingstone Smith wrote, “Demoting a population to subhuman status excludes them from the universe of moral obligation.” Who was the object of moral obligation in Baraboo after the photograph went viral? If Baraboo took pride in looking after its own, who did the town recognize first and most strenuously as its own? “They’ve done nothing wrong and they need the support of their community,” Dan Gunderson wrote of the boys in the photograph. After the flyers were found at Jack Young Middle School, no one reached out to Kelly Dwyer or Mara Seals.
“I have felt until recently very fragile,” Seals told me. “And very sad. Which is not normal for me. I felt very isolated.”
The culture of racist irony that prevails online and offline today is, in part, a distancing technique that creates the space people need to dehumanize and harm other people. The Christchurch shooter’s video is the most chilling and extreme documentation of this phenomenon. But it’s a mistake to think this dynamic only exists in extreme cases. Intolerance in Baraboo frequently came from a distance: shouted from a speeding car, carved into a sidewalk and left to shock, posted to the doors of the middle school. What does a racist joke do except create the cognitive distance necessary to do harm, dissolve the bonds of moral obligation? Ironic hatred, captured at the wrong time, was capable of pulling bedrock feelings of belonging and safety in a close community into question. That’s what was so devastating about the silence in Baraboo after the photograph went viral. People like Zolper and Dwyer and Huffaker were trying to close that distance because they sensed the damage it could do.
The night of the New Zealand shootings, Marcy and Buddy Huffaker held a dinner at their house for Havdalah, the end of the Jewish Sabbath. Buddy Huffaker directs the Aldo Leopold Foundation, and the family lives in a wood and glass house Leopold’s daughter Nina built on the pristine wetland there. The family’s Labrador retriever, Cooper, met me at my car with the leg of an unfortunate wild bird wedged in his mouth.
The Jewish community in Baraboo is a small and charming motley: about a dozen families of various denominations who are significantly intermarried — some of the husbands in the group call themselves “the Goytoys.” As the sun went down outside the house, 20 people performed the melancholy Havdalah ritual, extinguishing candles in wine; a syncretic community eating and laughing and praying on top of the protected nature of the legendary Midwestern conservationist. It was so beautifully American, and so fragile. ●
Jules Suzdaltsev had 85,000 Twitter followers at the time he posted the Baraboo prom photograph on November 11, 2018, and was based in New York City. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Suzdaltzev had over 100,000 followers and was based in Los Angeles.