A drawing of Pepe the Frog, the once-innocuous internet meme who has become an unwilling mascot of the alt-right, made an appearance outside Essex High School last week, raising questions over who gets to decide whether an image is inherently offensive.
The chalk version Pepe appeared on the high school’s sidewalk May 31, brought to life by a fine arts student during an annual outdoor drawing class activity. The illustration shows the frog in classic form, his hand resting below his chin as if mid-thought.
Administrators learned of Pepe’s arrival later that day when a student reported the drawing to a faculty member, referring to it as “racist,” according to assistant principal Ben Johnson, who later highlighted the incident in an email to the student body with a link to the Anti-Defamation League, which has classified the frog as a hate symbol.
Pepe, the brainchild of cartoonist Matt Furie, first appeared in a 2005 comic alongside some fellow animal friends, engaging in behavior the Los Angeles Times aptly described as that of “stereotypical post-college bros: playing video games, eating pizza, smoking pot and being harmlessly gross.”
But posters on websites like 4chan, 8chan and other “dark corners” of the internet began altering Pepe’s image to in recent years to include hate symbols, like a Hitler mustache or Klu Klux Klan garb, so much so that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign described the once (mostly) virtuous frog as a new symbol of white supremacy. The trend even led Furie to join forces with the Anti-Defamation League on a #SavePepe campaign (it sputtered to a sad conclusion when, unable to achieve liberation, the creator killed off Pepe.)
The Anti-Defamation League notes that while the prevalence of Pepe memes pushing racist or bigoted agendas appears to be increasing, the majority of Pepe images are benign, so it’s important to examine use of the character “in context.”
“The mere fact of posting a Pepe meme does not mean that someone is racist or white supremacist,” the ADL says in a web post. “However, if the meme itself is racist or anti-Semitic in nature, or if it appears in a context containing bigoted or offensive language or symbols, then it may have been used for hateful purposes.”
Where does that leave Pepe’s local incarnation? It’s complicated.
The student emailed a picture of his drawing along with a seven-page document that acknowledged Pepe’s controversial history but said the entire ordeal was a “misunderstanding” due to the “age gap” between the high school administration and students.
“Many people, my mother included, were completely unaware that Pepe existed until it began to show up in the news for being classified as a hate symbol,” the student wrote. “This is truly unfortunate because anybody that heard about Pepe this way would be unaware that for many years, Pepe was a silly frog creature used for humorous purposes.” The Reporter is withholding the student’s name because he’s a minor. He didn’t respond to an email sent to his school email address.
Reardon said the high school had to investigate “because none of us can determine what the intent is in someone’s heart when they do something.”
The process involved a fair share of student feedback, said Johnson, the assistant principal, who spoke to more than 20 students about what Pepe means to them. Some felt the drawing was offensive, while others defended the artist, arguing that Pepe’s recent woes are dwarfed by its longer history as a blissed out frog.
It’s unclear what eventually happened to the student; he wrote that he’d been suspended, but Reardon declined to comment, offering a cryptic suggestion that the essay may have hit inboxes prior to the incident’s “resolution.”
Reardon did confirm that administrators spoke to the “individuals involved” and decided on a set of “outcomes” but would not elaborate. Nor would he or Johnson say whether they believed the artist had ill-intent. In the end, the artist’s intent only matters when considering any ramifications, the two administrators said. It doesn’t determine how — and if — they act.
“If there’s something out there that could offend one person, or make somebody feel unwelcome, or make somebody feel that this isn’t a safe place for them, then that’s not something we’re going to support,” Johnson said. He later added, “The potential for that to have harm was enough for us to act on it.”
Even before the Pepe incident, the high school has worked to facilitate conversations around issues of race and ethnicity, according to Reardon. When someone found a swastika scrawled in a bathroom stall, EHS held student meetings to discuss the symbol’s impact. The administration also invites students of color to participate in regular panels with faculty, which Reardon said allows the majority-white faculty to better understand their daily experiences.
Administrators plan to meet with the Essex Community Justice Center this summer and discuss ways the high school can facilitate conversations with students about these issues. “Not about right or wrong, good or bad,” Reardon said. “But [to explain] the actions we take, the choices we make, have impacts and consequences.”
Still, the Pepe incident has been a learning experience for Johnson, who said he’d had more conversations about race in the last two weeks than he’s had in the last two years.
Reardon, off-campus at the time of the incident, commended Johnson’s his handling of the issue. But Johnson admitted some students disagreed with his approach; some argued that placing a spotlight on Pepe only “gives it power.” Johnson sees it differently.
Referring to the bathroom swastika, Johnson said overlooking incidents of hate speech “just empowers that person to take another step further.” He said tackling issues head-on shows students that administrators like him “have their back.”
“I know there’s enough students in this building who are on the right side of social justice and don’t want any [hate speech] in our building, or our community, or the world,” Johnson said. “Any power that it might have, they’re prepared and empowered to stop it.”