Photo: Graduating Corrections Officers for West Virginia give Nazi Salute, with blurred faces, in photo released by state officials
By Mario Ginesta and David Martinez
On the final day of 2019, West Virginia Governor, Jim Justice, announced that he would fire 32 cadets and three staff members of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDCOR) after a photo surfaced in early December of the graduating class of corrections officers giving a Nazi salute. Four instructors will also be suspended without pay.
The photo shows 32 graduating cadets either raising their arms in the historic Nazi salute, or with a closed fist, and included the caption, “Hail Byrd,” a reference to the head instructor Karrie Byrd, in a play on “Heil Hitler.” The photo, also taken by Byrd, was printed on state letterhead and distributed via email and in graduating class packets.
Reports indicate that the Nazi salutes began “as a joke” during the course of the training and were later encouraged by Byrd herself, who defended the practice saying, “it’s because I’m a hard-ass like Hitler.” Byrd has also taught classes on cultural diversity, and claimed, “she was completely unaware of the historical or racial implications of the gesture and reported it was simply a greeting,” a statement which was contradicted in the state’s investigation.
The Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, in an attempt to manage the inevitable crisis, released the photo in early December, inciting mass outrage and disgust. The state government immediately began to engage in damage control by conducting an investigation and ordering the Corrections Department to receive education on the Holocaust.
The state’s report found that several cadets disapproved of the salute but continued to perform the gesture because they feared not graduating for disobeying orders. The graduation photo was reportedly taken multiple times as many refused to comply, and even in the final photo, some cadets raised a closed fist.
Fascism and other reactionary ideas flourish in the operation of the bourgeois state’s prison system, and those cadets who resisted the gesture would eventually be expected to obey even more heinous orders, looking the other way on similar behavior and ideas had they kept their jobs.
This is the organizational culture which allowed the incident to occur, and permitted the publication of the photo. Multiple members of the corrections department shared concerns as the salutes were done in the class and the photo went through various channels, but no one stopped its printing or distribution, a result of bourgeois state bureaucracy and liberal indifference to forcefully opposing reactionary ideas.
Ironically, according to the state’s report, one Black cadet defended the gesture, saying, “Look at me I am black, and I am doing it.” The trivialization of fascism among oppressed groups is in part due to the absence of a strong working class movement in the country to educate and unite workers and oppressed peoples against their ideological and material enemies. Antifascism and anti-imperialism must be spread among the people to not only resist the ideological growth of fascism, but to organize militant defense against the increasing state and civilian forms of violent reaction.
The firings are substantial for their number and decisive action taken, not sparing even those who claimed they were coerced, but the state’s action makes no actual change to the exploitative, material conditions that allow fascism to flourish, whether in West Virginia or worldwide. The growing economic crises of imperialism means that backwards members of the masses will be encouraged further by the bourgeoisie to push reactionary ideas and violence among the people, whether in the form of racism, imperialist nationalism, or blind loyalty to bourgeois law enforcement.
Though Byrd and the cadets will no longer hold positions in West Virginia’s corrections department, her reactionary outlook and the rank and file’s unprincipled obedience to an unjust order is still the norm for the department. Any outright fascists remaining will be more careful about their associations, and those staff and officers who simply “obey orders” will continue to function as enforcers of the bourgeois justice system, carrying out repression against the working class.