One meme features a group of black children crowded around a cotton-candy booth. The focal point of the 1945 photograph, taken by Charles “Teenie” Harris, best known for his intimate, humanizing photographs documenting 20th-century African-American life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a young black boy reaching toward a large cloud of cotton candy, eyes wide and mouth open in delight. The photo is captioned in white block letters: “You mean I don’t have to pick it and I can eat it?!”
In another, a Photoshopped image of Hitler tapping his forehead foregrounds a concentration camp. “You can’t hate Jews if there is no Jews,” the caption reads, attributed to “Adolf, 1942.” In another riff, Hitler taps his forehead again. The meme reads: “You can’t be racist if there is no other race.”
By the top right corner of these images, gray hearts show that several people have “liked” them—part of the interface for GroupMe, a group messaging chat. The GroupMe chat where these memes circulated, titled “The Meme Stash to End All Meme Stashes,” was created and primarily used by University of Pittsburgh students who, at the time, were members of the conservative campus organizations Pitt College Republicans and Polis Media, a student-run media website.
The “meme stash” became public on January 24, when a group of antifascist activists, operating from the Twitter handle @pittracists, began posting screenshots of the private social-media conversations containing these and other racist and anti-Semitic memes. One of the antifascist activists behind the @pittracists account, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the group was motivated by a desire for accountability. “The University of Pittsburgh is home to white nationalists, racists, and their apologists…specifically those who associate with the Pitt College Republicans & alt-right publication Polis Media have been involved in various secret groups where they share genocide apologia & other racist ‘jokes,’” the Twitter thread of screenshots began. One tweet, promising more screenshots, ended with #WeGotThis, Chelsea Manning’s regular sign-off.
In a since-deleted statement released on Twitter, Arnaud Armstrong, former editor in chief of Polis Media (and, screenshots indicate, also a member of the GroupMe chat), described the group chat as a place “to privately and facetiously share inappropriate memes out of curiosity for seeing what the worst of the internet could produce.” Armstrong referred to those involved in disseminating the images as “radical” and “extremist” and repeatedly insisted that the memes shared were in no way “representative of the character or actual beliefs of the students involved.” Calling the actions of @pittracists “character assassination,” Armstrong added, “While we certainly hope that this represents the extent of attacks against the Pitt and Polis communities, we are aware that more is likely to come forward.” Polis Media deleted its website the next day. Through statements, two other Polis- and Pitt College Republicans–affiliated students expressed remorse for their actions and decried the content of the memes they shared.