White supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in America had a goal for 2017: Leave the virtual confines of online forums and social media platforms and occupy physical space. It was an objective they shared often and freely in interviews and online postings. They wanted to serve notice that their movement was a force to be reckoned with and its adherents were not simply shadowy Internet lurkers but real people — most of them young and male — who were not afraid to show their faces or proclaim their messages.
It was a decision that led to a year of tumult, violence and even death, and nowhere was that decision felt more acutely than on college and university campuses. They became the primary battlegrounds for far-right groups that sought out the schools for organized rallies and speeches, and made them the focus of recruiting efforts. For 2018, the goal of these groups is to expand their reach on campuses, force showdowns over free speech, generate more publicity and win over more adherents.
As the white supremacists continue to flout boundaries of acceptable behavior and engage in activities many students, faculty and staff find menacing, institutions are rethinking, and in some cases rejiggering, policies regarding allowable activities on campus. Schools that have cherished their longtime role as havens for free speech and debate have found themselves drawing lines in response to messages of hate and threats of violence.
Those messages were hard to miss last year. Pamphlets and stickers proclaimed war against diversity and stoked racial division.
“Fighting for White Working Families”
“Take back what is rightfully ours.”
“Preserve your heritage, take up the fight.”
On campuses large and small, urban and rural, the racist far-right made its presence felt like never before with leaflets and banners warning of threats to white supremacy. Swastikas were scribbled on walls of Jewish campus organizations. Bananas were left in front of the dorm rooms of black students.
The Anti-Defamation League found that in the past 15 months, organizations such as the Traditionalist Worker Party, Identity Evropa, American Renaissance and Vanguard America directed campaigns at more than 200 college campuses in 42 states. The pace of their provocations has only accelerated in recent months. The civil rights group counted 140 reported incidents — displays of organized racist activity — from Sept. 1 through Dec. 18. For the same period the year before, 41 incidents were reported.
All of these groups have been labeled white nationalist hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist activity. The Traditionalist WorkerParty, American Renaissance and Vanguard America were banned from Twitter in late December as part of the social media site’s effort to enforce community standards.
The targeting of colleges and universities was not a haphazard choice by the white power groups but rather a calculated strategy.
“It’s striking a blow directly at the heart of our foes,” said Matthew Heimbach, founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a far-right organization that seeks a whites-only nation state and has been labeled a hate group for its anti-Jewish and homophobic stances and its opposition to racial mixing. “It lets them know that there are people that are radically opposed to them, that aren’t afraid of them, that will challenge them. It shakes their thought that they’ve got the campus environment locked down and lets them know that people who oppose them go to their school or are a part of their local community.”
College campuses, Heimbach said, are ideal for recruiting members and gaining publicity because the presence of the hate groups inevitably creates an outcry on campus and in the community. He said the ranks of his organization have tripled over the past year from 500 to 1,500 members, although The Washington Post could not independently verify that assertion.
In a late-December post on Gab, the social media site popular with many who have been banned from Twitter, Heimbach said his organization and Vanguard America are planning a “combined propaganda drive” at Midwestern universities in the coming weeks.
Despite claims by Heimbach and others, Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, doesn’t believe their recruiting efforts on campus will win over many adherents. But he worries that the aggressive campaigns indicate the groups are feeling emboldened.
“It’s a reminder that these groups feel now is the time to strike,” Segal said. “Whether they are able to recruit thousands or not, they feel the atmosphere is ripe.”
Though the groups had been pushing their on-campus activities throughout 2017, most of their efforts had escaped widespread national notice — then, Charlottesville happened.
On a warm Friday night in August, hundreds of marchers paraded through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches and chanting nationalist and anti-Semitic slogans. They encircled a small group of protesters at a statue of Thomas Jefferson yelling, “White Lives Matter” and “Jews will not replace us!” Within minutes, punches were being thrown and mace sprayed.
The melee didn’t last long, but it set the stage for the following day when the violence was much worse. A counterprotester, Heather Heyer, lost her life when a self-described Nazi allegedly drove his car into a crowd killing Heyer and injuring 35 others.
Charlottesville became a hashtag for hate, and the violence there exposed an underbelly of hardcore racism that many Americans had, perhaps naively, imagined didn’t exist anymore. Asked about the violence that week, President Trump insisted there were “very fine people” on both sides, a remark that was widely criticized as a failure by the occupant of the highest office in the land to properly condem groups that trafficked in racial hatred. It was also a remark that encouraged white supremacists who believed the president supported their aims.
White supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke tweeted his thanks to the president for his comments. At the rally in Charlottesville a few days earlier he told reporters, “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”
While Charlottesville drew most of the headlines, racial hatred and violence was on display on campuses and college towns throughout the country before and after that seminal event.
Nathan Damigo, a student at California State University at Stanislaus and the founder of Identity Evropa, was seen in a video punching a woman in the face during a showdown with antifascists in Berkeley in April. Hundreds of students at Stanislaus signed a petition saying Damigo’s presence at the school made them feel unsafe. Damigo remains enrolled, according to school officials.
In May, Sean Urbanski, a white University of Maryland student, allegedly stabbed and killed Richard Collins III, a black student at nearby Bowie State University and a second lieutenant in the Army who was visiting friends on the College Park campus. Urbanski was charged with a hate crime, and police announced they were investigating Urbanski’s connection to a Facebook page called Alt-Reich Nation.
At the University of Florida in October, an appearance by white nationalist Richard Spencer drew thousands of protesters. Later that day, three of Spencer’s followers were arrested and charged with attempted homicide after they allegedly argued with a group of people protesting his speech and fired a shot at them.
Spencer has fought to speak at large campuses across the country, but in the wake of Charlottesville, administrators at institutions including Pennsylvania State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michigan State University blocked his efforts, citing the possibility of violence and enormous security costs.
Schools are altering policies and procedures to deal with the increase in racially based incidents and the growing push on campuses by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. Following the torchlight march at the University of Virginia, administrators banned open flames on campus without prior approval. In the report it commissioned on how it handled the events of August, the university sounded a warning for schools everywhere.
“Going forward, the University of Virginia and higher education institutions across the nation must be prepared to respond to situations in which violence and intimidation accompany demonstrations and protests,” the report concluded. “It is incumbent upon the university to forge new policies and practices that will prevent it from again becoming a locus of intimidation and violence while recommitting to the principles of free speech at the core of its mission.”
Following the killing of Collins, the University of Maryland created a rapid-response team for hate-based incidents and announced it will hire a hate-bias response coordinator.
“We’re very concerned with the idea that outside groups are targeting colleges and universities for hate based on race and religion and other identity characteristics,” said U-Md.’s chief diversity officer, Roger L. Worthington. “Hate and bias incidents are not new but certainly in the current national climate we’re concerned because people are more emboldened to engage in those types of behaviors.”
School administrators across the country and organizations that monitor white supremacist groups know that many of the tactics they employ are no more than attempts to gain publicity and news coverage. They worry, as many news organizations do, about how much attention they should receive.
The ADL’s Segal recognizes the tension between overcovering and undercovering, but says schools and news organizations should opt for the former.
“It’s a cliché, but we still believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he said.