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VMI cadets attack Black students, women on anonymous chat app as furor over racism grows

Virginia Military Institute cadets march during the 2013 inauguration parade for President Barack Obama in Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The cadets were angry, venting on an anonymous chat app widely used at the Virginia Military Institute.

The target of their rage: Black cadets and alumni who publicly detailed in a Washington Post story the relentless racism they had encountered at the nation’s oldest state-supported military college.

On Jodel — pronounced “Yodel” — the reaction from VMI students was filled with exactly the kind of bigotry that prompted Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and other state officials to order an independent investigation of VMI’s culture last week. On Monday, the school’s superintendent, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, resigned, saying he’d been told by the governor’s chief of staff that Northam and other state legislators had “lost confidence in my leadership” and wanted him out.

VMI superintendent resigns after Black cadets describe relentless racism

While a VMI official assured Northam that “systemic racism does not exist here and a fair and independent review will find that to be true,” students on Jodel offered an unfiltered glimpse of the sometimes virulent atmosphere on the Lexington campus. The app, which does not require users to register by name, is popular at military colleges and service academies.

“I’m sorry but to the cadets [who] reported to the Washington Post you are the reason we are more divided. You decide to be a professional victim and bitch and complain,” one student posted. “Someone is making a racist joke. GET OVER IT. Comedians can make them. Why can’t I. Everyday in Crozet” — VMI’s dining hall — “black cadet[s] separate yourselves by sitting in the corner of crozet and sometimes acting foolish.”

At least one cadet blamed members of Promaji — the school’s multicultural club — for aiding The Post and pretended to confuse the name of the mostly Black organization with the name of a popular children’s book and movie series set in a jungle.

“Roommate: how do I join the jumanji club. Us: I think you mean the promaji club,” a Jodeler posted.

“Jumanji>promaji,” a second person replied.

Peay’s resignation generated more anger on Jodel on Monday.

“To the cadets that drag VMI through the dirt...You misrepresent who we are as a school,” one person posted. “The press takes the words of a few and magnifies it to epic proportions and call[s] it reality. YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. I’m not a racist I’m a realist.”

Anyone with a smartphone can download Jodel and read the app’s chatter in Lexington, which is virtually all from VMI. Most of the daily posts, known as Jodels, concern cadet life and gossip: the unsavory food at Crozet Hall (are those eggs real or powdered?), the unreliable WiFi in the barracks, or speculation about the worst freshmen “rats,” as newly arrived students at VMI are known.

At VMI, Black cadets endure lynching threats, Klan memories and Confederacy veneration

But the exchanges often descend into denigrating minorities, women and gay people, despite the school’s numerous rules barring speech that threatens and harasses other cadets.

Jodel is used so frequently that VMI, which takes deep pride in its Confederate history and did not admit Black students until 1968 or women until 1997, admonishes students about weaponizing it. The Blue Book, a mammoth bible of regulations governing cadet behavior, expressly forbids online harassment, citing the app by name: “Anonymous targeting by members of the Corps of others via social media apps such as Jodel is abhorrent and counter to the ethos of our community.”

In its General Orders, VMI warns cadets that people who post to anonymous social media sites “can be determined” and that anyone who violates the school’s conduct standards harassing people on the Internet “will be sanctioned to the fullest extent appropriate.” In the school’s White Book, which outlines VMI’s internal justice system, cadets can be found guilty of conduct unbecoming for using social media “to bring harm to others or discredit the Institute.”

A Jodel spokesman, Valentin Oswald, said the company will work with law enforcement authorities to identify users for unlawful behavior and threatening posts. Each Jodel comment indicates whether the author is based locally; a post that displays a map pin icon means the author is between a half-mile and six miles of the conversation’s location.

But it’s unclear whether VMI, the recipient of $19 million in state funds in 2020, actively monitors Jodel or identifies and punishes students for posting hateful comments.

A spokesman for the school, Bill Wyatt, did not return texts, emails and calls seeking comment.

Some professors and administrators have downloaded Jodel and occasionally monitor the Lexington feed to understand student culture better, according to a person familiar with the school’s investigative procedures who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Jodel, which does not give users public profiles like Facebook, is also popular at the federal service academies, giving students the freedom to say what they want without the risk of facing consequences. The U.S. Military Academy has up to 800 posts a day; the Naval Academy in Annapolis 750; the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs 600. In Lexington, Jodel sees up to 400 posts a day, most of them from VMI’s 1,700 students, according to the company.

Many of the Jodels disappear shortly after being posted, especially if they do not earn many comments or “upvotes.” More popular posts are rewarded with display space in a category for that week’s greatest hits. Jodel declined to say how many individuals post each day in Lexington. The company’s guidelines bar harassment, discrimination, sexually explicit content, and “negative vibes and bad tone.” The company expects users to help it flag and downvote posts that break the rules.

In a 2017 Defense Department report on gender relations at the nation’s military academies, students described Jodel and the now defunct Yik Yak as “toxic platforms” used for retaliation and “salacious rumors.”

“VMI wants to uphold this idea of campus equity, honor and integrity, but as soon as male cadets get a chance, they show their true colors on Jodel,” said Raquel Janes, a track runner who left VMI this summer after her sophomore year and plans to transfer.

Janes, who is gay, said many LGBTQ students at VMI do not come out for fear of the consequences. She said she departed the school because she could no longer stand the discriminatory environment — a male upperclassman compared her sexual orientation to porn addiction.

In Janes’s sophomore year, when she belonged to the Cadet Equity Association, which probes complaints of harassment and discrimination, she often saved Jodel screenshots in case she needed them as evidence for an investigation. Some Jodel posts, she said, mocked transgender students and women, who are often disparaged as “sheeds,” short for “she-dets.”

She showed The Post one image of a Jodel thread earlier this year in which someone asked about getting in the “hay” — a military term for a roll-up mattress — with a female cadet: “Quickest way into a she[e]d’s hay?”

“Attempted rape of an incapacitated victim,” replied another person.

Jodel posts often demean VMI’s athletes, many of whom are Black, as “permits.”

One cadet fumed over the weekend at the sight of three Black football players apparently dressed inappropriately. “I can’t correct s---ty black football rats without being racist [f]or targeting them. . . . Guess they can live on knowing [t]he entire corps hates them and their class hates them,” the cadet wrote. “If they were good enough to get into another school for football, they wouldn’t be here.”

Will Bunton, a Black senior from Portsmouth, Va., who plays football, said the term “permits” has effectively become a proxy for the n-word. White cadets, he said, resent Black students for their Division I scholarships and their ability to skip out on military exercises.

“Some of the faculty members have been asking me the last few days, ‘How are you doing?’ and I say, ‘I went on Jodel,’ and they just say, ‘I wouldn’t look at that,’ ” Bunton said.

Students aren’t the only ones who get mocked on Jodel. The administrators are, too, including Col. William Wanovich, the commandant of the cadets.

In the fall of 2017, Wanovich posed in a photo with White students dressed up in boxes as President Trump’s border wall with the words “Keep Out” and “No Cholos,” a slur against Mexicans. The photo, taken during the school’s annual Halloween party in the barracks, leaked to the media and the school was forced to publicly apologize. One person in the photo appears to be displaying a hand gesture for white power.

One cadet on Jodel obliquely referenced the controversy, worrying about the possible cancellation of the school’s annual Halloween party due to the novel coronavirus.

“If we’re allowed to do Halloween in barracks,” wrote one cadet, “[p]lease choose your costume wisely; this isn’t the year to f--- around.”

“Blackface let’s goooo,” wrote another.

“What are they gonna do, send the secret police after us?”

“orders shoe polish,” a third person wrote.

A fourth: “Orders sheets and triangle shaped pillow.”

Another cadet proposed a way to exact quiet revenge against the Black students who spoke to The Post.

“We should all sit down when (IF) these kids from the … article get diplomas,” the writer said. “No one clap. No one cheer. Since they feel like they shouldn’t be here, make it known we don’t want them here. S---ty ass cadets.”

At one point, someone posted a photo of a Washington Post reporter and described him as “Soy Boy,” a slur popular among white-nationalist extremists.

Northam, who graduated from VMI in 1981, was denounced on Jodel for ordering the investigation of what he and other state officials called “the clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism at the Virginia Military Institute.”

The governor’s Jodel critics reminded each other of the blackface scandal that engulfed Northam in 2019 after racist photos from his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook surfaced online.

“Northam is only investigating because he is trying to save his own skin,” one person declared. Another cadet called him “Gov Blackface Northam.”

Many cadets seemed less concerned with racism on campus and far more worried about the damage to the school’s reputation and their job prospects after graduation. (At VMI, cadets are not required to enter the military after they get their degree.)

“Unfortunately, our degree is going to become meaningless and just view[ed] as racist. We are going to struggle to get jobs in a few years,” warned one Jodeler.

Some attacked a proposal by state Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William), a Black 2003 VMI graduate running for governor, who suggested that any cadets found guilty of racism should be expelled.

“Foy said she wants to add ‘racist’ sentiments to the honor code. . . . talk about degradation of the institute. . . . racism is bad but has nothing to do with personal honor,” one person wrote.

“[The honor code] is racist because it discriminates against races who are more likely to lie, cheat or steal,” a second Jodeler replied. “By them saying it’s racist they are admitting that there are some races who are more likely to do those.”

But as brash as cadets were on Jodel, they also expressed fear that someone was keeping an eye on their conversations — and taking screenshots.

“Washington Post monitors Jodel,” a Jodeler wrote. “Stop posting edgy racist s--- here you make our school look bad.”

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