When 19-year-old Valentina Duarte entered the University of Central Florida this fall to begin studying film, she expected the typical challenges — integrating into campus culture, adjusting to the course load, finding new friends.
Instead, she got a white supremacist welcome. “Keep your diversity,” posters plastered across the campus read. “We want identity.” A group called Identity Evropa, which calls itself an organization of “awakened Europeans,” put up the posters to seek college-age recruits.
“I’ve seen things like this elsewhere,” said Duarte, who grew up in Jacksonville, “but seeing these things on the campus, on the university — which is my new home — was unnerving.”
College campuses across the country are being targeted by white nationalists in what the Anti-Defamation League calls an “unprecedented outreach effort.” Self-styled “alt-right” white nationalists are looking to attract and recruit students — including pamphleting campus quads, and organizing rallies and speaking tours. On Thursday, one of the movement’s most high-profile figureheads, Richard Spencer, is slated to speak at the University of Florida. It’s an event that the school and state officials fear could be violent. The university is urging students to stay away, and the governor declared a state of emergency. Spencer sees it as a perfect chance both to make a splash through the media and to attract more young men to his cause.
“They’re targeting white male students,” said Lecia Brooks, Southern Poverty Law Center’s director of outreach, who worked on a guide about how to deal with the “alt-right” on campus. “For the young white men who feel excluded from the diversity of campus culture — these groups offer an alternative. It’s a counter to the popular culture that they think doesn’t include them.” The “alt-right” is the mostly online white nationalist movement that came to prominence during the campaign and election of President Trump.
The university is home to one of the largest Jewish student bodies in the country, and the school’s Hillel organized a series of events to coincide with the speech, which has alarmed Jewish students. Events include an educational talk about anti-Semitism and a “Solidarity Shabbat” on Friday. “As a Jew and a rabbi, I am deeply concerned that these groups feel emboldened to come to our community,” Hillel’s head rabbi, Adam Grossman, wrote in an announcement about the events. “Rather than lead with our emotions,” Grossman wrote, “we choose to transform those feelings into a source of strength by practicing constructive restraint.”
UF, one of the largest universities in the state, with more than 40,000 undergraduates, had already canceled one planned speech by Spencer in September, after bloody clashes broke out between white nationalists and counter-protesters at the University of Virginia last summer. That violence led several universities to deny Spencer a platform, arguing that the First Amendment did not require them to risk imminent violence. But as the weeks went on, white nationalists filed lawsuits and increased pressure on the schools in other ways.
The school is spending an anticipated $500,000 to try to ensure security on campus. The university’s spokesperson said that even though it rejects Spencer’s “white supremacist rhetoric, the university, as a state entity, must allow the free expression of all viewpoints.” The national spotlight is on the school. Students wish the entire controversy would just disappear.
Spencer’s scheduled appearance Thursday is one of the more dramatic examples of white supremacist outreach. The ADL has cataloged more than 150 incidents of white nationalist flyerings on 110 American college campuses. The incidents occurred in 34 states, plus the District of Columbia, with a disproportionate number in Texas and California. Identity Evropa has been targeting campuses in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia and Washington state.
“I urge you,” the university’s president, W. Kent Fuchs, pleaded in a video message to students. “Do not provide Mr. Spencer and his followers the spotlight they are seeking.”
A video concerning Richard Spencer and the National Policy Institute’s message of racism and hate. pic.twitter.com/JsHXt6ySKW— W. Kent Fuchs (@PresidentFuchs) October 10, 2017
Spencer and his allies all claim to be working toward the preservation of “white American culture” — a culture they view as threatened existentially by multiculturalism. Both Spencer and groups like Identity Evropa view Jews as part of this assault on white culture. Indeed, they view Jews as orchestrating and benefiting from white dispossession. Spencer advocates only for creating a whites-only ethnostate.
Often, the messaging on the pamphlets uses coded language, which might not read as explicitly white nationalist to the uninitiated. For example, Identity Evropa’s flyers might read, “Our Generation, Our Future, Our Last Chance.”
Leaders in Identity Evropa view themselves as waging war against “the academia’s cultural Marxist narrative,” referring to the conspiracy theory that there is a left-wing plot to tear down Western culture. Reaching students before they can be educated, the group goes on, is the best way to lay down the foundation for its brand of white nationalism.
“At college campuses, young people are searching to build an identity. They are at a point in their lives where it is appropriate to explore new ideas,” said Chip Berlet, an independent researcher who focuses on right-wing movements. “White nationalists want recruits, but they also want to play the role of provocateur to get publicity.”
That’s exactly how Spencer sees it himself.
“It’s a media event,” Spencer told the Forward in a phone interview. “I’m not just reaching the people in the audience but, through media, bringing this to millions of people.”
Spencer knows that his appearance could incite violence. While the college is arranging for its own security, Spencer also travels with his own personal detail, made up of “alt-right” nationalists with previous military training.
Spencer said he was drawing up notes for this upcoming talk in Florida. “I’m going to talk about white identity. I might talk about the ethnostate a little bit,” he said. “It’s an idea whose time has come.”
In planning their campus outreach, Spencer and his cohort draw on models laid down by white nationalists and right-wing activists of yesteryear. “The basic idea is doing stuff that makes a splash,” Spencer said.
For example, in 1968, when he was a student at Louisiana State University, a young David Duke became a fixture at LSU’s Free Speech Alley, an area at the school were protests were often held, and where he railed against Jews and blacks. Dressed in a Nazi uniform, Duke carried a sign reading “Kunstler is a Communist Jew” when the liberal lawyer William Kunstler spoke at Tulane University. Today, Duke fancies himself an elder mentor to young activists on the “alt-right.”
And in the early 1990s, Holocaust denier Bradley Smith placed full-page ads and editorial pieces in more than a dozen American college newspapers under the headline “The Holocaust Story: How Much Is False? The Case for Open Debate.” Smith framed his ahistorical and anti-Semitic campaign as an issue of free speech — so any resistance to his work, he would argue, was evidence of “campus thought police.”
But there are ways that today’s white nationalist campus outreach is different.
Social media and the internet have made outreach much easier, said Kenneth Stern, an expert on right-wing extremism and executive director of the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation. “Today, you can send flyers with just the click of a mouse,” Stern said.
A computer hacker from the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer did just that in March, in fact. Andrew Auernheimer — who goes by the moniker Weev — sent anti-Semitic flyers to every publicly accessible printer in North America. Covered in swastikas, the flyers were sent to printers across the country, including those at Princeton University, and described the importance of “the struggle for global white supremacy.”
White nationalists like Spencer feel encouraged and emboldened by President Trump, a candidate they championed during the election and still see widely as an ally, of sorts. “You have political leadership in the country that is sending messages that these folks find empowering,” Stern said. “They feel a little bit of wind at their back.”
Raul Meza, a sophomore studying political science and economics at UF, is involved in the historic conservative group Young Americans for Freedom, which has ties to William F. Buckley. Meza, who moved to the United States from Costa Rica eight years ago, said no one in his group is sympathetic to Spencer’s radical views on race. “I find his view of racial superiority very offensive,” Mesa said.
In the days after the violent Charlottesville, Virginia, rally, Young Americans for Freedom put out a statement on its Facebook page seeking to distinguish its conservatism from the far-right views of Spencer and his ilk that would soon be coming to campus. “The events yesterday in Charlottesville and the views of Richard Spencer are vile and disgraceful,” the group wrote. “To believe that other races are inferior is to believe that God makes mistakes…. To be conservative means to believe in equal rights and individual freedoms.”
Gaby Anne Conner, a 23-year-old senior studying public relations, said Spencer’s upcoming appearance has clearly caused controversy on campus — and also has been the subject of class lessons.
Conner studies social change and media, usually with an eye on how to advocate for social justice issues. Normally, discussion in her class would focus on topics like climate change and Black Lives Matter. Now, the students are talking about how the far right is manipulating the same media — and what their response should be: “We’re talking about what we can do to combat the situation.”
Conner, who attended the Women’s March in Washington, said she normally is not someone who backs down from debate. But she took Fuch’s message to heart. “Richard Spencer just wants us to get outraged,” she said. “And his ideas are not something I want to draw attention to.”
But not everyone is heeding the administration’s advice. The far-left anti-fascists movement, known as antifa, is planning on rallying on campus. “We are calling for anti-racists from throughout the South to travel and oppose white power leader Richard Spencer,” a call that went out on the popular antifa website ItsGoingDown.com stated, in a message that was endorsed by more than 20 antifa chapters in Florida and Atlanta. “Organizations should make travel plans for Gainesville right now.”
Clashes between far-left and far-right groups at campus events have turned violent before, like the explosive protests at UC Berkeley surrounding the scheduled appearance of Conservative provocateur and “alt-right” sympathizer Milo Yiannopoulos. The state of emergency in Florida is intended to help local law enforcement deal with potentially violent rallies by contributing state resources and personnel.
Spencer’s talk is just one stop in what is an ongoing campus tour, organized with the help of a graduate student named Cameron Padgett who is assisting Spencer and his white nationalist think tank. Along the way, they’ve faced resistance from universities. When Michigan State University denied the think tank’s request to rent space because of safety concerns, Padgett sued the school. Activists and legal experts are keeping a close eye on how the rest of Spencer’s tour plays out.
No matter what happens, it seems, nationalists like Spencer feed off the controversy. It boosts their signal.
“Whether a speaker shows up or doesn’t show up, it creates a controversy,” Stern said. “It’s an easy way to get a bang for a buck.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.