There's been an unprecedented spike in white supremacist activity on campuses across the U.S. since the election and college students and administrators are struggling to figure out how to respond.
Posters at the University of Texas at Arlington last month implored students to "report any and all illegal aliens. America is a white nation." Also last month, at the University of Pennsylvania flyers blared "Imagine a Muslim-free America."
Hate watch groups have tracked 150 incidents of white supremacist propaganda on campuses since the fall. Even just a year ago, it was such a rarity no one was even counting.
"Our time has come," roared white supremacist Richard Spencer to students at Auburn University last month. It was one of a growing number of campus visits made by white nationalist leaders looking to connect with students personally.
"This is a new phenomenon that's very dangerous," said Oren Segal, head of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. He says white supremacists, making a push for the mainstream, often try to lure students with more opaque slogans, like "Serve your people," and "Our destiny is ours."
"They don't necessarily shave their heads and wear swastika armbands where hatred is easily seen," said Segal. "And what they're hoping is that people will maybe be interested because it's not so in-your-face."
'Publicity is great'
One of those groups, Identity Evropa, describes itself on its website as a "fraternity," though one limited to people of "European non-Semitic descent." Applicants whose heritage is uncertain have been directed to undergo DNA testing.
Founder Nathan Damigo says his current recruitment effort, #ProjectSiege, will get even more aggressive next semester.
"We're going to be setting up tables, and handing out thumb drives with videos," he said. "We're going to have booklets and stickers and so on."
Damigo, a 30-year-old student and Iraq war vet, became well-known in alt-right circles last month, when he punched a female protester in Berkeley. He says it was self-defense. He got into white nationalism by reading books by the likes of former Klan leader David Duke while serving a five-year prison sentence for armed robbery.
Damigo says he needs to "change hearts and minds" of the next generation to realize his ultimate goal of a white-only space for whites in the U.S. "Forced diversity and multiculturalism" he said, is "unnatural" and whites need territory "that is ours ... where we can be ourselves."
Damigo dismisses those who call him a racist, saying it's a "cheap strategy to undermine legitimate European interests." But he concedes the controversy has been good for him.
"I mean sure, publicity is great," he said. "We found last year that all you had to do is put up some flyers and you'd get millions of dollars of coverage. So this is amazing."
His flyers have been posted at campuses from the University of California, Berkeley to the University of Massachusetts Boston, a heavily minority campus.
"I looked at these images, and I was incensed because it was such an attack on our students," said Joseph Brown, a UMass political science professor. "They were trying to be provocative; in Internet terms, they troll. They're trying to make themselves seem a lot bigger than they are."
Tony McAleer knows the strategy all too well, having spent 15 years in a white supremacist skinhead group before having a change of heart in the late 1990s. "Groups like this thrive on conflict," he said.
"I became an attention whore," said McAleer, who eventually left the movement and founded a group called Life After Hate to try to combat white supremacists groups.
"Every effort that was done to stymie what I was doing [gave me more] publicity and more recruits," he said. "It becomes this dance. You have to be careful not to feed the beast, and not to give them exactly what they seek."
Assessing the right response
The increased presence of these groups has left schools and students trying to walk an almost impossibly fine line as they struggle to determine the right response to white supremacists.
When white supremacist leaflets showed up at Purdue University, administrators said they didn't want to take the bait from "a minuscule fringe group [seeking] attention it does not deserve." Instead, they issued a short general statement about the white supremacists' views being "obviously inconsistent with the values and principles we believe in here at Purdue." But students were offended they didn't offer a more explicit condemnation and launched a sit-in.
At a recent meeting of campus activists at UMass Boston, students were split on the right response. Student Katharine O'Donnell didn't even want to talk about white supremacists. Not only does it give them what they want, she says, but it also serves to normalize them. And ultimately, she says, it would only distract students from their efforts to fight institutional racism.
"Responding to a poster is in my opinion very damaging rather than these greater issues that are causing problems every day," she said.
But other students pushed back, equally reluctant to let such hateful messages go unanswered.
"We have to let people know that this is not OK," said Gabriella Cartagena. "We have to do something about this. We can't just pretend they don't exist and continue to push them under the rug."
UMass Boston Chief Diversity Officer Georgianna Melendez says it's "a hard hair to split," especially for a university that tries to balance its commitment to free speech and open academic debate with its responsibility to make all students feel welcome and safe.
She says the white supremacist posters were ultimately removed from campus because they lacked required permission, but not because of their content.
"Everyone has a right to their own beliefs," she says. "We didn't take a position on their message except to say that we understand it's harmful to some members of our community, and we can't just let that go."
Like many schools, Melendez says UMass now has a kind of hate incident SWAT team ready to counter hateful messages and counsel hurt students. It includes an early alert system, a counter messaging response team and counselors on call.
So far, hate watch groups say white supremacists' efforts on campuses don't seem to be paying off. They say there is no evidence that the groups are gaining traction or members, despite their claims to the contrary. But Mcaleer, the former white supremacist, cautions it's not an easy thing to measure since most activity is online, not on the streets.
"It's all virtual," McAleer said. "It's like an iceberg. You see a bit of it at the top, and I don't think anybody has really measured how deep and how pervasive this group of disaffected kids is, and what exactly they're doing online."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Colleges around the country are seeing an unprecedented increase in white supremacist activity. Alt-right groups are aggressively trying to recruit students, and schools and students are struggling with how to handle it all. NPR's Tovia Smith has our report.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Posters on buildings and bulletin boards at the University of Texas at Arlington implored students to, quote, "report illegal aliens. America is a white nation." At the University of Pennsylvania, flyers were headlined, imagine a Muslim-free America. Hate watch groups have tracked 150 incidents of white supremacist propaganda on campuses this year. Before that, it was such a rarity, no one was even counting.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RICHARD SPENCER: Our time has come.
SMITH: White supremacist leaders are also coming to speak to students, as Richard Spencer did at Auburn University.
SPENCER: There is nothing that can stop an idea whose time has come, and that time is now.
OREN SEGAL: This is a new phenomenon that's very dangerous.
SMITH: Oren Segal, head of the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, says white supremacists making a push for the mainstream often try to lure students with more opaque slogans like, serve your people, and, our destiny is ours.
SEGAL: They don't necessarily, like, shave their heads and wear swastika armbands. And what they're hoping is that people will maybe be interested because it's not so in your face.
SMITH: Indeed, one of those groups, Identity Evropa, describes itself as a fraternity, albeit only for people of, quote, "European, non-Semitic descent."
NATHAN DAMIGO: Next semester we're going to be setting up tables, handing out thumb drives with videos. We're going to have booklets and stickers and so on.
SMITH: Founder Nathan Damigo, a 30-year-old student and Iraq War vet, got into white nationalism while serving a five-year prison sentence for armed robbery. He wants whites in the U.S. to have white-only space, as he put it, where we can be ourselves. He says the kind of forced diversity he grew up with is unnatural.
DAMIGO: You know, you go over to your friend's house, and all of - their whole family is Latino or something like that. They're all speaking Spanish. You can't understand a single thing that's going on. So it's really awkward. It's just the reality.
SMITH: Damigo dismisses those who call him a racist, saying it's a, quote, "cheap strategy to undermine him." But he concedes the controversy has been good for him.
DAMIGO: Sure, publicity is great. We found last year that all you had to do is put up some flyers, and you'd get mass coverage, millions of dollars of coverage. So this is amazing.
SMITH: His flyers have been posted at campuses from the University of California, Berkeley, to the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
JOSEPH BROWN: I looked at these images, and I was incensed because it was really an attack on our students.
SMITH: UMass Professor Joseph Brown says the heavily minority campus was clearly not chosen because it was a good place for white supremacists to find sympathetic recruits.
BROWN: They were trying to be provocative. In internet terms, they troll. They're trying to make themselves seem a lot bigger than they are.
SMITH: It's all left schools and students trying to walk an almost impossibly fine line.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, so who wants to facilitate today?
SMITH: At a UMass meeting of campus activists, students struggle with what is the right response to white supremacists.
KATHARINE O'DONNELL: These fringe groups who put up a post just want attention. So I mean really you're giving them what they want.
SMITH: Student Katharine O'Donnell says getting sucked into a showdown with white supremacist also normalizes them and distracts from the fight against institutional racism.
O'DONNELL: Responding to a poster is, in my opinion, very damaging rather than these greater issues that are causing problems every single day.
SMITH: But other students like Gabriella Cartagena are equally reluctant to let such hateful messages go unanswered.
GABRIELLA CARTAGENA: We have to let people know that this is not OK. We have to do something about this. We can't just pretend they don't exist and continue to push them under the rug.
SMITH: The same debate played out after white supremacist leaflets showed up at Purdue University. Administrators said they didn't want to, quote, "take the bait from a fringe group," then issued a general statement about university values. But students demanding a more explicit condemnation launched a sit-in.
GEORGIANNA MELENDEZ: This is a hard hair to split.
SMITH: Especially says UMass chief diversity officer Georgianna Melendez for a university trying to balance its responsibility to make all students feel safe and welcome with its commitment to open debate and free speech, including from white supremacists.
MELENDEZ: We didn't take a position on their message except for to say that we understand that it's harmful to some members of our community. And we can't just let that go.
SMITH: Like many schools, Melendez says UMass now has a kind of hate incident SWAT team ready to counter hateful messages and comfort hurt students.
MELENDEZ: We have an email tree. And we send out an email saying, hey, you know, this is happening again. Let's make sure we have our little kit together and make sure the counseling office knows we may need them.
SMITH: For now, hate watch groups say white supremacist efforts on campuses don't seem to be paying off despite their claims to the contrary. But experts concede it's not an easy thing to track. And white supremacist gains, they say, need to be measured not only by membership but also by how much their message may be creeping further into the mainstream. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.