Topics

Will Students Stay Away From White Supremacists?

Experts say they understand why university presidents want to keep people away from white supremacist events, but they have a tough sell on campus.

August 16, 2017
 
Current and former UVA students protest in Charlottesville Saturday.

Eight days before the protests in Charlottesville, Va., that left a woman dead, the president of the University of Virginia beseeched her campus: don’t go to the rally.

President Teresa Sullivan released a statement Aug. 4, telling students (most of whom had not returned for classes) and local residents that her foremost concern was their safety. Their attendance would only gratify the organizers of the Unite the Right demonstration -- those who sought a spectacle and to draw attention to their white nationalist cause, Sullivan said in her statement.

“They believe that your counterprotest helps their cause,” she said. “One advocate of the rally said, ‘We should aim to draw the SJWs [social justice warriors] out in Charlottesville and create a massive polarizing spectacle in order to draw as huge a contrast as possible. They will reveal themselves to be violent, intolerant, opposed to free speech, the insane enforcers of political correctness, etc.’ The organizers of the rally want confrontation; do not gratify their desire.”

Ahead of a planned talk in September by Richard Spencer -- who is largely credited with coining the term “alt-right,” designating a movement characterized by white supremacy and racism -- at the University of Florida, the president there has put out a message similar to Sullivan’s.

“I encourage our campus community to send a message of unity by not engaging with this group and giving them more media attention for their message of intolerance and hate,” President Kent Fuchs posted to Facebook.

This “stay away” plea is an attempt by university leaders to recognize that they can’t control student choices, but they want to warn them.

Sullivan’s warnings about potential violence in Charlottesville turned out to be correct. Brawls broke out in Charlottesville on Saturday afternoon, culminating in a white nationalist driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a 32-year-old woman.

Not all students bought the president’s message. Wes Gobar, president of UVA’s Black Student Alliance, is among the skeptical. He witnessed the skirmishes but not the car crash -- he said he caught tear gas to the face several times and that white men heckled his friends.

Gobar said students felt disappointed with the university’s response. Though he understood the administration’s interest in the safety of students, urging them to avoid the rally would only benefit and allow these white nationalist groups to grow unchecked, Gobar said.

“This ‘stay away, it’ll be fine’ narrative, well, I know the university may have a different view, but there’s more that needs to be done,” Gobar said.

A UVA spokesman declined to make officials available for interviews Monday.

Such demonstrations are not likely to slow soon, particularly with the fall semester for most institutions imminent.

In addition to University of Florida, Spencer initially had pledged to return to Texas A&M University in September, but the university canceled the event, citing security concerns.

Spencer took delight in aggravating the Texas A&M campus, said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks bigotry nationwide. He has also spoken at Auburn University in Alabama, where he successfully sued for the right to appear on campus.

The so-called alt-right and similar racist campaigners have “hijacked” free speech on college campuses with these rallies, attempting to goad the liberal population -- students, but even more so outside “antifascist” activists and radical left-wing groups -- into igniting fights, Brooks said.

Many of the white supremacist-related activities, and the more radical counterprotests, result from outsiders, not those tied to institutions.

Brooks said the center advocates for universities to sponsor alternative events to appropriately combat the white nationalists’, which could pull away the media focus that they crave. Texas A&M did this for Spencer’s first talk. Protests weren’t halted, but nothing turned violent.

She urged college presidents to strongly denounce and identify these people as white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Doing so would ensure that young white college men would not be poached by the movement. She acknowledged that both the UVA and Florida presidents had, in forceful terms, condemned white nationalists in their statements, but said it will take some time for students to recognize the success of nonviolent resistance, like that present during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“If you want to confront them head-on, do it silently, don’t feed into their desperate need to get attention,” Brooks said, citing the “angels” who donned gigantic white wings and, without speaking, blocked the Westboro Baptist Church from protesting the funerals of victims of the 2016 shooting at an Orlando, Fla., gay bar.

A University of Florida spokeswoman emailed a statement about the upcoming Spencer talk. “We are still assessing security needs, particularly in light of the events over the weekend. Student affairs is in contact with individuals at Auburn University and Texas A&M to learn what we can from the folks who were on the ground in those university communities during similar events. Our strategy right now is to be transparent with the greater university community about this request, and we will provide additional information as it is available,” the statement reads in part.

Dwayne Fletcher, president of Florida’s Black Student Union, said he understands why the president has urged students not to interact with protesters. The “lunatics” in Charlottesville displayed no regard for human life, and like UVA and the surrounding area, Gainesville has a significant racist past, he said. Fletcher said he could see the events of Charlottesville being replicated. A Confederate monument was just taken down in the city Monday, and similarly to the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, its slated removal drew the ire of the white nationalists.

The University of Florida’s president in his social media post named Spencer and the white nationalists, something Sullivan did not do in her Aug. 4 statement.

Dan Horner, an assistant professor of criminology at Ryerson University in Ontario who specializes in the history of protests in public spaces, said UVA’s tactics evolved. At first, Sullivan did not recognize the protesters as white supremacists, but she more explicitly did so after Saturday. He said he believed the university was hoping the event might fizzle and not be well attended, and that the mention of white nationalists would likely alarm students and their families.

“This fuzzy, soft-focused kind of language was a way to keep everybody calm, but as the situation kind became impossible to ignore, there’s clearly a desire to put herself on the correct side of the story,” Horner said.

He said he was unsure whether advising students to avoid the rally was the proper call.

But Fletcher, at University of Florida, said telling students not to recognize white supremacist demonstrations is more strategic. On Monday, he was in a group text message chat with representatives from nine of the largest and most visible campus student organizations, many representing minority populations. He said they planned to organize a town hall event next week to discuss strategy, and couldn’t say yet whether they would advocate for their membership to appear at the Spencer rally.

“Honestly, I don’t think I’d be able to attend these protests. I know the type of crowd they bring. I’d rather advocate on behalf of the students instead of being in the hospital or dead. I’d rather be smart about it and have a visible presence and stay active and engaged,” Fletcher said.

When students arrive on campuses across the country in the coming weeks, the dynamic will shift entirely, said Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism and assistant professor at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York. He noted that the UVA campus was largely devoid of students, but at the University of Florida and Texas A&M, Spencer’s speech and the backlash will be inescapable for them.

Douglas McAdam, Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor of Sociology at Stanford University, has studied student advocacy in depth. He recently ended a longitudinal study on student activism and in 2014 co-authored a book, Deeply Divided: Social Movements and Racial Politics in Post-War America (Oxford University Press), that touches on the partisanship also bleeding into college campuses.

McAdam said that the students most devoted to activism likely won’t heed advice to ignore white supremacy. In fact, it may inspire the opposite effect, as many of these students are often critical of university practices.

“The idea you’re going to be able to control actions of the activist segment of the student body is a fiction,” he said.

Barring campus outsiders from the grounds and refusing to rent facilities would more effectively minimize the problem rather than trying to separate students from massive and sometimes bloody rallies, Johnston said. At Auburn, Spencer only successfully won his lawsuit because the university’s policies explicitly allowed any outsider to pay for use of a building, he said.

“There’s a reason why he chose a campus over a local hotel or conference center,” Johnston said, referring to Spencer. “Speaking on a campus is a symbolic significant act. It has a lot of cultural salience in the United States.”

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top