Zack Peterson arrived at his car on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus one evening last month to find a flier for the white nationalist group Identity Evropa tucked beneath a windshield wiper. His response: disappointment.
But the junior marketing major, who removed a half-dozen fliers from nearby cars and reported them to a campus residence adviser, said he wasn’t terribly surprised. Such things happen these days, he said.
Indeed, in the wake of a 2016 presidential election that drew mainstream attention to a set of previously fringe ideologies, white nationalist and supremacist groups have become an increasingly visible presence on college campuses, using fliers, posters, and e-mails in an effort to recruit new blood.
Since last September, more than 120 cases of white supremacist fliers, posters, or stickers have been reported on American college campuses, according to a recent study from the Anti-Defamation League. And here in Massachusetts, a worldwide hub of higher education, the practice has become particularly prevalent.
“These white supremacist groups feel that now is the time to strike,” says Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism. “They feel like their messages have been mainstreamed; they feel like there’s an opening for them now in a way that they haven’t really felt before.”
Between last September and March 24, there were seven reported cases of white nationalist propaganda popping up on college campuses in Massachusetts, the ADL reports, the fourth-largest total of any state in the nation. Only Texas (18), California (13), and Florida (9) reported more.
True, the number of incidents nationwide might be relatively small — according to the ADL, there have been 121 instances of white nationalist campus “fliering” since the current school year began last fall. And there remain plenty of questions, too, about the true size and scope of the efforts.
But the sheer volume of college campuses that have been hit with fliers, says Ryan Lenz, a spokesman for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, “points to a very concerted effort on the part of the radical right to view college campuses as a recruiting ground.”
At the University of Massachusetts Boston, for instance, fliers for Identity Evropa — an organization founded last year by Californian and Iraq war veteran Nathan Damigo — were found posted across campus, the school said earlier this month. At the same time, the university’s chief diversity officer reported rising campus concern.
After seven posters were discovered on the Emerson College campus in December promoting American Vanguard — another white nationalist group with 12 chapters, according to the SPLC — school president Lee Pelton issued a letter to students and faculty denouncing the message.
He was compelled to do the same March 18, after an estimated 500-plus members of the Emerson community received an e-mail from the White Genocide Project, a white supremacist organization.
“We have been targeted before by white nationalist and supremacist groups and I expect that we will be targeted again,” wrote Pelton, adding that the group had also targeted Harvard, Princeton, and West Virginia University. “However, there is no indication that a single person or persons has been targeted with threats of physical violence or harm.”
For the groups in question, the decision to focus on college campuses is simple.
They are, after all, occupied by thousands of young and potentially impressionable minds — and attempting to mine them for would-be supporters to a cause, controversial or not, is a strategy that has proven effective through the decades.
“What corporation doesn’t go to colleges to recruit?” says Damigo of Identity Evropa, which mails out packages of fliers, promo cards, and stickers to its members — who may or may not be college students — at their request. “These are the people who will go on to manage the institutions of our country, and we want them in our networks.”
What’s more, it’s an opportune time to recruit, says Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, another white nationalist group openly focusing efforts on college campuses.
“There’s a rising sense of frustration and outright anger with this characterization of all whites as privileged, oppressive, and essentially evil,” says the Yale-educated Taylor. “So I think there is a greater willingness among young whites to strike back at this oppressive orthodoxy.”
This isn’t the first time American universities have been linked to certain brands of extreme ideologies, right and left. Lately, though, those links on the extreme right seem to be intensifying.
The now disgraced Milo Yiannopoulos, who has written glowingly about the alt-right movement and was handed a permanent Twitter ban after making harassing comments about the actress Leslie Jones, recently embarked upon a controversial college campus speaking tour. Matthew Heimbach has made waves, meanwhile, for his Traditionalist Youth Network, which the ADL describes as “a small white supremacist group that attempts white supremacist activities on college campuses.”
And in perhaps the most overt display to date, Richard Spencer, a notorious shepherd of the alt-right movement, gave a speech on the campus at Texas A&M University in December, reportedly telling a group of hundreds that “America belongs to white men.”
For colleges and universities, the vast majority of which hold themselves as bastions of free speech, navigating the recent uptick in white nationalist propaganda has been something of a tricky endeavor.
Many of the fliers, for instance, don’t contain overtly offensive language — one Identity Evropa poster simply features a photo of a classical statue and the phrase “Protect Your Heritage” — raising questions about First Amendment freedoms.
“Part of the college experience is freedom of expression, and it’s critical to be respectful of diverse ideas,” says Carole McFall, a spokeswoman for Emerson College. “But it’s got to be — it should be — safe for students. And they shouldn’t feel intimidated.”
Further complicating matters is the fact that, though it might be against campus policy to hang or distribute literature in unapproved locations, the circulation of some fliers — such as those invoking racist themes using only coded language — likely doesn’t rise to the level of criminal activity.
“It’s a bit complex,” says Ed Blaguszewski, a spokesman for UMass Amherst, who says the school has been focused on denouncing the fliers’ message while also being careful not to generate additional attention for the groups behind them. “While these fliers may be offensive, unless they are tied to what may be a criminal act, it’s really not a matter of a hate crime.”
Whether the recruiting efforts will have any long-term effect, meanwhile, is unlikely to be known for some time.
“The jury is [still] out,” says Lawrence Rosenthal, chair and lead researcher of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who adds that one way to track any growth of the movement would be to monitor the memberships of certain right-leaning campus groups, as well as the appearance of any right-wing protests or sit-ins.
But already there have been indications that the message is garnering increased attention.
Asked this week whether his group’s recruiting outreach had proven effective, Damigo chuckled.
At this time a year ago, he said, the organization had about a dozen members. Today, it boasts some 350. What’s more, plans to boost the group’s physical presence on college campuses in the coming months are already ramping up.
“We’ve discovered that there are many people who already have read our website, who already generally agree with us, but haven’t taken that next step to get involved or meet with other people,” he said.
“We’re already in the process of purchasing tables and banner stands and brochures,” he added. “So that next semester, we can start getting on campuses and [putting] more of a face to this.”