Fighting white supremacy on campus

The violence in Charlottesville, Va., near the University of Virginia has distressed people across the nation, but it has been especially disturbing for those who work on college campuses. Campuses have been targeted in the past, and groups like Richard Spencer's National Policy Institute, a white supremacist think tank, have a string of events planned for the future.

The AFT is fighting back on all fronts: Individual members are protesting, union locals are mobilizing, and, over the next few days, AFT Higher Education program and policy council leaders have posted a guide to fighting racism and white supremacy on campus.

Car crashing into counter-protesters

Higher education has been a particular target for hate groups because of the value it places on free speech. While the AFT fiercely upholds a commitment to civil liberties, it also forcefully rejects ideologies that smack of racism and create fear among marginalized communities. This is especially true on college campuses, which should be safe havens for learning and academic inquiry.

"Universities have a goal of being inclusive, supportive places," says Sara Bijani, president of the Graduate Employees Union at Michigan State University. "They encourage people to explore new ideas and encounter things they wouldn't otherwise encounter. But when people feel at risk on campus—if they're wondering if others in the room have a gun and are going to shoot—there's no opportunity for the free exchange of ideas."

Bijani, GEU and other members of the university community successfully urged MSU's administrators to cancel a white supremacist event featuring Richard Spencer in August. Similarly, the United Faculty of Florida successfully fought his appearance at the University of Florida. Appearances at Penn State and Texas A&M were also canceled, and a request to appear at Louisiana State was denied by administrators citing safety concerns.

In California, however, the Aug. 26 "Patriot Prayer" rally in San Francisco and the Aug. 27 "No to Marxism in America" rally in Berkeley are still scheduled to move forward. The faculty union at City College of San Francisco, AFT 2121, will mobilize at counter-protests. [Editor’s note: Since this story was posted, Patriot Prayer was canceled, but counter-protests/demonstrations went on as scheduled.]

"Silence is not an option," says Tim Killikelly, president of AFT 2121 (pictured below in the middle). While he was not surprised by events in Charlottesville—such events have occurred before—what's different this time is President Trump's reaction. "He gave a clear signal to the white supremacists that he has no problem with them," Killikelly said in a statement. "President Trump has emboldened the white supremacists and neo-Nazis."

AFT Local 2121 Presdient Tim Killikelly with banner

"It's a fearful moment," said Killikelly. "We need to resist white supremacists at every turn. They need to know we're not going to turn the clock back. They need to go and be unacceptable again."

And resistance goes beyond the rallies. "Racism is much more than white supremacists coming to campus," says Bijani, GEU president. It is systemic, and routing it out requires "real policy and real investment." At Michigan State, where a large percentage of students are international and people of color—those most at risk from xenophobic, racist demonstrations and rhetoric—GEU will be pressing for more intercultural aid programs and counselors with racial trauma training.

Killikelly is also looking beyond the rallies. Resisting white supremacy means "preventing voter suppression, making sure that we try to get healthcare for everybody, making sure that we treat immigrants decently," among other things, he said.

Meanwhile, handling white supremacists encroaching on college campuses requires balancing academic freedom with resistance to harassment, intimidation and assault. The AFT guide to fighting white nationalism includes pages of suggestions for resistance. Among them:

  • Join, support or form campus/community coalitions that can create an anti-racist culture and consider actions such as removing racist memorials, renaming buildings, and creating sanctuary campuses and communities.
  • Respond to racism expressed in the classroom.
  • Document, report and tear down white nationalist fliers and posters.
  • Demand a plan from campus administrators, campus safety and local law enforcement for safety during volatile events involving white nationalist speakers and provocateurs, including those who may be armed.
  • Educate your campus and community about the white supremacist agenda and its local and national players, using existing courses and teachers, public forums and the media.

Recommendations for schools facing scheduled white supremacist activities on campus include the following:

  • Alert your partners, including state and national affiliates of the union, to get help preparing.
  • Name the evil: Avoid terms such as "alt-right," "controversial" or "edgy" when speakers are racists, sexists, anti-Semites, homophobes, transphobes, nativists and/or white supremacists.
  • Develop a plan for nonviolent confrontation before the event.
  • Demand accountability from administrators, campus safety officers and local law enforcement for ensuring public safety.
  • Approach the host group to determine goals and level of awareness regarding the speaker's agenda, and share stories from targeted communities about how the speakers can do harm; ask the group to rescind the invitation.
  • Ask campus and local officials to denounce the fascist group/individual.
  • Educate audience members: Inform audience members about the views of the speaker on their way into the event with fliers and suggested questions for Q&A time.
  • Organize a counter-protest.

For more complete information, see our resource page, which includes step-by-step guidance on organizing protests, advice on inclusion and risks, and additional resources.

[Virginia Myers/top photo Associated Press]