Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
On Thursday, October 24, Dr. Tim Pierson shared with the Longwood community information about stickers and posters appearing around campus that violated the university’s posting policy. I want to thank Dr. Pierson for alerting the Longwood community about the quick actions of the Longwood University Police Department in taking them down.
These stickers and posters had “America First” printed on them and in actuality, are part of a larger campaign by a white supremacist organization called Patriot Front. This group targets colleges and universities across the country in order to spread propaganda and recruit members. As a community, we need to feel empowered to recognize and identify hate when we see it.
I know the idea of naming an organization gives it power through recognition. But not identifying an organization also gives it power by letting their actions go unchecked. In this case, calling them out is an act of empowerment meant to counter their subversive activities. Having experienced firsthand the vitriolic rhetoric and violence of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, I firmly believe the more we know about these groups and their activities, the better prepared we are, as citizen leaders, to combat their rhetoric of intolerance and hate when we see it.
In 2017, I went to Charlottesville to photograph and document the Friday evening torch rally at the University of Virginia and then again Saturday for the Unite the Right rally at Emancipation Park. My goal was to create a visual record of these activities, originally to be used as potential material for my visual communication class. Both days had a confluence of extreme alt-right groups, including neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and others, that proudly proclaimed in one loud voice, “white was right,” “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil,” amongst other things. It was jarring to say the least.
That weekend, the alt-right’s message was simple: anyone who isn’t like them was in the wrong. On Saturday, they exercised their first amendment rights by protesting, shouting and marching. But when confronted by an opposition of inclusivity, diversity and tolerance, their rhetoric escalated and quickly turned violent. At noon, even before it officially began, the Governor called off the rally due to the violent incursions. By that afternoon, one bystander was killed and numerous others injured.
After witnessing the alt-right’s tactics that fateful weekend, I firmly believe we all need to be aware of the strategies used by white supremacist groups like Patriot Front. In his email, Dr. Pierson included an image of an as-of-yet unidentified individual who may be associated with posting these white supremacy promotional materials on campus. One sticker read “America First” in a tall, blue typeface with “patriotfront.us” underneath in smaller, mainly blue and red font, all on a white background. (The connection to the colors of United States flag is obvious.) However, the website takes you to Patriot Front’s website. Patriot Front is an active white supremacist organization that conducts disinformation and recruiting campaigns around the country via posters, stickers, banners and in-person protests.
Both the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center have declared Patriot Front an alt-right white supremacist group. Like similar alt-right groups, they espouse racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric whenever and wherever possible, actively recruiting on university and college campuses across the country.
As Dr. Pierson correctly mentioned, Longwood is not alone in getting targeted with stickers and posters. Materials are appearing at other Virginia institutions. According to the anti-fascist website It’s Going Down, Patriot Front planned to target colleges and universities across the United States in late September of this year, including those in Virginia. The Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia’s newspaper, reported that materials were found in downtown Charlottesville along Heather Heyer Way (the street where Heyer was struck down and killed), Market Street Park and on the property of the First United Methodist Church of Charlottesville. Posting stickers and putting up posters at Longwood seem to be an extension of that September effort.
On the surface, stickers and posters with “America First” on them might seem as benign as any other patriotic slogan. But that unassuming message is how Patriot Front and other white supremacist groups function: they play on patriotism and exploit our values. This is not patriotism. This is pure hate.
I encourage you to report any further instances to the LUPD that you may see around campus. Be vigilant. Be informed. Challenge the hate from these groups by calling it what it is: white supremacy.
“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill
Alec R. Hosterman, PhD
Assistant Professor of Communication Studies