Confronting the far-right threat at Purdue

December 8, 2016

Bill Mullen reports on the mobilization to make Purdue University safe for everyone after a right-wing group posted flyers with fascist symbolism on campus.

AFTER FASCIST recruitment posters appeared on the Purdue University campus in Indiana, two large protests have united university students, faculty, staff and the community against the tide of white supremacy unleashed by Donald Trump election.

More than 150 people attended an emergency organizing meeting on the evening of November 30, after posters from the self-identified fascist group "American Vanguard Reaction" appeared across campus.

A manifesto on the American Vanguard website declares: "We fight for America, but this can never happen unless we win the hearts and minds of our fellow White youth. We want to be at the forefront of the reawakening of White racial consciousness. In order to do this, we must be willing to fight." The manifesto blames Marxists for causing the "rotting" of American society.

The American Vanguard posters that appeared on campus displayed classical fascist themes: white faces over the words "We Have A Right to Exist" and a white male in manacles implored to overcome "white guilt." Another poster read: "Free Yourself from Cultural Marxists."

Students gather on Purdue's campus to send an anti-racist message
Students gather on Purdue's campus to send an anti-racist message (Bill Mullen | SW)

Fortunately, the response was swift and strong.

The November 30 emergency meeting was a multiracial, international representation of all layers of Purdue and the surrounding community appalled by the posters: African-American ROTC members, students who had grown up under authoritarian dictatorships in Latin America; self-identifying gay and lesbian students; veteran students of anti-racist struggles at Purdue and elsewhere.

One unifying point of rage was the weak, dismissive statement by Purdue President (and former Republican Indiana governor) Mitch Daniels, who said the posters represented a "fringe group" seeking attention, and he wouldn't give them that by commenting directly on their content. That enraged people at the meeting, who warned against dismissing the threat.

Daniels' statement was also a reminder of his record of hostility to racial minorities and progressives. After he was hired at Purdue, the Associated Press reported that as governor, Daniels had tried to ban the books of progressive historian and long-time civil rights activist Howard Zinn.

After being hired as Purdue president, Daniels promoted the writings of Charles Murray, notorious author of the racist book The Bell Curve, which used white supremacist eugenics research to argue that racial minorities are inferior to whites.

In 2015, Daniels' administration fired the chief diversity officer of the university, Christina Taylor. Last year, at a Purdue rally in solidarity with nationwide campus anti-racist demonstrations first sparked off at the University of Missouri, students documented numerous accounts of racism directed against Purdue minority students. But Daniels insisted that Purdue had no serious problems with racism and refused a demand to reinstate Taylor.

THE SIZE and anger of the November 30 meeting forced Daniels to release a second statement on the racist posters. It was equally weak, however, defensively stating that different people would interpret the posters--which included an image of a fasces, a traditional symbol of fascism in Italy--in different ways.

That only ratcheted up student anger and added momentum to a large protest that took place on December 5 in front of the university administration building Hovde Hall. The rally was led by the Purdue Social Justice Coalition, a broad, multiracial alliance of domestic and international students.

Organizers presented five demands to the university: that the university president and provost make an unequivocal statement against the fascist posters; that the university take down all white supremacist posters and investigate and hold accountable those who put them up; that the university reinstate the chief diversity officer position; that the university mandate that all students take a required course on racism; and that students at the university be able to take part in protests against social injustice "without fear of any retaliation, discrimination or persecution."

Speakers advocating for the demands reminded the large crowd of both the history of white supremacy and racism in America, and the urgency of fighting against fascism, especially in an age of nativism and nationalism ramped up by Donald Trump's election.

Associate Professor of History Dawn Marsh opened the rally by paying tribute to the victory of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in halting construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, achieved just hours before the rally began. She reminded the crowd that Purdue was constructed on what was once Miami Indian tribal land, and that resistance to white supremacy began 500 years ago by Indigenous peoples after the arrival of European settler-colonialists.

"We will not be dismissed," she said in reference to Daniels's weak statements on the fascist posters. "The power of protest is real."

Sydney Tomasko of the Feminist Action Coalition for Today and Shelby Wood of the American Association of University Women argued that women on campus would be especially vulnerable to new right-wing attacks under a Trump presidency.

Michelle Campbell, a member of the Purdue Social Justice Coalition, urged people at the rally to form new bonds of solidarity with oppressed minorities who are most vulnerable to fascist and white supremacist politics. "This is not just a problem for people of color," said Campbell. Campbell also helped to sponsor a successful resolution condemning the posters passed by the Purdue Graduate Student Government.

Dana Bisignani, also active with the Purdue Social Justice Coalition, took dead aim at President Daniels' claim that the fascist posters were open to interpretation--and at any attempt by the university to hide behind support for "free speech" in not openly condemning them. "Fascism is the enemy of free speech," said Basagni. "Not one fascist at Purdue!"

Voices from the community also spoke out. A statement of solidarity from the local chapter of the NAACP was read out, as was the text of a resolution condemning the posters authored by the West Lafayette City Council. Council members voted in support of the resolution later that evening.

Tithi Bhattacharya, associate professor of History at Purdue and a member of the University Senate's Equity and Diversity Committee, underscored the university's role not just as an institution of education, but as a provider of child care, social services and community assistance for a wide range of residents of the area--all potentially vulnerable to fascist recruitment efforts.

She urged solidarity as the best weapon going forward. "The racists who come for one of us" said Bhattacharya, "will have to go through all of us."

PURDUE'S FIGHT against fascism and the alt-right should be seen as part of a necessary national response to racism in the wake of Trump's victory.

In the same week that it targeted Purdue, American Vanguard also posted fliers at the University of Central Florida and Emerson College. Miami University of Ohio was hit by fliers from another alt-right group in late November.

Fascist and white supremacist groups across the U.S. have been given confidence by the open parade of neo-Nazis who have proclaimed Trump's triumph as their own. Images of white supremacists raising Nazi salutes to Trump in Washington, D.C., just days after Trump's election recently went viral. Richard Spencer, a gutter racist, white nationalist and Trump supporter, has become the leader and face of the alt-right.

The left has to meet this new threat head-on, through broad interracial and inter-ethnic organizing involving immigrant groups; Jewish, Muslim, Arab, African American and LGBTQ rights groups; and trade unions and other progressive organizations. Only broad unity with strong participation from workers and students can successfully defeat any fascist menace in the U.S.

Our slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all" must be mobilized anew to defeat white supremacy, ethno-nationalism and other forces of reaction unleashed by Trump.

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