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The Battle Over White Nationalism at Texas A&M

School has become a microcosm of the broader debate over how to handle the so-called alt-right and the limits of free speech

The battle over Texas A&M's white nationalist rally

Demonstrators outside a December white nationalist event at Texas A&M University.

David J. Phillip/AP

Wearing cowboy boots and jeans, Preston Wiginton has stepped onto the Texas Capitol lawn to denounce the recent move by Texas A&M University to prohibit a “White Lives Matter” rally he had planned for September. “The Texas A&M event was for white people to come together against liberalism, to know they don’t have to experience white guilt,” he tells a small gaggle of reporters.

Though the school administration had allowed Wiginton to hold a similar campus gathering last December, A&M reneged on his September event after he published a press release titled “Today Charlottesville, tomorrow Texas A&M” on the day of the deadly Virginia white supremacist protest. “Linking the tragedy of Charlottesville with the Texas A&M event creates a major security risk on our campus,” the school, which Wiginton briefly attended in 2006, said in a statement last Monday, explaining that “risks of threat to life and safety compel us to cancel the event.”

Texas A&M has become a microcosm of the debates playing out around America over how to handle the so-called alt-right movement and the limits of free speech. As Wiginton and others who share his views – he identifies as an “identitarian” – aspire to draw momentum from the Charlottesville rally, they face rejection from institutions that previously would have hosted them: Texas A&M, the first to cite the Charlottesville violence in disallowing such an event, has since been followed by the University of Florida, Michigan State University and Louisiana State University.

In response to A&M’s move, Wiginton argues the school is suppressing his free speech, and has warned he will sue with help from the ACLU. For its part, the ACLU, which defended the Charlottesville protesters’ right to freedom of speech before the rally, has declared it will no longer defend the right of hate groups to demonstrate with firearms. “The deliberate carnage perpetrated in Charlottesville has no place in the Lone Star State,” the ACLU of Texas tells Rolling Stone in an email. “Our staff condemns all violent calls to action.”

Wiginton tells Rolling Stone he fears the white race risks “extinction” as predominantly white nations become more diverse. “Part of that is the white race’s fault,” he laments, wearing a necklace of Thor’s Hammer, an ancient Norse symbol that has been adopted by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. “They bought into consumerism and feminism. Women would rather have careers than children, and men would rather have boats than children.”

Situated in the East-Central Texas town of College Station, A&M is a historically conservative, formerly all-white, all-male school that has since somewhat racially diversified. At the school, Wiginton has found few, if any, open supporters and has met fierce opposition from the faculty and students, who are quick to distinguish A&M’s conservatism from intolerance and have planned a “Beat the Hell Out of Hate” demonstration on the day of Wiginton’s canceled rally. Those anti-hate organizers, along with other students of color, hope this moment will just be the beginning of a campus movement addressing race relations at the school.

“This is a true stand-across-the-aisle moment, because there’s only one side to be on, and that’s against hatred and bigotry,” Beat the Hell Out of Hate (BTHO Hate) organizer Adam Key, a 33-year-old Ph.D. student in communication, tells Rolling Stone.

About 100 supporters attended Wiginton’s December rally – which featured as a speaker alt-right movement leader Richard Spencer – and nearly all of them were from outside the school, according to Josh McCormack, editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper The Battalion. At the time, the paper found just one person claiming to be an A&M student to anonymously comment in praise of Wiginton – he said he was a member of the “European Aggies Alliance,” which organized the event and which the school said was not university-recognized. A&M said in a statement that “none of the 1200-plus campus organizations invited Preston Wiginton nor did they agree to sponsor his events in December 2016 or on September 11 of this year.”

Wiginton says he has many A&M allies, but that “white kids are scared to death to speak out.” Like the campus paper, Rolling Stone has scoured the campus for his sympathizers but has found only one person willing to support him; that person, claiming to be an A&M grad student, called from a blocked number and refused to disclose his name, course of study, age or hometown.

Wiginton says the younger generation of white supremacists – his fellow “identitarians” – are appearing in new numbers in part because of the Trump presidency.

“They see in President Trump an alpha male who tells them it’s OK to speak out,” Wiginton tells Rolling Stone.

However small or large the white supremacist contingency is at A&M, the school’s community increasingly is uniting across party lines and racial and ethnic groups to stymy its growth. Countering Wiginton’s December event, the university held an “Aggies Unite” diversity celebration that drew thousands of students and topped the Anti-Defamation League’s list of most inspirational moments of 2016. Hundreds of students affiliated with BTHO Hate directly protested against Wiginton at the time, and 6,500 have so far expressed interest on Facebook for the BTHO demonstration in September.

“I was never a protester before,” says Grace Brannon, a white 24-year-old grad student who grew up in a conservative Christian household in Fort Worth and considers herself a conservative-leaning independent. She attended the December BTHO Hate rally since she felt Spencer and Wiginton were putting down anyone who was not a white man, and was moved by the “massive response” of the protesters accompanying her. “This isn’t lined up along parties,” she says.

Texas A&M President Michael Young also denounced Wiginton’s last gathering, claiming in a November university announcement that the school was bound to allow the event on the grounds of freedom of speech. (Because they receive government funds, public universities like A&M cannot legally restrict speakers based on the content of their speech – but they can deny speakers who would incite violence on campus.)

“I find the views of the organizer – and the speaker he is apparently sponsoring – abhorrent and profoundly antithetical to everything I believe,” Young said.

But for many students of color at A&M, the fact that the school has hosted one explicitly white supremacist campus event is a symptom of what they confront regularly.

“It gives others a glimpse of what we see as a reality. It shouldn’t be a surprise,” says 22-year-old A&M student Chandon Adger, who is beginning his Ph.D. in economics. Adger, who is black, says he has been called racial slurs walking across campus, and that although he hears people speaking out against people like Wiginton and Spencer, he doubts that his university is really changing. “Charlottesville is not the issue – it’s the result of the issue. Stopping Richard Spencer from coming here doesn’t stop the issue,” he says.

Nickolaus Ortiz, former president of the school’s black graduate students’ association and a Ph.D. student in math education, says he “could definitely see violence breaking out” at A&M as it had in Charlottesville.

“We can’t be in denial to say it does not exist on this campus,” says Ortiz of the newly emboldened white supremacist movement, warning that ignoring its presence could be even more harmful. He notes that just last year A&M students harassed a group of black high schoolers touring the college and told them to “go back where [they] came from.” The university president apologized to the high schoolers on behalf of the students.

“I must understand why a white supremacist would be so comfortable to come to this campus,” says Ortiz. “It’s definitely rooted in some people who attend here.”

Michael Thibodeaux, a 22-year-old A&M junior who is a member of the school’s NAACP chapter and works at the campus store Aggie Outfitters, hopes the BTHO Hate movement will be the start of real change on campus.

“This is a big deal. This school is primarily white people, so I didn’t think they would care,” Thibodeaux says beneath a giant Texas flag in the store’s parking lot.

He marvels that Aggie Outfitters sold 500 “BTHO Hate” T-shirts on their website within an hour of them going on sale. “It makes me so happy. This could lead to a change if we emphasize this issue more,” he says. “But racism isn’t a thing you see if you’re not experiencing it. … Like, here I have customers ignore me and ask the next person for help.”

The university has instituted a number of programs promoting diversity and acceptance in recent years, including mandatory “community of respect” seminars for new students to discuss inclusion, the “You, Me, All Welcome” library campaign with a series of talks on diversity, grants for minority students and a peer diversity mentoring program. (The school declined to provide further comment for this story.)

Key, BTHO Hate’s lead organizer, sees the anti-hate rallies as one more opportunity to foster awareness of prejudices, and he has already begun planning an event on campus for diverse speakers to recount their everyday experiences of discrimination. The group has also begun fundraising to erect a monument to Matthew Gaines, a former slave who became a Texas senator and founded part of Texas A&M.

“Part of white privilege is, unless you have Nazis coming on campus, you don’t do something,” says Key. He shows off his First Amendment arm sleeve tattoo, noting that for him, this fight isn’t about free speech. “Let’s turn the mirror on ourselves and see what we can do better. One day [spent fighting] against Nazis is easier. Fighting the everyday experiences of hatred and racism is the longer task.”

That fight far transcends one campus or one rally: It requires undoing a whole framework designed to legitimize white power, says A&M sociology professor Joe Feagin, a leading scholar on racism who has published nearly 70 books on the subject over the past half century.

“Eighty-three percent of this country’s history was slavery or Jim Crow segregation. We are the only modern industrial country for which that’s true,” says Feagin.

“The white racial frame – this extensive frame to legitimate the racial system we have – is deep and still very much with us, because most whites have never had any serious de-racism training,” says Feagin, who has been denounced by Wiginton and has received multiple death threats for his racism research.

As for whether the recent white nationalist activity represents growing numbers within the movement, Feagin says, “The question is, is this a real change or just being talked about more in media?”

Either way, he says, “the president’s unwillingness to speak out against white supremacists in a firm moral way is certainly emboldening them.”

And as this wave of neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other racists become more vocal – and potentially violent – they’ll keep forcing universities across the U.S. to make decisions about what whose voice will get a platform on campus.

“I believe the alt-right targets campuses because they contain large groups of young people ready to resist them. If tempers flare and the students get violent, it feeds the alt-right narrative that they’re victims,” says Key.

“The alt-right comes here with one goal in mind: to cause violence,” he says. “They won’t stop with Texas A&M, and colleges and universities across the country should not stop blocking them to protect the safety of their students.”

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