The Prejudice and Politics of Stickers

“Dear Campus Community,

Over the weekend, College officials were made aware of stickers that had been posted around campus that run counter to our core values of respect, community and diversity, and were hurtful to many in our community. While we as an institution believe and champion freedom of speech and the diversity of ideas, we will not condone any type of speech that promotes fear and racism or seeks to divide our campus community. The College of Charleston is home to many people of all backgrounds, and everyone should feel safe and welcome here. 

We are an inclusive community, so let’s treat each other with respect, kindness and love. In the end, that is how we will live up to our core values and how we will ensure that we, as a campus community, are modeling the behavior we want to see in our greater society.

Sincerely, Andrew”

 

The College of Charleston’s president, Andrew T. Hsu, sent this email to students and faculty on a Sunday evening in late September. Initial reactions varied from confusion to shock to disappointment. What stickers? Where did they come from? The vague yet empowering language of this email invited more questions than answers. Many hadn’t even seen these stickers before they were quickly ripped from lampposts and addressed in this email.

The stickers were sponsored by Patriotfront, a white supremacist neo-Nazi and neo-fascist organization that was founded following the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Patriotfront was created by Thomas Rousseau after a split from Vanguard America (another white supremacist group). It uses American symbols to convey messages of racism and anti-Semitism with the goal of “preserving ethnic and cultural origins of European ancestors” in America today. Patriotfront is infamous for their extensive social media activity as well as the spread of posters, banners, and stickers to locations across the United States. 

Some stickers proclaimed messages of “liberty” - a principle which is the very foundation of American values. Others carried a more chilling message. One bears a map of the United States with the caption, “conquered, not stolen”; this alludes to the belief by Patriotfront members that America was “conquered” by white supremacist leaders solely to be passed to descendants of the movement. Another sticker bears the fasces, a symbol used by fascist leaders (most notably Benito Mussolini). Thirteen stars circle many of the stickers in reference to the original thirteen colonies, “as an American symbol of revolutionary spirit.” Each boasts patriotic colors and keywords of American values, with almost enough finesse to disguise the actual beliefs professed. 

As the stickers started showing up on campus, feelings of bitter irony swirled among the student population as we remembered our campus-wide assigned summer reading. Eli Saslow’s "Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist", which is about former nationalist leader Derek Black, provided discourse for this year’s convocation, as well as dialogue in many classroom settings around campus. As the College looks forward to welcoming Eli Saslow on campus on October 29th, one can’t help but notice the horribly impeccable timing of these events. 

The College of Charleston was not the first college to tackle this obstacle. NPR has reported the various banners and stickers posted on campuses at the University of Montana, the University of Denver, and the University of Utah. With every incident, the images and beliefs of white supremacist groups like Patriotfront attract a wider audience and garner more attention. One sticker has the potential to create an endless spiral of Google searches from students curious about Patriotfront. We play a dangerous game by acknowledging groups such as Patriotfront and Vanguard America, even when we condemn their actions in writing or social media posts. 

While we must refuse to give voice to such movements that have pervaded our campus community, it is important that we learn a lesson from this experience. The ideas of white nationalism are easily traded between generations. Such ideas are supported and perpetuated by microaggressions. Whether it is racial slurs or negativity on social media, these transgressions are likely to occur more frequently than violent rallies or sticker protests. Our tolerance of the “smaller” actions will create larger problems in the future. It is the responsibility of each student to uphold “our core values of respect, community and diversity,” as stated in President Hsu’s email. This means not only treating others with respect; it means responding to microaggressions with strength. This issue will inevitably be discussed - it is how we address white nationalist rhetoric that makes a difference. When the whole world is looking for someone to respond, look within yourself. Our own individual contributions to a code of “respect, kindness and love” will form the basis for our generation’s necessary response.

 

For more information about Patriotfront and other white nationalist groups, consult these sources below: 

The Anti Defamation League (ADL) : https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/patriot-front

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) : https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/patriot-front

National Public Radio (NPR) : https://www.npr.org/2019/03/19/704586335/white-nationalist-groups-increase-recruiting-and-propaganda-across-the-west