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Amid diversity debate, white supremacists recruit at Upper Peninsula school

Patriot Front
The Patriot Front, a white supremacist group, has been recruiting at Michigan Technological University, the Upper Peninsula university that is amid a tense debate about diversity. (Courtesy photo)

LANSING — Michigan Tech University students urging school officials to take a stronger stance against racism are sounding alarms over a white supremacist group’s recruitment efforts on campus.

After months of debate about institutional racism in the predominantly white university, stickers for the Patriot Front, a rapidly growing hate group, began popping up on and around the university’s Upper Peninsula campus in Houghton in February. 

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The stickers appear to be part of a national recruitment campaign by the Texas-based group that tries to preserve the “ethnic and cultural origins of their European ancestors” and was most active of its kind in the country last year, according to a report released Wednesday by the Anti-Defamation League. 

“Extremists target college campuses because that provides them with an opportunity to recruit young followers, and that’s essential for the sustainability of any movement,” said Carolyn Normandin, a regional director for the ADL. 

“It’s a way for a small group of people to inject their views at places they view as sort of bastions of liberal thinking.”

The Anti-Defamation League documented 5,125 cases of racist, anti-Semitic or other hateful messages across the country in 2020, including 303 propaganda incidents on college campuses.  

The Patriot Front, active in 48 states last year, was responsible for the vast majority of those incidents. 

The ADL reported 57 examples that year of white supremacist propaganda in Michigan, including 47 by the Patriot Front, which posted flyers with slogans like “America is not for sale” and “better dead than red” in dozens of cities and campuses.

Targets included Kettering University and Mott Community College in Flint and University of Michigan in both Flint and Ann Arbor.

The messages are considered a form of free speech, but at Michigan Tech, both university and Houghton police are investigating them to determine whether any laws were broken. 

And some students are fighting back. 

“If they can put that stuff up, and it won’t get challenged, and it won’t get pushed back, then they know they can do other stuff,” said Griffin Abbott, a mechanical engineering student who told Bridge Michigan he has personally peeled off Patriot Front stickers and alerted authorities. 

“We need to make sure they don’t feel that way.”

Propaganda proliferates

Experts say white supremacist propaganda campaigns are more prevalent in the past five years and coincide with a rise in hate crimes. In Michigan, hate crimes jumped 40 percent to 434 incidents from 2015 to 2019, according to the most recent available FBI data.

The Anti-Defamation League documented 303 propaganda incidents on college campuses in 2020. That number was down from 630 incidents in 2019, a drop experts attribute to COVID-related campus closures. 

Like many other aspects of life, hate-group activity moved further online during the pandemic, Normandin said. All told, her group documented 5,125 cases of racist, anti-Semetic and other hateful messages across the United States in 2020, an all-time high and nearly double the 2,724 cases the ADL identified in 2019.

The Patriot Front was responsible for 4,150 of those incidents, including 231 on college campuses. The group reportedly focused on college campuses more extensively in 2019. 

The Patriot Front formed in 2017 after its leader split from Vanguard America, another white supremacist organization that had gained notoriety for participating in the high-profile “Unite the Right” rally in Virginia. 

The group uses the guise of patriotism to promote a white supremacist and neo-facist ideology, according to the ADL. Members claim their European ancestors “conquered America and bequeathed it to them alone.”

In recruiting, the Patriot Front often uses ambiguous language like “Reclaim America,” a slogan used on some of the recent stickers at Michigan Tech. 

The stickers have been spotted on several campus bulletin boards, including on top of Black Lives Matter signs and other posters the university has put up to encourage unity, Abbott said. 

Last year, other students complained about a poster declaring “it’s okay to be white,” a slogan popularized on the 4chan message board and later embraced by white supremacists including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. 

Condemning racism

The propaganda campaign comes at a tense time for Michigan Tech students, faculty and residents in the almost uniformly white region of the Upper Peninsula who are already embroiled in a charged debate over racism.

As Bridge Michigan reported last month, a faculty Senate resolution condemning hate speech, white supremacy and racially motivated intolerance sparked backlash from two white professors, who argued it unfairly portrayed all local residents as bigots and was unnecessarily divisive. 

In a response letter, engineering professor Jeffrey Burl denied seeing any discrimination against people of color — or women — in his 28 years at the university. And he called the resolution “particularly offensive because I, as a white male, have been systematically discriminated against for 40 years.”

Burl’s claims sparked an online petition calling for his termination and resignation. Black and Hispanic students and faculty also spoke out, describing their own experiences with overt and institutional racism on and around what is one of Michigan’s whitest campuses. 

The university hasn’t taken action against Burl or fellow professor Jaroslaw Drelich, who accused faculty Senate members of "pushing a leftist media narrative that America's Blacks are presently the victim of massive and systemic white racism based on non-equitable outcomes."

Both professors have job protection because of tenure, and not much has changed on campus since the controversy exploded last month, said Wesley McGowan, a Black student who has urged university administration to take a stronger stance against intolerance. 

Abbott, the mechanical engineering major, told Bridge Michigan he’s spotted Patriot Front stickers in at least three buildings on campus this year. And he’s also spotted dozens more in Houghton, including 15 or 20 that he said he peeled off of light posts and other surfaces along US-Highway 41.

“All of these things are bad, but [the Patriot Front stickers] have done an excellent job of proving our points,” Abbott said. 

“There are problems here, and they need to be addressed.”

‘Stomped out’

The Keewanaw Peninsula has had a rash of extremist activity in recent years, including anti-Semitic vandalism at a Hancock synagogue in 2019. Authorities say the alleged ringleader is connected to The Base, a neo-Nazi extermist group. 

Before his arrest, another leader of The Base had reportedly hatched a plan to purchase property to establish a fortified compound in the Upper Peninsula, which he described as a virtual “white-ethnostate,” given it’s lack of diversity. 

And in January, a Calumet man with a history of racist online commentary was charged by federal prosecutors for his alleged role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

But the Patriot Front sticker campaign at Michigan Tech “is not just an Upper Peninsula thing, not just a Michigan thing and not even just a U.S. thing,” said Normandin, of the ADL. “White supremacist propaganda has gotten a foothold all over the world. This is not going away.”

In addition to the Patriot Front and The Base, the ADL has tracked activity in Michigan by other hate groups like the Proud Boys and Atomwaffen, a neo-Nazi organization that emerged in 2016, Normandin said.

Propaganda is an inexpensive way for them to cause controversy and generate media attention, which is often their goal, she told Bridge. 

But she argued, exposing the activity can serve as an important deterrent, especially if local leaders “stand up and remind people this is not reflective” of their broader community.

“This doesn’t mean that Michigan Tech or any other college campus is a bastion for white supremacy,” she said. “Most of the time these are not students that are doing this. They’re going onto campus and co-opting the campus.”

Local authorities began investigating Patriot Front propaganda last year after an initial round of stickers which have recently “resurfaced,” Michigan Tech Police Chief Brian Cadwell told Bridge. 

If the stickers damaged any property, that could be grounds for criminal charges, Cadwell said. But “the bigger concern is it is a supremacist group, and we want to make sure we try to identify who is behind it.”

Michigan Tech’s Department of Public Safety removes any material that violates university posting policies, said spokesperson Stefanie Sidortsova. “These items are then held for evidence as part of an investigation into who distributed them.”

Authorities have reviewed security camera footage and last year interviewed some people as part of the initial case, said Houghton Police Chief John Donnelly, who noted he has communicated with state police and the FBI.

“We want to try to work with everybody to get that stuff stomped out as quickly as we can,” Donnelly said.

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