By Heather Fabritze
Washington College administration, faculty, and staff are spearheading an inclusion-based initiative to combat concern over stickers found on the campus perimeter promoting the beliefs of a white nationalist organization.
Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Aaron Krochmal first discovered the stickers this past summer on the morning of Thursday, July 13. The ads that he found read “Join the National Justice Party,” with some asserting that becoming a member would “save America.”
Familiar with the extremist values of the organization, Dr. Krochmal removed the dozens of stickers that he came across.
That same day he sent a mass email to those that he considered to be authority figures on campus — the President’s cabinet, center directors, Student Affairs, and many others – alerting them to the dangers of the National Justice Party and providing them resources to learn more about the group.
One resource that he sent, the Southern Poverty Law Center, classifies the party as a white national organization associated with the neo-Nazi blog The Right Stuff. Their platform theorizes that white citizens are being systematically and “deliberately eliminated” in the United States.
According to Dr. Krochmal, they are not a registered political party. Their specialty is destabilizing smaller communities like those found in Kent County by presenting themselves as a formal, legitimate organization.
Spreading hate through propaganda and online communities like YikYak is a common motif of theirs, as well.
An hour after Dr. Krochmal sent his email on July 13, President of the College Dr. Michael Sosulski responded with assurances that the issue would be addressed and reported to the Chestertown Police Department.
CPD Chief Ronald Dixon said that measures have already been taken against the ads, including on-going canvassing for other propaganda related to the group; steady communication with WC’s Department of Public Safety regarding the review of security camera footage; and educating the police force on the organization’s beliefs and mission.
According to Dixon, any member of the group who is caught will be charged with malicious destruction of property or vandalism at a minimum.
Stickers have continued to pop up on the campus perimeter and downtown. Dr. Krochmal said that they have become more “pointed” and intense over time, transitioning to phrases like “White solidarity protects America,” “defund the FBI,” and anti-Semetic caricatures.
“This is on-brand for white nationalist groups, alt-right groups where the messaging starts sort of tame, and then it gets a little more biting, and then this turns into a public presence of speech, and then it turns into a public presence of violence,” Dr. Krochmal said.
While Dr. Krochmal does not believe that any physical harm will be brought to students, he felt that it was important the College had plans in place in case of violent outcomes. Associate Provost for Diversity & Inclusion, Senior Equity Officer, and Professor of English and American Studies Dr. Alisha Knight agreed, and presented the issue at a faculty meeting on Sept. 11.
Her goal is to respond to the situation with intention and without being reactive. She wants to find ways to counter propaganda that will be “effective” and “sincere” without appearing like “lip service to inclusivity and belonging.”
“When we react — and we have a history, I think, of reacting — it doesn’t end well for us,” Dr. Knight said. “The issue isn’t resolved. It becomes a bitterness that lingers on campus, even as people are not talking about it…when we tend to react we often do so from a place of just not having enough information and being very short sighted in the impact our reaction has on the campus community.”
Part of this mission involves educating faculty on how to have discussions about dangerous situations like this in classrooms without panicking. This education also involves finding a balance between honoring academic spaces and protecting students.
According to Dr. Knight, an initiative titled “We All Belong” is currently underway in response to the fears surrounding the National Justice Party. WC administration, staff, and faculty hope to hang stickers with this phrase around campus, downtown, and stores in the local Chestertown community.
Dr. Knight said that the sticker was designed to counter one visual image with another — trading a hateful message for one that is more positive, embodying the values that the institution embraces.
“It’s not just saying we all belong, but then following up to invite people to think about what that means for them, to ask them what they would like to see to know for sure that they all belong,” Dr. Knight. “I also see it as not only a declaration, but an invitation for people to let us know what else we need to do to ensure that sentiment is understood and experienced here.”
Ensuring that students understood their belonging at WC was Dr. Krochmal’s greatest concern when he first saw the propaganda stickers. As the advisor for WC’s Hillel House, he was overcome with fear for the wellbeing of his students if the group’s presence persisted.
“I think in the medium and long term, what happens for the community as I define it is that there is an underlying feeling of not being welcome and not being whole,” Dr. Krochmal said.
“You cannot exist safely in an environment where you want to call home.”
He said that the community needs to educate and plan for situations where institutional values may be challenged. If it is not the National Justice Party, it “will be someone else.”
“Students should be aware, one, that there are folks around who are voicing these ideas, but that their voice and their influence, both on campus and in the community, are far more powerful than they know — and particularly in unified, educated numbers,” Dr. Krochmal said. “I wouldn’t want them to feel powerless in a situation that is fundamentally scary.”
In addition to the “We All Belong” initiative, Dr. Knight said that Dr. Sosulski tasked the Emergency Operations Group with creating a plan in the rare case that the organization continues to grow more active.