White nationalist group, seeking young recruits, targets college campuses

Racist graffiti appeared last month on the campus at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan.
Racist graffiti appeared last month on the campus at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan. Courtesy of Bethany College

The words, scrawled in chalk on the sidewalk, were jarring enough: “Make Lindsborg white again.”

But the outline of a body drawn to simulate a crime scene victim and the phrase “rest in peace my friend” made the image all the more disturbing for those who came across the racially charged display on the Bethany College campus.

The display was the work of Gabriel Wilson, 19, of nearby Assaria, Kan., who is affiliated with a new white nationalist group called Identity Europa. A Twitter address for the organization also was written on the sidewalk.

The September incident in the Kansas college town of 3,500, affectionately known as Little Sweden USA, is evidence of a trend that’s developing across the country, say those who monitor extremist groups. A surge is underway in the white nationalist movement, and many of the newest adherents are young adults. And that makes college campuses a prime recruitment venue.

Identity Europa’s founder says its “activists” have been to more than two dozen colleges, including Ohio State University, Oregon State University, Southern Methodist University, St. Louis University, UCLA and the University of Texas.

“The Identity Europa group showing up in Lindsborg, Kansas — a small town in the middle of the state — is symptomatic of an across-the-board rapid growth in the white nationalist movement,” said Leonard Zeskind, president of the Kansas City-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.

“There’s a growth at levels we have not seen since before (Barack) Obama was elected. Identity Europa is part of a big change. To be uninformed about this is to let it walk across the stage and gain power.”

News of the Bethany College incident began circulating Sept. 16 when president William Jones wrote about it on his Facebook page. Over the Labor Day weekend, he said, three to five people “claiming to be associated with a hateful organization wrote racially offensive messages with chalk on a few of the Bethany College campus sidewalks.”

Jones wrote that a few days later, a man who was neither a student nor a Lindsborg resident called and said he and four others were responsible.

“He stated that the chalk messages were written in response to the makeup of my family (I have two adopted, biracial children), to some of the things that have been written and posted online and in the press about my work at the college, and in response to the students of color that Bethany College is recruiting,” Jones said.

Jones said the man called a second time and threatened to use his movement to shut down the college. He said the man hoped to persuade others to stop donating to the university.

Jones requested prayers for his family and the perpetrators and asked that people “challenge racism wherever you encounter it.”

His post was shared more than 1,100 times and prompted an outpouring of support from friends, students and alumni. Many described the incident as troubling; some called it a terroristic threat.

McPherson County Attorney Torrance Parkins said he would not file charges in the incident because no crime had been committed under Kansas law.

“The content of those messages does not reflect the values of McPherson County,” Parkins said.

He added, however, that the First Amendment protects free speech and expression except in limited circumstances.

“The state must exercise extreme caution in criminalizing speech or expression,” he said, “even and especially when the content of that expression is disgraceful.”

Jones and other college officials declined to reveal the name of those responsible, saying they didn’t want to give them any publicity. But word quickly spread on social media. And last week, Wilson told reporters that he was the one behind the incident. He apologized but refused to answer further questions.

Wilson has stopped talking now, and his Facebook page, which had contained references to Identity Europa, has been taken down and resurrected under a different name — but with some of the racially charged posts removed.

A report last week by KHI News Service said Wilson had been working to insert himself into Kansas politics, attending Libertarian Party meetings and volunteering on some Republican candidates’ election campaigns. He also was a paid consultant for a Republican state insurance commissioner candidate in 2014.

Those who had been involved with Wilson are now distancing themselves from him, saying they were not aware of his white nationalist ties.

‘Awakened Europeans’

Identity Europa, based in California, describes itself as “a generation of awakened Europeans who have discovered that we are part of the great peoples, history, and civilization that flowed from the European continent.”

The organization, which also goes by Identity Evropa, says on its website that it opposes “those who would defame our history and rich cultural heritage.”

“In a time when every other people are asserting their identity,” it says, “without action, we will have no chance to resist our dispossession.”

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Identity Europa followers put up fliers in cities around the country, including Topeka and Kansas City. The fliers contained slogans such as “Our Destiny is Ours” and “Protect Your Heritage.” And the group recently launched what it calls “Project Siege,” visiting college campuses in “the beginning of a long-term cultural war of attrition against the academia’s Cultural Marxist narrative...”

Identity Europa has been receiving high marks from some prominent white nationalist groups and the alternative right, or “alt-right,” movement.

The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, praised the organization in a post last year: “This is something we have needed for a long time, and I think that we are on the verge of something very real here.”

Paul Ramsey, an “alt-right” video blogger who goes by “Ramzpaul” online, posted a video on his site in which he described a meeting with Wilson and others in Kansas earlier this year. In the video — which in the past week has been taken down — Ramsey encouraged people to form similar groups.

“The meet-up I had, it was just wonderful,” he said, adding that “they’re all young; everyone was under 30.”

“They’re just so normal and they’re intelligent and they’re attractive,” Ramsey said. “They’re not these fat freaks with purple hair. This is what we want in our country, is what it represents. What I want to do, and I’d like to see this spread across the country, is that we start meeting and understand we’re not alone.”

At a May conference of American Renaissance, a website that promotes the white nationalist ideology, Ramsey spoke about the rise of the “alt-right.”

“The alt-right is young, it’s brass, it’s offensive, but it’s also effective, and that’s what makes it amazing in my opinion,” he said. “I admire the youth and the energy.”

Then he talked about Wilson, saying the two had planned to meet at a pub in Tulsa, Okla. But when Wilson and his girlfriend arrived, Ramsey said, they couldn’t come inside because they were underage.

“They’re so hard-core, and they’re so energetic,” he said. “So I went out and I met them, and they invited me to Kansas, they were having an alt-right meetup. He just took the initiative … to do this sort of thing.”

Zeskind said the explosion of Identity Europa and other white nationalist groups is occurring after years of stagnation in the movement.

“During the (earlier) Obama years, they did not grow,” he said. “They were place-keeping; they didn’t have a strategy to deal with the situation.”

That changed, he said, after the 2015 shooting rampage at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., that left nine dead.

“White nationalists, who had for years suffered from a lack of strategy, started to find a strategy,” he said. That strategy, he said, centered on the Confederate flag. After the shootings, there was a strong push to remove the flag from buildings and other historic sites across the South, including the South Carolina state capitol grounds.

“They found a common denominator in the Confederate flag,” Zeskind said. “... The Confederate flag battle gave a new focus and intensity to white nationalists of every stripe.”

With flag rallies being held throughout the South, he said, “there suddenly were a lot of ordinary white people talking about their whiteness.”

“And everything started to grow.”

In Lindsborg, Bethany College officials say they hope the exposure of the incident on their campus will help reverse the trend and thwart similar incidents from occurring elsewhere.

“The community has put out a strong message that this isn’t something that they’re going to tolerate,” said college spokeswoman Tina Goodwin. “This does not represent who we are.”

Judy L. Thomas: 816-234-4334, @judylthomas

Related stories from Kansas City Star