"No Place Here": What Happened When Neo-Nazism Burst Our Campus Bubble
One day at the end of this past semester, I was sitting in a crowded practice room in our music building. I watched, absolutely in awe, at my peers who were performing original musical scenes they had choreographed, written, scored, and produced themselves for one of the semester’s most talked about classes - the Hamilton class. As each group performed their pieces, all inspired by poignant moments in history, I felt at ease. Maybe it was the artistry so joyfully performed, or the fact that within a week, I’d be resting at home for Winter Break.
That sense of peace was hard-earned, because earlier that fall our campus had collectively experienced a month-long nightmare. Myself and many others were terrified that our school would be the next site of a violent attack. For many days we walked around in a haze of sleep deprivation and low-flying paranoia.
The generalities of what happened on our campus have been reported on elsewhere, but since many news outlets didn’t (or couldn’t) provide a fuller version of the story, I’ll offer you a timeline as I can best recollect it. My account will be biased, and it will not be complete.
On Sunday, October 27, 2018, a terrorist gunned town 11 people attending a morning worship service at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, PA. The following Monday, our small campus held a candlelight vigil around the flagpole to honor the victims and to show support to our Jewish friends and peers. Around 250 students and community members attended the outdoor vigil.
The next morning, on October 30, hateful, anti-Semitic speech was discovered written on a whiteboard in one of our science buildings. The text read, “Hitler did nothing wrong”. Our campus was shocked and saddened, but many of us chalked the act up as simply a hateful prank. Many of us (read: non-Jewish students), moved forward.
However, on November 7, the Carolina Worker’s Collective, a far-left, grass-roots organization, uncovered and disseminated via Twitter two social media accounts created under fake names. These accounts were filled with virulent racist and anti-Semitic posts. In their Twitter thread, the Collective exposed the two individuals who owned and were operating the hate account. You can view their archived accounts here and here.
These were two of our peers. Martha Gerdes and James MacLeod. Through their fake accounts, they, among many other things, unironically called for the killing of Jewish people, wrote reverently of the Ku Klux Klan, and in the case of James, admitted to being present at the infamous Unite the Right riot in Charlottesville, Virginia where one woman was killed and several others injured.
I remember the night the news of Martha and James started to spread. I had just come home from work at the church nursery. My homework load was light that week, so I had decided to rent a movie on YouTube and give myself a break. About halfway through the film, my best friend and roommate knocked on my door. She asked me if I had heard about Martha.
We sat down together and looked through the tweets, as they had been posted to our class Facebook page. It felt darkly surreal, like an episode of Black Mirror, as we went through and read everything. We were so confused - how could a student like her become so hate-filled?
You have to understand - Martha came into Davidson with a far-left ideology. She mostly kept to herself, but she lived on the same floor as several of my friends during our first year, and so they had several interactions with her. She advocated passionately for organizations like Planned Parenthood on her Facebook page, and even identified as a queer person - one of the many identities she would come to hate.
The next day, Thursday Nov. 8th, I went to my weekly seminar in the Library. By this point, people were beginning to feel anxious. The only communication we had received about the hate-accounts came from our Student Body President. To that point, the administration was silent.
Our seminar met in the study room in the middle of the library. Before class started, I asked a friend of mine who identifies as Jewish how they were doing in the wake of these three frightening events. They said they hadn’t been able to sleep or concentrate. They hoped that our three hour seminar might be able to end early.
When our professor walked into the room, she sat down and gave us the chance to voice our feelings about the events of the past week. Many of us were angry at the administration for not providing any information. Most of us were tired, having been up all night trying to glean any bits of information we could about our estranged peers. Then one student asked if any of us had seen what was written on a board in the library a few days prior.
He said someone had found a schematic on how to plan a school shooting on a whiteboard in the library. Martha and James were members of the ROTC, and had access to firearms. I can’t describe how vulnerable I felt in that moment.
Later that day, the college President broke the administration’s silence, writing in a campus-wide email,
To be completely honest, none of us believed them. How could they say there were “no credible threats” to our campus? Had they not been made aware of the schematics?
I couldn’t concentrate to save my life for the rest of that week. I live in a thin-walled apartment on the party side of campus, so I’m used to hearing loud noises and people yelling. But during those days, I jumped out of my skin every time I heard a loud voice, or a popping noise, or my God, the sound of a siren. My friends and I wrote an email to the President, asking for more information. We made an escape plan together. We updated each other constantly on our location. When we couldn’t say any more, we sat on our couch together in heavy silence. Is this what it felt like to prepare for the worst?
On Thursday night, the Dean of Students made themself available for an hour-long briefing on the incidents. I went on behalf of my apartment mates. Here’s what I scribbled on my notepad:
The students are not on campus anymore - but one of them lives 2 miles away, so what if she comes back?
They have not been expelled
The ROTC has denied the allegations regarding James MacLeod
They were allowed 30 minutes ALONE?? to gather their things before they were escorted out
During those 30 minutes, an RA was stationed ALONE on their hall - Without knowledge! of the situation. So basically if either one of them had a weapon, he would have been in danger.
The college has sanctioned a heightened security presence for the next few days
A “third party” is investigating - FBI?
The college safety messaging system was not deployed - Dean said it was “their bad”
My campus handled this situation horribly. They reacted sluggishly, and left it up to dedicated students to piece together fact from rumor. Most professors and staff weren’t even made aware of what was happening, leaving distraught students to fill them in during class time. I had to explain it to my Russian professor, who only knew about the “Hitler did nothing wrong” incident. While we all walked around our open campus, afraid that anyone might be carrying a loaded gun, our administration failed us.
The following week, the library writing was debunked. A professor wrote,
Unfortunately, no light has been shed on the original writing on the whiteboard. Nor has the college released any new information on their next steps to ensure security, or whether or not the students in question will be expelled.
It took me a while to feel safe and comfortable again. When I heard the familiar sounds of partying that weekend, I felt angry. I kept thinking to myself, “How can people act like nothing’s wrong?”.
I realize people have their own means of coping. Mine was listening to my playlists of London Grammar and Fleet Foxes on repeat. But the question has stuck with me - how do we proceed in the face of hatred and willful ignorance? What happened on my campus is not exceptional. That same month, Neo-Nazi propaganda was found at Duke University. Earlier in the year, anti-Semitic posters were put up around Drake University’s campus. This stuff isn’t new. And to dismiss it as unserious is to dismiss the very real violence that this sort of rhetoric had bred and continues to breed in this country. This isn’t an issue of free speech. It’s not that black and white, and in all truthfulness, I don’t know what should be done about it.
But, college administrators - keep a vigilant eye on your campuses. Don’t let rumors swell to the size we experienced. Listen to your students when they warn you of a problem, and don’t ever keep the people you’re in charge of in the dark.
I hope your campus bubbles of comfort and safety never burst, but if they do, do better than we did.