"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.

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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,

Friends,

The last 24 hours have been stressful for all of us because of the social media postings that emerged last evening. I want to thank you for the support you have offered each other and your faith in the strength of our community.

I know that you very much want information about what specifically is being done and has happened. We take this very, very seriously. The police are investigating. The two students named on social media are not on campus.

Rumors have been circulating on social media about firearms, external demonstrations and other threats to campus. There are no credible threats to the safety of our campus and as a private institution we are not obligated to permit external groups or individuals onto our property.

We do have an obligation, because of our values as an institution and federal law, to follow our own processes and procedures. These processes and procedures limit the amount of detail that we can provide you. What I can tell you is that your safety is our primary concern.

Last, I have attached below a message from Dean of Students XX that went to all students this morning, offering resources and opportunities should they feel the need to seek additional support.

Thank you,
X

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,

Dear colleagues,

We’ve all heard rumors that plans for a school shooting were found on a whiteboard in the library. As X noted last week, the whiteboard incident was investigated at the time and thought to be related to a course project. Nevertheless, students and faculty alike have been understandably concerned about campus safety—especially in light of credible reports of neo-Nazi activity among Davidson students.

I am writing with an update about the whiteboard school shooting rumors. Some of my students connected the dots and realized that it was indeed a group project—their own—that caused the rumors. It took a while to reach this conclusion, because the rumors had so distorted reality that the students themselves didn’t recognize their own work as the basis for the rumors. Please bear with me as I explain.

The students are in DIG 101: Introduction to Digital Studies. Students in DIG 101 spend several weeks learning about the spread and impact of internet conspiracy theories, including how online conspiracy theories can lead to ideological radicalization. As you can imagine, each new day provides fodder for class discussion.

The whiteboard in question contained a flowchart for a group project about conspiracy theories, specifically the tragic Parkland school shooting, which some internet conspiracy theorists claim never happened. The flowchart connected a variety of conspiracy elements (biased media, false flags, crisis actors, etc.) that sprung up in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. The flowchart contained no inflammatory statements or threats. It was diagnosing a problem.

After brainstorming on the whiteboard and doing other work, the group presented their project to DIG 101 in the form of a case study on October 26. In class students considered school shooting conspiracy theories from various perspectives. These perspectives included a parent who had lost a child in the shooting and social media executives whose platforms have helped the spread of conspiracy theories.

The students in this group designed the class study with incredible empathy toward with victims of school shootings and with enormous skepticism toward adherents of conspiracy theories. They are horrified that their own project about the dangers of internet conspiracies itself became the basis of a disturbing rumor. They never imagined their class project would contribute to a climate of fear on campus.

As I said, this project took place several weeks ago, well before the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. It simply was not on the students’ minds last week, which is why they didn’t realize at first it was their group project at the heart of these rumors. Quite literally, one of the students in the group—in a class discussion about the whiteboard and the possibility that it was trolling or part of a class project—said with all earnestness to the rest of the class, “who would be stupid enough to draw up plans for a school shooting as part of a class project?” It bears repeating: the rumors had so distorted the contents of the whiteboard that even students in the group did not recognize their work as the basis for the rumors.

I understand that some faculty or students will be upset at the students, or even me. The students did absolutely nothing wrong (except perhaps forgetting to wipe their whiteboard, a lesson that will forever be burned into their souls). This was a legitimate course project, tackling a real world problem. Their case study and ensuing class discussion were excellent. The way their project about conspiracy theories yielded its own toxic stream of misinformation ironically highlights the need for critical media literacy. I am so proud of these four students, and the combination of empathy and aplomb they’ve shown in the past few hours.

I imagine a more official statement will be forthcoming from the college. But I wanted to let everyone know as soon as I could that there is at least one terrible revelation over the past week we can now consider from a more contemplative perspective. Please share this update with your students if so moved. I know you will understand the need to keep my students’ names confidential. Some of them may disclose themselves to their friends or the campus community, while others do not wish to do so.

The college still faces many difficulties in the days and weeks to come, but I and my students are grateful for this community and its vision for a better world.

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.