SALT LAKE CITY — When he first saw the flyers taped near the entrance of the University of Utah art building, all Mohan Sudabattula could make out was the bright red, white and blue lettering.
When he got closer, he saw the slogan, “NOT STOLEN, CONQUERED” encircling a map of the United States.
“My gut immediately sank a bit because of the spin it was taking on American history,” Sudabattula said.
The University of Utah senior quickly took the flyers down. When he later visited the website printed at the bottom of the flyers, he realized they were the work of white supremacist group Patriot Front, a national organization based in Texas whose motto is "Reclaim America."
“The posters were done in a really strategic way so that not much could be done about them,” said Sudabattula, 23, who grew up in West Jordan. “The messages weren't directly inciting violence against a particular person or minority group, but they were promoting a problematic ideology that could lead to something really dangerous against people of color.”
Both in Utah and across the United States, white supremacist propaganda efforts are on the rise. According to a March report from the Anti-Defamation League, instances of white supremacist propaganda in the U.S. increased by 182 percent from 2017 to 2018. Propaganda comprises flyers, stickers, banners and posters, as well as graffiti if it promotes a particular group. An "instance of propaganda" is defined as the distribution of propaganda in a particular location, so "propaganda all over campus" or "all over a particular geographical area" counts as one incident, said Carla Hill, a senior investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.
While the majority of these cases occurred in locations other than college campuses, white supremacist groups have also ramped up their dissemination of flyers, posters and banners on college campuses nationwide. In 2017, there were 129 instances of white supremacist propaganda on college campuses, which shot up to 421 instances in 2018, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Recent high-profile white supremacist propaganda campaigns have taken place at college campuses across the country, including the University of California, San Diego; Southern Methodist University; University of Texas at Austin; University of Florida; University of Virginia; University of Maryland; Duke University; North Carolina State University; Tufts University; University of Delaware; and the University of Denver.
“These groups take these messages to college campuses where they feel the voice of the right is not represented,” Hill said. “They feel they need to inject their opinion into the college scene.”
But, Hill pointed out, these groups aren’t promoting conservatism, but rather “right wing nationalism” and a “white ethno state.”
The Anti-Defamation League defines white supremacy as a belief system encompassing several ideologies: "1) whites should have dominance over people of other backgrounds, especially where they may co-exist; 2) whites should live by themselves in a whites-only society; 3) white people have their own 'culture' that is superior to other cultures; 4) white people are genetically superior to other people."
The latest instance of a white supremacist terror attack took place on Friday, when a white supremacist killed at least 49 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. According to the Associated Press, on his Facebook page, the killer shared a 74-page white supremacist manifesto that named his "white nationalist heroes" and depicted hatred toward Muslims and immigrants. The guns he used were also covered in white supremacist graffiti.
The amount of white supremacist propaganda distributed in Utah grew by almost 500 percent from 2017 to 2018, Hill said. According to data compiled by the Anti-Defamation League, there were only five instances of white supremacist propaganda in Utah in all of 2017. In 2018, that number rose to 24, with 13 of those instances on five Utah college campuses — the University of Utah, Utah State University, Salt Lake City Community College, Weber State University and Utah Valley University.
Already, there have been 10 instances of white supremacist propaganda in Utah in 2019, Hill said, six of which occurred on college campuses.
“In a lot of ways, what’s happening in Utah is indicative of the trends we’re seeing across the country” in regard to white supremacist activity, said Keegan Hankes, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
What is happening in Utah, and what does it reveal about what’s happening nationally?
A focus on urban areas
Twenty-three out of 29 instances of white supremacist propaganda in Utah from 2017 to 2018 took place in Salt Lake City, which reflects a national trend.
“The alt-right is predominantly active in large metropolitan areas,” Hill said. This differs from what people might expect when they think about white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which has a “more rural demographic,” she added.
Richard Medina, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Utah who published a 2018 study with graduate student Emily Nicolosi on the geography of hate groups, said, “The sentiment that it’s kind of uneducated, rural, non-diverse groups driving the hate isn’t the case. If these groups really want to drive policy and integrate themselves in society, they have to have more campaigns in urban areas.”
Nationwide, the number of hate groups — defined as those that “have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics” — has been increasing. In 2017, there were 954 hate groups, and in 2018 that number rose to 1,020, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
This trend is also visible in Utah. In 2017, there were just three hate groups active in Utah, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map. In 2018, that number tripled to nine.
Medina said he thinks white supremacist groups in the Mountain Region are focusing on Salt Lake City because “it seems to be the big city that’s driving a lot of the cultural change in this region. We have a big university, an increasing population, and the Silicon Slopes.”
“Salt Lake is leaning culturally more towards a West Coast culture” and many think it could become the next Silicon Valley, he added.
A changing demographic
Utah's fast-growing and increasingly culturally, ethnically and racially diverse population has sparked both excitement and concern as residents face changes.
Although Medina's study found that across all U.S. regions, a lack of population change and ethnic diversity was correlated with a higher number of hate groups, it also takes people time to adjust to demographic changes, Medina said.
“The rise in organized hate, hate crimes and hate violence isn’t randomly occurring,” Medina said. “I think there’s more hate today, and some of that’s due to rhetoric, some due to policy, some due to poverty and some of it’s due to diversity.”
The fight against diversity and demographic change is a linchpin in the ideology of white supremacist groups nationwide, said Pete Simi, an associate professor of sociology and director of the Earl Babbie Research Center at Chapman University and author of the 2010 book "American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate."
“One of the big things they care about is demographic change and the idea that whites are becoming a minority,” Simi said.
He believes President Donald Trump has stoked this fear by saying, among other things, that immigrants would “pour into and infest our country.” Much of this language has been appropriated by white supremacist groups.
For example, on Feb. 9, members of white supremacist group Identity Evropa, which describes itself as an "identitarian group," climbed to the block “U” at the top of the University of Utah campus and displayed a banner that read “End Immigration.” They also hiked Ensign Peak with a banner reading “Make America Beautiful Again,” and went to This Is the Place monument with a banner that read “Defend the Rockies. End immigration.”
Identity Evropa’s February campaign at the University of Utah came just weeks after University President Ruth Watkins released a statement on Jan. 26 condemning previous propaganda efforts by Identity Evropa and Patriot Front on campus.
“These cowardly, faceless and non-university sanctioned tactics are designed to disrupt and frighten individuals and communities, and to garner attention for an insidious ideology that has no place on our campus or in our community. ... At the University of Utah, we value free speech and the diversity of ideas, but we also have an ethical obligation to call out hateful speech when we see it,” Watkins said in the statement.
Virginia-based Identity Evropa, which recently rebranded itself as the American Identity Movement, and Texas-based Patriot Front are the most active alt-right groups in Utah, followed by neo-Nazi group The Daily Stormer, Hill said.
The American Identity Movement and Patriot Front are also the first and second most active white supremacist groups nationwide.
However, both groups are relatively new, and neither existed in Utah before 2018, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map. Patriot Front splintered off from another white nationalist group, Vanguard America, after the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which a man seen marching with Vanguard America killed counterprotester Heather Heyer. Identity Evropa was founded in 2016 and is currently mired in a lawsuit for its involvement in the rally. The group was consequently shut down in March 2019 and replaced with the American Identity Movement.
These rebranding efforts are part of a marketing strategy to attract new members and make the white supremacist agenda more palatable, Simi said.
“They want to tap into mainstream concerns and present themselves as mainstream so they can create certain images that might be more appealing,” Simi said.
This extends to the level of appearance. Identity Evropa and Patriot Front have disavowed the tattoos and clothing style of other white supremacist groups, and many members are well-dressed and college-educated, which helps explain their recruitment and propaganda efforts on campuses.
“If you don’t have long hair or tattoos, if you have a college degree and become a police officer or lawyer or doctor, if you appear in khakis and a polo shirt, people are more receptive,” Simi said.
This strategy is also reflected in their marketing materials, which often don't come across as overtly racist. But both Identity Evropa and Patriot Front’s college campaigns have raised questions about the limits of free speech and how universities should deal with their propaganda.
Simi, Medina and Sudabattula all emphasized the importance of civic discourse and the exchange of ideas on campuses, as long as the discourse does not present a direct threat to or incite violence against any person or group.
“College campuses have an obligation to protect the safety of their students,” Simi said. “However, avoiding this topic altogether is a huge mistake. The idea of not having a dialogue at all is allowing for the perpetuation of the problem.”
“We live in a very polarized world where people thrive on hate because we only talk to each other using the most aggressive means,” Sudabattula said. “We're not used to participating in civil discourse that's constructive in trying to understand others' perspectives.”
He added that there is also "a line between civil discourse and harmful rhetoric."91 comments on this story
Sudabattula said that ultimately it's not the administration's responsibility to respond to the propaganda — “because of how cleverly worded these posters are, the university can't do much about them” — but said it is their responsibility to “enable and empower students to get the resources and tools we need to create a solution.”
“For example, they could give students permission to put up posters as a counterprotest to their posters, or help us facilitate professional events where we can bring in experts and other members of academia to talk about hateful rhetoric and how we can combat it,” he said. “The students need to come together and denounce these actions and show that we won't stand for this.”