The American Midwest’s struggle to fight white nationalism exposes the myth of the blue-red divide

A grassroots resistance is on the rise in the American midwest
A grassroots resistance is on the rise in the American midwest
Image: AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz
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In early February, students, faculty, and staff at Indiana University in Bloomington arrived on campus to find white supremacist flyers papering two buildings. The flyers bore black-and-white photographs of gothic European statuary and taglines that emphasized a coming restoration of white nationalism in the US: “Our destiny is ours” and “Protect your future.” They covered the doors of faculty of color and professors who taught about race and ethnicity in the US. This was a clue that the message was an inside job: the work of current students who know the campus and its professors; who may sit in the classrooms of the very people they threatened.

“I found that to be the creepiest thing,” one faculty member of color tagged that day told me. “The targeting. It felt like a violation of our space. Like the equal standing we all fight so hard to attain and maintain was shattered so easily.” Another friend, a tenured scholar, wrote: “I cried alone in my office … I felt fragile and vaguely threatened all day.”

The effort to deliver white supremacism to the very doorstep of its opponents goes far beyond Bloomington, a small town in southern Indiana. A group called “Identity Evropa” claimed responsibility for posting the same flyers at dozens of colleges and universities around the country on the same date. On Twitter, it said that the so-called “#ProjectSiege” was a part of its campaign to turn the tide against multiculturalism and immigration—and to ensure that “alt-right ideas are represented on college campuses.”

But for a nation lurching rightward, Bloomington, Indiana, is a bellwether. The current narrative of the blue-red divide in the US holds that big cities and college towns are oases of liberalism, hemmed in by conservative towns and rural areas where the economic troubles of the white working class have given rise to racism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry. In this formulation, Bloomington is a Democratic idyll, and those posters plastered on campus are unwanted imports from the surrounding sea of red. But the careful, coordinated targeting of faculty of color at Indiana University suggests otherwise. The truth is that white nationalism courses through every city, town, and county in the US—and so, too, does its burgeoning resistance.

Under former governor Mike Pence, Indiana became a laboratory for policies and initiatives that targeted women, LGBT people, and other minority populations. It was Pence who wanted to protect the rights of business owners to refuse service to same-sex couples. Pence who worked to close down Planned Parenthood, and whose ill-conceived refusal to pilot needle-exchange programs to combat the opioid epidemic led to an explosion of HIV. Pence who tried to launch a Soviet-style, state-run news agency. Unsurprisingly, the state presently lacks a hate crime law, which means the flyers posted on campus were not prosecutable. As Jeannine Bell, an IU law professor targeted in the papering incident, put it, “Even if someone burned a cross on my lawn, that wouldn’t have been a crime.”

Even before the posters, Bloomington was by no means exempt from these developments. Only a few years ago, English professor Don Belton—who was black and gay—was murdered by a young white man, a deeply confused and troubled Gulf War vet. (Like many others who teach and write in this area, Belton had an office on the upper floors of Ballantine). This past October, Bloomington high school students donned Confederate flags for capes in a flamboyant gesture of sympathy for the Trump campaign. And days after the election, vandals spray-painted “KKK” all over the ornate black lampposts on the local B-line trail, an artery for walkers and runners and bicyclists through the heart of the town. “Students of color,” a local high schooler wrote to me, “[feel] unsafe at my school and now on campus too. I’ve heard of multiple instances of racist and anti-Semitic vandalism in my school and elsewhere since the election.”

On the ground in Bloomington, people have to work hard every day to rally the troops. “There is deep love,” one local put it, “for humanity and community and justice.” Indiana University students organized a rally in support of the faculty in the aftermath of the flyers, and Lauren Robel, the university provost, issued a blanket condemnation of them, branding them as racist intimidation. In response to Trump, there have been teach-ins and marches and a rally at the local theater, the Buskirk-Chumley.

A broad constituency makes all of this possible. The day-to-day work of organizing for a better future includes longtime locals, Indiana University faculty members and students, and institutions including the university, the Monroe County chapter of the National Organization for Women, the local public library, elementary schools and high schools, pubs, coffee shops, and musical venues. None of this comes naturally. Thousands of people, she reminded me, are not easily drawn out into a Midwestern winter.

“The general mood now?” one Indiana University faculty member wrote to me: “Anger. Resolve. Determination.”

“Folks need to get involved on the ground where they live,” she continued, “and organize around issues that directly affect them. This is how a national movement will be born.”

Bloomington’s advocates for racial and social justice are a key part of the messy, complicated opposition movement that is gathering strength in the US. Much of the media coverage thus far has focused on protests and marches in large cities: hundreds of thousands of Women’s March participants assembled in broad urban avenues, or protestors of the immigration ban holding signs outside major international airports. Such large-scale protests doubtless demand coverage. But the media has not yet communicated how the resistance is shaking out in middle America, where so much of the country’s future will be determined.

Focusing primarily on how urbanites are responding to Trump only lends fuel to the administration’s argument that the coastal elites are out of touch with how “real” Americans in the heartland think. To disrupt this narrative, we need to document the struggle in those parts of the map all too often dismissed as “just” red, to reveal the myriad local and national movements for social justice in the age of Trump.

Last Saturday morning, I wrote to one of the co-founders of the grassroots organization Btown Justice to ask what she was doing over the weekend. “ICE was here harassing folks last weekend at local Mexican restaurants,” she wrote. “Last night, police were out pestering Latinos on the street. This Tuesday, the state legislature is going to vote to pass legislation forcing schools to turn over student info. We’re prepping for that with phone calls and a demo in Indy.”

“The work is hard and never ends,” she concluded. And the struggle is everywhere, all at once.