One morning last April, Cole Jones woke up, his phone buzzing. Text messages and voicemails all told him the same thing: Don’t come to school today.
Jones, a Ph.D. student at the University of Houston’s Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department, took their advice, staying away from campus. And it was probably for the best, seeing as the school grounds had been plastered overnight with a series of flyers from the Houston-based “Screwston Antifascist Committee,” accusing Jones of being a white supremacist.
“Cole is deeply networked into Neo Nazi social circles online and in real life,” the flyers read. “This person’s presence on our campus is a danger to every person he may encounter who is not a straight white man, or who does not align with his racist, misogynist ideology.”
The flyers, with photos of Jones culled from his social media accounts and elsewhere, went on to list the names of Jones’ girlfriend, mother, and grandmother — and pointed out that Jones, as he confirmed to ThinkProgress, had been working as a teacher’s assistant at UH.
Jones denied the accusations of being a neo-Nazi to ThinkProgress, and later wrote that he had no “hate in [his] heart.” University of Houston spokesperson Mike Rosen confirmed to ThinkProgress that the flyers had indeed been posted on campus.
In one of the photos posted, “Screwston Antifa” said Jones, with his long hair visible behind his bandanna, posed alongside two dozen other men hoisting a sign pointing to the website for a white supremacist, anti-Semitic organization known as “Patriot Front.”
“I actually had kind of ceased interaction with the people in that group probably five months before these [University of Houston] posters came about,” Jones told ThinkProgress. “Actually, my reason for starting to distance myself in the first place was because I could feel the political climate and country, especially after Charlottesville, getting more intense.” (Jones later told ThinkProgress via email that he could not “confirm the photo due to its nature, but can say I was acquainted with members of that organization who periodically invited me to meetups of which a few I attended.”)
Given the fact that the posters went up months after last year’s violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, their appearance was a surprise. But they pointed to a tactic increasingly being used in the campaign against white supremacist organizations, and against the so-called “alt-right” writ large: publicly outing the participants in these fascistic, white supremacist groups, and letting them deal with the consequences at their jobs, or at their universities.
And as the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville violence approaches — especially given that last year’s organizers are planning a reprise of their protest — a key question remains: Does the tactic work?
“In terms of knowing whether it’s effective or not, you never know,” Mark Pitcavage, a senior researcher with the Anti-Defamation League, told ThinkProgress when asked about publicly outing young white supremacists. “It’s impossible to know what effect that may have on others, because if it were successful, then those others are not becoming public, and you don’t even learn about them, right?”
There have been no surveys on the topic, or even any real testimonials about potentially sympathetic white supremacists being dissuaded from supporting groups like “Patriot Front” because of a fear of being outed.
But there is some anecdotal evidence that can at least point in the right direction. Take Charlottesville, for instance. While last year’s event saw a surge in participants eager to join the fascistic fracas of the “Unite the Right” rally, this year’s anniversary event hasn’t seen any comparable momentum. If anything, potential supporters have largely steered clear of associating with anything marking the anniversary.
“Only over the course of the past year or so, the alt-right as a whole has been confronted in a significant way with that possibility [of being outed]… There were a lot more alt-right people coming out for public events before Charlottesville as opposed to after Charlottesville,” Pitcavage said. “I don’t want to make too much of that… but certainly in terms of the alt-right organizing big things, being able to get those kinds of numbers,” that time has passed.
A member of “Screwston Antifa” who spoke with ThinkProgress agreed with the assessment. “I think one important thing is we definitely focus more on people who are on the fringes of this stuff, who are more in mainstream society, like who are on campus,” said the member, who agreed to comment on the condition of anonymity. “We focus on those people more than the leader in these groups because it’s a way to dissuade potential members, or people who are dabbling in it, people who might show up just to check it out.”
Of course, the decline in public turnout may simply be due to the fact that many of last year’s primary organizers — Jason Kessler, Richard Spencer, Matthew Heimbach — will be facing trial for allegedly conspiring to commit racist, anti-Semitic violence.
Which points to another issue of publicly outing white supremacists: Even if numbers are dwindling at public events, identifying specific reasons for their absence is a difficult task. And just because they’re not showing up publicly doesn’t mean they’re not retreating to the online communities that initially brought so many of them together.
Even if it remains unclear how these outings — and subsequent firings — may have directly impacted the ranks of white supremacists and their neo-fascist cohorts, that doesn’t mean attempts to get these individuals fired have ceased.
Not only were participants in Charlottesville canned time and again after their identities became known — from hot dog shops, burrito spots, pizzerias — but just this week, ProPublica identified an employee of Northrop Grumman who participated in last year’s violence. Michael Miselis was filmed beating an African American counter-protester, and was identified as a member of a racist southern California group known as the “Rise Above Movement.”
A day after the report came out, Northrup Grummon announced that Miselis was no longer working at the company.
Teaching no more
For Jones, the University of Houston Ph.D. student, the public outings post-Charlottesville went too far. “[There was] an absolute witch-hunt going on afterwards, labeling publicly, I think, mostly normal people [as] literal Nazi, fascist, hateful racists,” he told ThinkProgress. “These people did not know what they were getting into, the majority of them at least, and then all of a sudden they were plastered everywhere.”
Jones added that if the Charlottesville rally — which he said was full of mostly “moderate-leaning right-wingers” — had been closer to Houston, he “might have gone.”
Now, though, Jones says he has put public displays of his politics on the back-burner, especially when comes to anything on campus. “I think a lot of people had the same kind of realization: You need to think twice before publicly being anything political,” he said.
Of course, the reason Jones was initially targeted was because he was photographed alongside members of one of the fascistic groups that have sprouted over the past few years.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, “Patriot Front is a white supremacist group… [that] espouses racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance under the guise of preserving the ‘ethnic and cultural origins’ of their European ancestors.”
As Jones wrote online, “I will say that white nationalists have taken a liking to me, and I have no qualms with treating them like human beings or even befriending them.”
Jones disavowed some of Patriot Front’s more extreme stances. (“I bought a couple of the shirts on Amazon, mainly just because I liked the shirts,” he told ThinkProgress.) Nevertheless, he was still working as a teaching assistant during the same period that he was showing up in pictures with a Patriot Front cohort. And it’s only thanks to the publicity that Jones has decided to stop working as a TA — a decision he said he made on his own.
“I decided just to step down for next semester,” he said. “If I really did have hate in my heart, this experience would have nurtured it.”