December 17, 2016
SAN MARCOS, Texas – This time of year, students at Texas State University are usually consumed with final exams and the upcoming Christmas break, and not much else.
But lately they’ve been confronted by a slew of new distractions: menacing anti-diversity fliers, protests and counter-protests on campus, sit-ins outside the president’s office and a petition urging university leaders to act.
The university, located 30 miles south of Austin, has roiled with a litany of tense incidents since the Nov. 8 election of Donald Trump, an event some here say has let loose a climate of vocal protests and threats not seen in years. University officials empathize that no violent incidents have been reported. But things got so heated that University President Denise Trauth penned a 1,700-word open letter over the Thanksgiving break, assuring students they were safe on campus.
On Nov. 14, the body of popular student activist Travis Green, 22, was found in a campus stairwell, dead from an apparent suicide. Friends said Green, who was black and gay, hadn’t talked about the election or fliers and can’t attribute those events to his death. But his suicide deepened the pall on campus, said Russell Boyd II, 20, Green’s friend and co-founder of Black Lives Movement San Marcos.
“This campus has been on fire,” Boyd said. “It’s been very, very intense.”
The incidents began the day after the election, when fliers were taped to bathroom windows around campus, purportedly by pro-Trump “vigilante squads.”
“Now that our man Trump is elected and republicans own both the senate and the house — time to organize tar & feather VIGILANTE SQUADS and go arrest & torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this Diversity Garbage,” one of the fliers read. University police are investigating that incident.
Protests and counter-protests followed, with pro- and anti-Trump supporters facing off around campus. Then, new anonymous fliers appeared, urging students to report illegal immigrants to authorities. “We are entering a new era of law and order in this country,” it read. “Do your part to make such a change for the good!”
Nichole Black, 19, a freshman studying business, said several teachers discussed the fliers in class, asking students how they felt about them. “Everyone was just really confused why people would put up such hateful things like that,” she said.
Since the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has recorded 1,094 hate incidents, dozens of which occurred on university or college campuses. In Texas, campus incidents have ranged from white supremacist fliers at the University of Houston in mid-November to a black Baylor University sophomore who was shoved off a sidewalk and called a racial slur the day after the election.
Last week, Richard Spencer, the white nationalist credited for coining the term “alt-right,” held an event at Texas A&M University that drew dozens of counter-protesters.
The fliers and incidents point to attempts by the alt-right to migrate its hateful rhetoric from online chat rooms and websites to the virtual world of college campuses, said Ryan Lenz, of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“They’re noticing this as a moment to no longer hide,” he said. “They hope to recruit impressionable and misguided students into their world. It’s not a new trend, but it certainly seems to be intensifying.”
Trauth, in the Thanksgiving letter posted to the university’s website, said university officials “will not tolerate vile acts of aggression such as the vigilante posters” and would increase police presence on campus, as well as launch a series of town hall meetings to discuss the controversies.
That assurance wasn’t enough for Ben Swenson-Weiner, a 24-year-old grad student who said he felt threatened by the fliers and wanted to help the illegal immigrant students he knew around campus. Currently, many of those students are protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which Trump has threatened to terminate.
Swenson-Weiner started a petition to urge administrators to declare the university a “sanctuary campus” where illegal immigrant students can feel safe from attacks or expulsion. In two weeks, the petition has gained 1,200 signatures.
“I believe we’re all in this together,” he said. “It’s important for all of us to stick together whenever there are certain groups that feel disenfranchised.”
Responding to the Texas State petition, Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to cut off funding to any state university declaring itself a sanctuary campus. “Texas will not tolerate sanctuary campuses or cities,” he said in a tweet.
On Thursday, Swenson-Weiner met with Traught and other university officials, who said they won’t declare Texas State a sanctuary campus but did agree to other steps, including increasing diversity initiatives and teaming with student leaders to create a crowdfunding site to raise money for minority students in need. “It’s progress,” Swenson-Weiner said.
Hector Ramirez Vazquez, 20, a junior and student activist, said other Latino students around campus have been worried about the fliers and overall tense climate on campus since the election. They fear the incidents may intensify after Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.
One silver lining: Vazquez said he’s been pleased and surprised by how different minority groups – Latinos, blacks, the LGBTQ community – have come together in the wake of incidents.
“There is more solidarity and unification among different groups of people,” he said. “It’s good to see that, especially with how volatile politics is at the moment.”