On November 22, 2017, Joel Valdez and Blair Nelson, two members of Turning Point USA (TPUSA) and both students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), joined Gavin McInnes on his program, “Get Off My Lawn.” The young “conservatives” excitedly promoted their appearance on his show earlier in the week. McInnes, who is founder of the Proud Boys, has been thoroughly investigated by the Southern Poverty Law Center and describes himself as a “Western Chauvinist.” He has become a leader in the “civic nationalist” contingent encircling the “alt-right.” McInnis interviewed Valdez and Nelson about their encounter with a fellow student on campus on November 16, asking Nelson, “Why did you not punch him in the face?”
TPUSA, famous for its aggressive tactics against leftist professors across US campuses, was founded in 2012 by a disgruntled Charlie Kirk, who failed to get into the United States Military Academy at West Point. Kirk hardly built TPUSA into the organization it is today, however; the nonprofit is funded largely by Republican mega-donors and is a source of controversy for allegedly funding student government campaigns on several campuses.
McInnes asked them about an alleged “wild attack by an antifa professor” who supposedly confronted Nelson and Valdez “just for being conservatives.” The instructor they were referring to was Tariq Khan, a US Air Force veteran and graduate student at the university. Khan challenged this characterization, saying he confronted the two after they made what he felt was a veiled threat against his children. Khan, his wife (one of the authors of this piece) and one of his children had been filmed by right-wing, anti-Muslim student activists in the same spot on campus two years earlier, and UIUC’s chapter of TPUSA had already attempted to push two campaigns against two different women of color associated with UIUC this past fall: an undergraduate student and a staff member. After the confrontation between Valdez and Khan, TPUSA members and allies created a campaign of threats and intimidation across media platforms.
According to TPUSA’s website, they have chapters at around 350 college campuses and approximately 64 chapters in high schools around the country. TPUSA is the home of the “Professor Watchlist,” a McCarthy-style blacklist of “biased” professors. On Comedy Central’s show, “The Opposition,” Kirk described the “Professor Watchlist” as “an awareness tool,” but if a professor makes the list, they then “coincidentally” become the target of malicious campaigns.
Amanda Gailey, an English professor at the University of Nebraska (UN), is one of now hundreds of professors across the country who were targeted by the group, receiving threats in her inbox after they launched a campaign against her and UN graduate student Courtney Lawton. These campaigns nearly all roll out the same way: TPUSA self publishes a story on their site, Campus Reform, of alleged “abuse” or bias from the left; the victim of the story starts getting threats; and universities find themselves dealing with outside pressure to get rid of the professor or student in question. Kirk said to CNN in December 2017 about his “Professor Watchlist,”
We do not call for any of that sort of harassment. We don’t condone it. We don’t try to facilitate any sort of cyber bullying or harassment. And just because you put up the words, or another article that’s been written about a professor in an aggregated format, does not mean we should be held responsible for what other people do.
But it’s not just anonymous virtual trolls that are intimidating professors. TPUSA’s tactics are shady, to say the least. Across the country, TPUSA members film leftists without their consent, both on and off campus. They have tried to infiltrate leftist meetings and spaces. They stalk leftists online, documenting their lives and doxxing them. Intimidation and infiltration strategies like these border on being illegal, and TPUSA knows it. Their members walk a carefully directed line to avoid negative publicity, and should any arise, they do massive amounts of damage control through their own media outlets.
The New Yorker published its own exposé on TPUSA, citing anti-Blackness and illegal election funding, which shed a bit more light on the practices of this nonprofit. But what’s yet to be thoroughly investigated but beginning to be uncovered in central Illinois and Nebraska are TPUSA’s connections to neo-fascist organizations and individuals.
Despite Valdez’ claims on “Get Off My Lawn” of being present for the anti-Trump rally because of an “interest in civil discourse,” TPUSA members harassed and filmed many of that day’s attendees and speakers, including Khan. One member, Andrew Minik, then posted the video they took on the Campus Reform site, along with the erroneous story about Khan. Andrew Minik is one of many TPUSA members paid to write for Campus Reform, which is a joint project of the National Leadership Institute. The Institute provides an online forum for students to “report liberal abuse” and to even “get paid to hold their school accountable.”
Joel Valdez, Blair Nelson and Andrew Minik aren’t doing anything other TPUSA members haven’t done. Lying about their interactions with their fellow students and their professors on campus is how TPUSA operates as an organization. Administrators at UIUC “knew it would be trouble,” when they became aware that there would be a TPUSA chapter on campus. But what makes the UIUC chapter seem unique is their happy interaction with the notorious McInnes.
From Trolling to Threats
The culture of “exposure” that TPUSA intends to bring to college campuses is patterned after identifying specific people, often students or adjunct faculty, and then spurring them on with erroneous claims that leave them personally and professionally vulnerable.
After Minik published his erroneous article about Khan on Campus Reform, the death threats started pouring in. Threats from Neo-Nazis, white nationalists and Islamophobes came from all over the country to Khan’s inbox. Khan, who is partially of Pakistani descent, appeared to be singled out in part because of his ethnicity, leaning to their heavy focus on Muslim immigration. His academic department and the Graduate Employees Union office received threats and phone calls demanding Khan be expelled. As the story exploded, it was picked up by sites like InfoWars and shared by Ben Shapiro, Lou Dobbs, Charlie Kirk and former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci.
While Khan’s department refused to cave to the threats, university administrators in the Office of Conflict Resolution are punishing Khan for pushing back against Valdez’s threat. Khan was called in and an administrator assigned to the complaint filed by Valdez asked why Khan “didn’t just walk away.”
“We’ve been reporting the actions of these white supremacists to the administration for the last three years and they have done absolutely nothing to protect students, staff and faculty of color from white-supremacist threats,” said Khan. “So when a fascist made a veiled threat against my children, I had no choice but to confront them myself, because the administration won’t confront them.”
Khan was not allowed to read his entire defense statement in a meeting with administration and was told that if he appealed the university’s decision, he would have to pay more money for the punishment process — a threat of sorts to a graduate student father of three making poverty wages.
Unfortunately, Khan’s situation of not finding support from his university is becoming terrifyingly common. On December 28, George Ciccariello-Maher announced his resignation from his tenured position at Drexel University. “After nearly a year of harassment by right-wing, white supremacist media outlets and internet mobs, after death threats and threats of violence directed against me and my family, my situation has become unsustainable,” said Ciccariello-Maher in a public statement. Academics like Mark Bray, Mike Isaacson and others have become targets of an increasingly hostile set of far-right student and media organizations, targeting them for casual statements or left-wing views in their private lives. While conservative organizations have always made an effort to confront what they see as left-wing bias on college campuses, the tenor of that activism has changed since Donald Trump and the trolls of the “alt-right” came on the scene, creating a cloud of potential violence and serious career implications.
Sitting under Minik’s Campus Reform article about Khan, comments such as “Chuck Neely’s” were reported by Khan’s department to police. “Expelled? No. We need to deal with this as white men in a white nation,” wrote “Neely.”
“This garbage dares to assault us? We physically remove him from this plane of existence. He has zero right to exist in our nation, he is made to leave one way or another.” Other TPUSA members joined in the threats, promising to pay the legal fees for any attacker.
Like his fellow TPUSA members, Valdez claims to simply be a “conservative” who believes in capitalism and the free market, yet he proudly shares on social media accounts the now infamous “alt-right” symbol Pepe the Frog, work by rape-apologist Mike Cernovich, and graciously thanks extremist “Infowars” conspiracy peddler Alex Jones for any retweets. Nelson has argued genocide is merely a leftist construct, an opinion that he disagrees with.
These patterns of racism make their way to the top of Turning Point’s leadership. As The New Yorker reported, Crystal Clayton, one of TPUSA’s most prominent members for five years, said, “I hate Black people. Like fuck them all…. I hate Blacks. End of story.” TPUSA also posted and then hastily removed a blatantly anti-Semitic tweet last November.
UIUC released a statement in the fall restating their commitment to “defending free speech” on campus. Despite extremely racist chalking, white supremacist “It’s-okay-to-be-white” fliers, ongoing stalking incidents, harassment and filming of students of color by “conservative” students, and even physically violent incidents against people of color, it would seem that for now, the University of Illinois is choosing to uphold white supremacist values on campus. As the Traditionalist Worker Party and Vanguard America prepare to launch propaganda campaigns aimed at Midwestern universities this spring, some student activists of color at UIUC aren’t hopeful their campus will protect them.
More Than Conservative
While much of Turning Point’s public media argues that its members have no association with the white nationalists of the “alt-right” or the street violence of the Proud Boys, their short track-record has proven that rhetoric to be a mirage. Kirk’s relationship to the University of Illinois might help provide insight on how TPUSA doesn’t just condone this behavior, but was in fact founded on it.
In 2015, UIUC made national headlines over a newly established “white student union” on campus. White supremacists created it on Facebook directly after Black student activists held a rally on campus the same day. The page, reported by many people to police, asked for identification of Black activists who, the page’s owners claimed, were “terrorizing” the campus. The page also posted videos by Jared Taylor, founder of the white nationalist American Renaissance, and told people to “check out” Richard Spencer’s own National Policy Institute. With a lack of active support by the university to its students of color, students and community members met with campus police to try to educate them about these groups, yet the administration and the police failed to follow up on those concerns.
Other white student union pages started popping up around the country in response to the national attention, and it was rumored that most weren’t run by actual students. UIUC’s Illinois “White Student Union” page, however, was run by a group of UIUC students. In anonymously submitted screenshots of text messages, former Traditionalist Worker Party member Michelle Kapelski told Debbie Bernal, the current president of UIUC’s Turning Point chapter, that she helped start the page “as a joke.”
One of the first people who interacted with the page positively (liking and sharing its posts) was a student by the name of Artur Sak. Sak, a young man whose parents emigrated from Poland, has since graduated, but served on the first-ever national student board of TPUSA while at UIUC. When the story about the white student union blew up in the national news, Sak stopped interacting with the page entirely. As of last fall, both Sak and the page are gone from UIUC’s campus, yet Turning Point remains. In Sak’s bio for TPUSA he says he was with the organization from the beginning, an association that seems to echo TPUSA’s current membership.
While the extent to which TPUSA works with self-identified white nationalists and neo-fascists is not wholly clear, it is obvious that their conservative branding centered on “free-speech and free-markets” is misleading. Their roots are planted in racist ideologies and handed to enthusiastic young people unrestrained by a fear of consequences. At UIUC’s campus, for example, rather than seeing TPUSA members holding “civil discussions” on fiscal conservatism, one is more likely to see TPUSA members on the quad trying to convince passersby to sign a petition calling on the administration to reinstate “Chief Illiniwek,” a racist sports mascot that the National Collegiate Athletic Association forced UIUC to retire years ago.
Kaitlyn Mullen, a TPUSA campus coordinator at the University of Nebraska, was only one of three dissenting voices against a resolution by the City of Lincoln committing to standing up against hate speech in the wake of Charlottesville’s nightmare. The other two dissenting voices came from members of Patriot Front — otherwise known as “Blood and Soil” — one of whom had himself marched in Charlottesville the day Heather Heyer was murdered. All three voiced feeling victimized along with having a love of free markets. The city’s resolution against hate speech passed 5-0.
The “alt-right” targets universities because most are unable or unwilling to prohibit white nationalist and white supremacist ideas without serious legal battles. “Free speech” becomes the sound bite of university administrations and fascists alike in defending the presence of Turning Point USA, Richard Spencer and others like them. It has become so common for racist and fascist groups to plot on campuses that the Southern Poverty Law Center released a student resource guide for dealing with the “alt-right.” But as Khan’s case shows, these debates are hardly debates and they are hardly contained on university grounds.