Editor’s Note: An anonymous source is used in this story. We refer to him as Jack to protect his identity. The editors of The Franklin agreed an alias was needed to ensure the source’s personal safety from retaliation by America First Union members.
When flyers advertising the nationalist group America First Union appeared near campus almost two weeks ago, a member of the organization reached out to inform The Franklin of the group’s racist motives.
Jack provided screenshots of private chatrooms, which show that the union’s chapter presidents use of racial slurs and anti-Semitic language.
Franklin College’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion released a statement last week that denounced the group and its flyers. Recent accusations come after Indiana’s chapter president denied last week that members are ethnic nationalists who promote Nazi propaganda.
Franklin College President Kerry Prather released a statement to the campus community Friday to express that he was troubled to hear about the flyers. In an interview Wednesday, he said that the college cannot limit people’s right to free speech off campus, but he nonetheless denounces the America First Union, especially after hearing about their motives.
“It is unfortunate that groups like this even exist. They’re out trying to recruit members to a cause that we find appalling,” Prather said.
In an interview last week, Jack provided further information about the America First Union—formerly known as the America First Nationalist Union. He is currently a member in a different state and has no connection to Franklin College or the city of Franklin. He saw The Franklin’s initial article on December 8 and wanted to let the public know that the union is a nation-wide organization that promotes racist ideals. He is reconsidering his involvement but fears retaliation if he leaves conspicuously as he’s seen how other former members were harassed when they left the group.
“I felt really horrible having joined this group,” Jack said. “They’re a very antisemitic, racist organization.”
Jack said that the union was founded in late November. He joined the group upon recommendation from a friend, who was later kicked out of the organization on account of his Jewish heritage, he said. He and his friend thought it was a gathering space for typical young conservatives, but they soon realized that it was not a safe space, he continued.
“I started noticing it wasn’t just a normal youth conservative group,” Jack said. “They said a lot of really harsh stuff.”
The screenshots Jack provided to The Franklin show members using racial slurs, including the n-word, in their online chat rooms. Jack said they describe non-white races in demeaning ways and espouse anti-immigration views with an underlying message that the only good America is a white America.
“Diversity is a semitic supremacist anti-white dogwhistle!” one chapter president said in an Instagram groupchat.
“Blacks are just dumb… Jews are clever and smart, they’re the most dangerous,” another president wrote.
“I think George Floyd deserves what he got,” the individual wrote in another instance.
Jack said he was shocked by what he saw.
“It’s just incredibly horrible that you could justify the killing of a person,” Jack said. “I just think it’s wrong.”
The group avoids showing their true ideology to the public, Jack said, because of its harmful nature. He said the group has no history of violence, but it harasses people on social media when they speak out against or leave the group.
The union started on social media when a few individuals launched a recruitment campaign.
“There’s a couple initial people who founded the group who have tens of thousands and thousands of followers on Instagram,” Jack said.
Since its founding in late November, the organization has quickly developed a national presence. There are now chapters in over 35 states, which are grouped by region. Indiana is the leader of the Midwest region, as determined by the chapter presidents. The ages of members range from 15 to 30 but most are around 20, Jack said. He is one of the youngest, as he is still in high school.
The organization primarily operates online with its main platforms being Instagram and Discord, a messaging platform commonly used by gamers. In order to join, prospective members have to provide their personal social media accounts to chapter presidents for identification. Then can then be approved for membership. The flyers were their first step in trying to reach a wider following, Jack said, and it seems to be working.
“It definitely seems like they are pretty quickly gaining traction. They’re expanding,” Jack said.
The America First Union did not respond to The Franklin’s request for comment on Jack’s denunciation of the group and the material he provided.
Sophomore Maya McCloud said she’s been a bit more careful on campus since she learned about the flyers. The college needs to be ready in the event that the group takes further action, she said.
“This kind of just came out of nowhere,” McCloud said. “I guess it's just something we should probably be keeping tabs on, especially since they’re promoting so close to campus.”
Yet, sophomore Brianna Rogers said the college should not have taken down the flyers.
“I am frustrated that an opportunity to learn different viewpoints and have a discussion was taken away from the campus community,” Rogers said. “By removing viewpoints, it makes us more close-minded, rather than open-minded.”
Junior Thomas Samuel is the student leader of the Arthur Wilson House, a living and gathering space for Black students on campus. He said he and his roommates felt targeted by the flyers, especially since they were posted near the house he lives in and oversees.
“It’s definitely a threat to all people of color,” Samuel said.
Senior Taylor McDaniel said she was not surprised to learn about the flyers because she has seen hate groups try to recruit at the college before. The sentiment behind the flyers parallels the narrow-minded nature of the world outside of Franklin College, she said.
“I feel like it’s closing in on our safe space,” McDaniel said.
What’s most important, McDaniel said, is how the college handles further developments or incidents.
“If it gets more frequent—more threats and a physical presence—What is the campus prepared to do to handle it because some emails are not really going to cut it,” McDaniel said.
Prather said Franklin College will continue to research the organization and maintain its commitment to diversity and inclusion by supporting students who feel threatened. Andrew Jones, vice president for student development & dean of students, expressed a similar view in an interview Wednesday. He said anyone who feels unsafe can always reach out to the Franklin Security Department, which can escort students across campus when needed.
“We’ll be on higher alert,” Jones said. “I hope that students will continue to be responsive.”