When University of Utah senior Mohan Sudabattula found the posters hanging recently from the side of the art building on campus, the first-generation son of immigrants from southeastern India was surprised but not shocked. He’d seen similar posters – the red, white and blue lettering – popping up all over campus.
Sudabattula snapped a couple of pictures and sent them to friends. Then he tore the posters down and stuffed them in his pant pockets.
When he got home he hid them in a dorm bathroom cabinet for a week, until he agreed to show them to a reporter.
“These are them,” he said. “There’s three of them.”
The posters were from a white nationalist group called Patriot Front. Sudabattula shuffled them in his hands. One had a map of the United States on it with the words “Not Stolen, Conquered.”
The slogan suggests a simplistic reference to America’s complicated history of breaking treaties and taking land from indigenous people. The others are more vague.
“The posters are pretty clever with their wording,” Sudabattula said. “They don’t really come off as harmful right out of the gate. But then you go online and the manifesto is a direct call to action against people of color.”
Founded two years ago in the aftermath of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Patriot Front has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of a handful of organizations nationwide that tracks such organizations. According to a new report from the center, hate groups like Patriot Group are on the rise both across the country and in the Mountain West.
In recent months, campuses in Montana , Wyoming , Utah and Colorado have seen a rash of pamphleting, protesting and recruiting efforts by Patriot Front and another white nationalist group, Identity Evropa. Universities have condemned their actions.
“These cowardly, faceless and non-university sanctioned tactics are designed to disrupt and frighten individuals and communities, and to garner attention for an insidious ideology that has no place on our campus or in our community,” University of Utah president Ruth V. Watkins said in a statement released in January.
But that attention also seems to spur these groups.
“I’m loving the tears over our latest activism in Utah, but it’s odd because most actions – even those that receive mainstream media coverage – rarely generate this much outrage,” Patrick Casey, executive director of Identity Evropa, wrote in a tweet. “I suppose that means we’ll have to ramp things up in Utah!”
Richard Medina, a geography professor at the University of Utah, believes Identity Evropa and Patriot Front are coming to the Mountain West because, while the region is predominantly white, it has a growing latino and immigrant population.
“They’re focused on the Rocky Mountain region because there’s a lot of change going on,” Medina, a co-author of a recent study on the geography of hate groups, said. “Like a lot of these groups, their main motivation is, in some ways, a resistance to change.”
Patriot Front and Identity Evropa have their roots in a far right, white nationalist movement that originated in France and has since spread throughout Europe and into the United States. The movement frames changing demographics from immigration as white genocide.
“These people see themselves as victims and that the whole European, white culture and ethnicity is going to go away,” he said.
Medina isn’t sure whether the recruiting tactics at the region’s college campuses will work, though.
“I think they’ve come here because they see some opportunity,” he said. “Whether or not they believe they can recruit some members or whether they can get a message to people that they believe are like-minded, I’m not sure.”
For Sudabattula, these hate groups might be new to the region but the racism feels familiar. When he was young, his family lived in Kentucky for a time in the immediate years after 9/11.
“Things started to get a little stressful at school. My dad was experiencing some workplace hostility,” he said.
To leave that environment, the family moved to a Salt Lake City suburb, in a state that prides itself on being friendly to immigrants and refugees. But even there, he said, some white people he met were tone deaf.
“‘You’re like the coolest Indian I know,’ implying that everyone else is odd or unusual,” Sudabattula recalled what some would tell him. “Or, ‘Oh, I love your people, your country. I served a mission out there.’”
He says it was subtle and sometimes unintentional – like a little ember of racism in a fire pit. Now Sudabattula believes white nationalists are coming to the Mountain West to blow on that ember.
“You have a bunch of people who are now trying to approach passive white folks and they’re basically saying, ‘Look: We all agree on the same thing. We think that minorities are different. But we don’t have to cater to their needs anymore. This is our home and they are coming here,’” he said.
Sudabattula said the rise in hate here is scary and it’s up to white people in the region to step up and take action.
“At the end of the day, the hate groups look like my friends,” he said. “And my friends, I think, are in a different position to say something.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.