Members of the White Student Union, from left to right (they agreed to participate on condition we only used their first names): Sean, Ken, Paddy, Matthew Heimbach, Addie, and Shayne. Photos by Jackson Fager.
Matthew Heimbach insists he’s not a racist. This comes as a surprise to his fellow students at Towson University, in the suburbs of Baltimore, where Matthew has formed a group called the White Student Union that advocates for “persons of European heritage” – what most of us call “white people.” It also comes as a surprise to the African American students who feel targeted by the night patrols the senior history major began conducting in March. The patrols target supposed “black predators,” Matthew wrote on the WSU’s website, citing (among others) a case in which an African American man pulled out a knife and his penis, and wagged both at a co-ed couple who were copulating in a parking garage. “White Southern men,” he wrote, “have long been called to defend their communities when law enforcement and the State seem unwilling to protect our people.”
Also surprised by Matthew’s claim that he’s not a racist is Duane Davis. “You are a fat, racist little bitch,” the scrappy, dreadlocked man told Matthew one sunny Tuesday this April. There was a rally going on, organised by the Student Government Association and the Black Student Union. In a field behind Duane and Matthew, about 100 students protested the White Student Union by reading unity-themed slam poetry from a microphone. When Matthew showed up on the edge of the crowd, a dozen protesters had come to confront him. Down the façade of a parking garage, a banner unfurled reading, wsu gtfo (translation: White Student Union Get the Fuck Out).
“There’s no need to insult me,” Matthew told Duane, who looked one wrong reply away from punching the 21-year-old.
“I’ve killed people,” Duane said. “In self-defense... But I’ve killed people.”
Matthew has the look of someone who’s been bullied his whole life: he puffs out his chest to hide an abundant belly, wears unfashionable drugstore spectacles, and on this day sported what vaguely resembled a Morrissey T-shirt.
“Who is that on your shirt?” Duane said, jabbing Matthew in the chest. The onlookers leaned in to hear the answer.
“Ian Smith,” Matthew said, before rattling off the biography of the former prime minister of Rhodesia, a white supremacist who resisted efforts to end white rule there in the 60s. “He’s one of my heroes.”
A svelte woman in a dashiki interrupted. “If you were dying and needed a heart transplant,” she asked, “would you accept one from a black person?”
Matthew was silent. He cracked an awkward smile. From the microphone, the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” were heard.
“He doesn’t need a black heart,” Duane said. “He’s already got one!”
Since launching the night patrols, Matthew has become the pasty public face of campus hate. He knows how to court the media, and the segments about him that have aired on CNN, CBS, the Thom Hartmann Program, and pretty much every news blog, all prove it. As such, going to Maryland and hanging out with him and his shadowy “comrades,” as we did recently, risks giving him the thing he wants even more than his own Rhodesia: attention. Yet accounts so far have treated the student as a vile curiosity rather than what he really is – the possible future of organised racism in America – and so we figured, what the hell, let’s go interview him.
“I hate Hitler,” Matthew told me at his apartment, in an African American neighbourhood in Baltimore about 15 miles from Towson’s campus. He resents being classified as a “racist” or “white supremacist,” he said, and despises the KKK and neo-Nazi organisations. “They’re just low-rent thugs trying to make themselves feel better. Frankly, they’re an embarrassment.”
Protesters at a “unity rally” on the Towson campus send a message to Matthew and company: “White Student Union Get The Fuck Out.” Photo by Iram Nayati.
Sipping coffee from a mug emblazoned with the Confederate flag, Matthew explained that he’s part of a movement of academic “race realists” who have traded burning crosses for PhDs and tweed jackets. They float a variety of ideologies, but the most popular are identitarianism (a term mostly used in Europe) and racial realism, interchangeable names for people who believe that whiteness is worth celebrating as much as blackness or any other identity. “We stand for positive love of our people,” Matthew told me, “but also respect for everyone else… That’s the key difference [between them and groups like the Klan]. Love will get us a lot further than yelling racial epithets into a bullhorn.” According to Matthew, identitarianism and racial realism reject white power but embrace white pride on the basis that if pride is a good thing for one group, it’s good for any group. “You’re never going to get anywhere in America by waving a swastika banner,” he said.
Matthew formed his first White Student Union when he was still in high school, in the rural town of Poolesville, Maryland, after the school tried to integrate. “There were, like, three black kids before that,” he said. But the group didn’t become a reality until years later when in August 2012, Matthew organised sympathisers at Towson and enlisted a conservative professor to serve as its adviser. They went mostly unnoticed until one of their members, Scott Terry (who isn’t a Towson student), was spotted on national TV at the Conservative Political Action Conference this March. Scott told K. Carl Smith, the black founder of the Frederick Douglass Republicans, that Frederick Douglass should’ve thanked his master for “feeding and housing him.” Jon Stewart played the clip on The Daily Show and lambasted Scott. Their adviser dropped his support, and the group was denied official recognition by the university, but the group grew as a result: according to Matthew, it now allegedly has 50 members. He’s also helped form similar groups on other campuses, most recently at Indiana University, in Bloomington. (Though antiracist activists have since shut down that chapter.)
When I asked Matthew how he felt about Obama’s presidency, he said, “I’m not a fan, but not because he’s African American.” He explained how, for him, Obama’s two presidential victories underscored the waning power of white male voters in America. Pointing to US Census Bureau predictions that by 2040 whites will no longer be a majority (though they’ll still be the largest racial group), he said that, because of changing demographics across the country, Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election showed that “we’ve already lost the ability to elect a president. Mitt Romney got 60 percent of the white vote. Ten years ago, if you got 60 percent of the white vote, you would win the presidency. Now it’s not enough. So the change in demographics spells to us the fact that we’ve lost the ability on a national level to even advocate for ourselves.” It was clear that his usage of “we” and “our” did not include non-Caucasian Americans.
According to Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, this same sentiment has fueled a recent spike in white-supremacist activity: since 2008, there’s been an 800 percent increase in what he calls “patriot groups,” many of whom have armed themselves against the government, and a twofold increase in hate groups. He cites Obama’s presidency and the economic recession as motivating factors. “It’s about capitalising on discontent,” Mark told me recently. “Heimbach couches his politics in vague, Christian-sounding language that’s designed to make the racist message palatable to young, disenfranchised, ignorant whites on college campuses or elsewhere.” The Southern Poverty Law Center recently listed Matthew on its annual Hatewatch list.
The weekend after my first visit to Towson, at a conference held by the American Renaissance outside Nashville, Tennessee, the theme of white victimisation was on full display, as were the movement’s increasingly young followers. American Renaissance was founded in 1990 by Jared Taylor, a Yale-educated academic who has taught Japanese at Harvard and also runs a white-separatist organisation called New Century Foundation. Jared has provided much of the intellectual heft for the identitarianism and racial-realism movement by publishing books brimming with dubious statistics, which argue that blacks are less intelligent than whites and more prone to commit crimes, yet he has barred neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers from joining his group. He is pro-Israel and celebrates Japan (where he was born) as a successful example of a homogenous ethnic state because he believes the Japanese are more “advanced” – both genetically and socially – than whites. But at the conference, Jared, who looks a bit like Ted Danson and is a fan of foppish sport coats and collared shirts, dropped his polished tone for a more incendiary message. When he asked the 150 or so people there how many were first-time attendees, more than half raised their hands. From a stage, he explained the ultimate goal of his efforts. “We want a homeland where we are a majority,” he said. “We have a government of traitors... White people who express a desire for a homeland are labelled as haters.” He ended his speech to applause: “Think of secession…Think of hometowns. We have to build them ourselves… Survival is the first law. We have no choice but to keep fighting.”
Matthew had flown down from Baltimore to attend. He stood up and asked a question. “The federal government will continue its genocide of our people,” he said. “Where should we go? What’s the best way to create a homeland?”
“It will work itself out organically in ways we can’t predict,” Jared responded. “White anger may erupt in places we haven’t heard of.”
A week later, I tagged along with the White Student Union on a night patrol. “It’s the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination,” Matthew said cheerily to the five WSU members who showed up. Until then, no reporters had met the other members of the group, and after repeated cancellations to go on patrol, I’d started to wonder if they really existed. But here they were. “Let’s do a little golf clap for Lincoln’s assassination,” Matthew said, kicking off the vigilante effort before the crew wended its way through the brick and ivy campus.
The cavalcade included a young skinhead named Paddy and his fiancée, Addie, who said she was happy to lend a “female face to the movement.” There was a 40-something-year-old named Ken, who had driven all the way from Delaware to poke around Towson looking for unruly “black criminals.” The patrol was rounded out by Sean, who barely said a word to me the entire night, and Shayne, who described himself as a “cowboy.” (Oddly, when I later checked their enrollment statuses with a university official, she claimed none, except Matthew, were actually students at Towson, though this couldn’t be confirmed and it’s possible the university was simply trying to distance itself from the group.) The patrollers were armed with pepper spray and flashlights.
I asked the obvious: What kinds of crimes had they prevented on previous patrols?
“The worst we’ve encountered so far,” Matthew said, “were some sorority girls passed out from drinking too much. We put them in taxis and escorted them to their dorm rooms.”
It was 9 PM on a Monday and there were scores of kids out, playing softball or headed to the cafeteria. The campus was well lit. We walked around, but witnessing a crime in progress seemed unlikely, so after about an hour, Matthew had an idea. “Let’s go visit our brothers in the Black Student Union.”
In a large brick building at the center of campus, we found three African American students typing on their laptops in the BSU office. They frowned when Matthew entered. “I’m Matt Heimbach from the White Student Union,” he said, flashing a politician’s smile, “and we just wanted to come by to invite you to patrol campus with us.”
“No, thanks,” they said, demurring. “We’ve got homework.”
A few days earlier, I had interviewed the former vice president of the Black Student Union, a senior from Baltimore named Ignacio Evans. “Sitting in a classroom with Matt is like putting Hitler in a class with Jews,” Ignacio told me, explaining how he had a modern Japanese-history course last semester with Matthew. “That’s how it feels to be stifled in a classroom with a person that you know hates your existence.” When I asked him about the night patrols, he said, “White supremacists don’t have to be loud. You show up with a hooded robe, I’m scared. My problem is that the White Student Union echoes that… it’s unsettling to be a hypermasculine black male and to feel scared on campus when you see these guys.”
When Matthew first announced the patrols on the WSU web page in February, he justified them as a response to a “black crime wave.” But local crime statistics show that this claim is fictitious. With just six crimes committed per 1,000 students, Towson’s campus crime rate is the lowest it’s been in 17 years. In seven of the past ten years, Towson was ranked as the safest public campus in the entire state of Maryland. Of course, such statistics are beside the point: the patrols aren’t an earnest safety measure so much as a cross between a publicity stunt and an attempt to give a nice, community-service face to prejudice – the white-pride safety squad here to clean up your campus.
This is the strategy of identitarianism and racial realism too – trying, with spiffed-up eugenics and slippery rhetoric, to reinvent racism for the 21st century. Even if it’s unlikely to convince the majority of students or teachers (or journalists), that’s not the point. The movement is geared toward economically disenfranchised whites who might feel threatened by or antagonistic toward minorities, but who don’t necessarily think of themselves as bona fide racists. “The only difference between Matt and the KKK,” Ignacio had told me, “is that Matt is PC, and he truly believes whites are victimised. Other than that, they’re exactly the same.”
Kicking off the night patrol with a Bible reading and speech. “United we’ll be able to wake to a new dawn of justice and righteousness.”
Outside the office of the Black Student Union, a dozen or so white frat boys had appeared. If Matthew and crew were disappointed that the black students hadn’t wanted a conflict, some of these guys looked like they did. “Matthew tries to pretend he’s not a racist,” a red-faced, doughy guy in a blue blazer hissed, “but this is not the way to go about it. You’re spreading a message of hate, and I’m pissed about it.”
“Is it because you hate white people?” Matthew said.
“It’s ’cause you’re racist!” the frat guy shouted.
A dozen more Alpha Epsilon Pi brothers poured down the hall. The night patrol looked nervous. But then, instead of pummelling Matthew and his crew, the frat guys pulled their member, the red-faced one, into a classroom and slammed the door.
“It’s funny,” Matthew said as we left, obviously relieved. “Frat guys are usually the first ones behind closed doors to crack a black joke.”
But the real climax of the evening happened a half hour later, when we followed a mazy outdoor path called the International Walkway. Along it fly flags from every country Towson students hail from; as we passed the People’s Republic of China ensign billowing in the wind, Paddy, taking a leadership cue from Matthew, stopped the patrol. He wanted to give a speech. The Black Student Union, the frat boys, the commie flag… it had apparently riled him up.
“We’re heading toward a dissolution of the United States,” Paddy told his fellow patrollers. “But in a sense, that could be for the better because it may lead to a white ethno-state. That’s ultimately what we want. We want an ethno-state for our people, a strong nation-state that’s well-defended but at peace with the world.”
“What would the criteria of citizenship be for this ethno-state?” I interrupted.
“I’m just going to come out and say it,” Paddy said. “The criteria of citizenship would be based on race. It would be based on [being] white. Absolutely. One hundred percent.”
I turned to Matthew. In the spiritedness of the moment, the group seemed to be dropping its restrained tone. And Matthew was worked up, too. “If there are white people... who want to remain in this multicultural cesspool,” he said, “let them. We don’t want them. Let us mind our own business. Let us stand up for our own people, and create our own nation and new homeland for Europeans around the entire globe. So give us a homeland, and if you want to sell yourself and your children down the river of multiculturalism, you can do so.”
After that, on the way back to the parking garage to get our cars and call it a night, we finally witnessed a crime. We came upon three white students on a dark path, obviously engaged in a drug deal.
“Look at that,” Paddy said as we watched the transaction.
“And everyone tries to say there’s no crime at Towson,” Matthew said, shaking his head. “This is not a safe campus.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
No one intervened.
For more on 21st century white supremacy, watch our documentary about the White Student Union this month on VICE.com.
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