CW: Inflammatory language, quotes from Nazis/Nazi sympathizers
[Non-Fiction] With Fanfare
Words reverberated off the sidewalks and red brick walls of Auburn University’s campus: Make America Great Again! Blood and soil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!
A small cluster of people huddled beneath the shade of the live oaks my school is famous for—mostly young men, ghostly pale, wearing black helmets and knee pads. They clashed spectacularly with their surroundings: the low, mossy branches of those century-old trees; the green grass of the quad stretching out behind them, framed by a lattice of white awnings; the azalea bushes blooming joyous and pink beneath a late-afternoon sky. Some of them were wearing masks that made their faces into skulls. Some were carrying shields. Some were waving flags: American, Nazi, Trump. All were screaming over each other through bullhorns: You will not replace us! Blood and soil! We will not be replaced!
The week leading up to their arrival was a blur of phone calls and sleepless nights spent organizing protests. On April 11th, the first flyers showed up on university bulletin boards and plastered to the sides of buildings. They were advertising a talk on campus by white supremacist, Richard Spencer, scheduled for the next Tuesday, April 18th. Groups across campus began responding—Auburn University’s branches of Hillel, the NAACP, and College Democrats and Libertarians, as well as the Black Student Union (BSU) and SPECTRUM, the LGBTQ+Allies club, among others—and we coordinated our efforts. I set up a Facebook event page and added moderators. The NAACP and BSU planned a march around campus; the group I worked with organized a concert on the campus green to drown out hate.
On the 12th, the University released a statement that called Spencer’s views deplorable. Local white supremacists built a website promoting a white ethnostate and covered the campus in racist, sexist, and antisemitic propaganda. Feminism is cancer! It’s alright to be white! Europa Forever! We will not be replaced! Foy Hall—the building where the talk would take place—was vandalized to read Goy Hall instead.
My fellow protesters and I spent the days before the talk taking the flyers down. We went to school during the day, scraping away flyers when we saw them on walks between classes, and at night worked in shifts—traded off between wandering campus looking for propaganda and holing up in empty classrooms, making signs. My best friend and I were both English grad students in our final semester. I joked because I knew he’d get it: April really is the cruelest month.
A few days before Richard Spencer’s talk was scheduled, the University announced that they were canceling it. We thought we’d won, and for twenty-four hours my life returned to normal. It was short-lived; On the 17th, Spencer took Auburn University to court, citing infringement of his First Amendment rights, and won: he’d managed to secure an auditorium on campus by exploiting a loophole in scheduling protocol. The event wasn’t Auburn’s to cancel. They had no choice but to let him come.
What do you do when evil announces itself with fanfare? How do you confront hatred when it proudly calls itself by name? The flyers got worse. America today, tomorrow the world! Hail Victory! Blood and soil! Some of them depicted Jews as red-horned devils. Others caricatured people of color as apes. The worst ones—the ones that didn’t just demonize but also promoted eugenics and genocide—were more difficult to spot. Families of light-skinned, blue-eyed blondes and brunettes gathered around kitchen tables or flat-screen TVs, the mother in a dress and apron, father in a tie, and two or three well-groomed children toddling around their feet—all pink-cheeked and smiling. Below the photos were phrases printed almost too small to notice. Save our race by marrying inside it! Know your worth: Marry white! The way we make America great again is by making America white again! Real families aren’t built by fags! Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews: You have your own countries; give America back or we’ll take it back! A modern, fucked up Norman Rockwell.
The flyers got worse but also harder to remove. Instead of using tape, whoever was putting them up began gluing them down. Those of us who still had the energy regrouped. Stayed up all night in empty classrooms making anti-Nazi picket signs and trying to get back the time we lost to our brief triumph. That evening I circled the campus for two hours on foot, pulling down propaganda as best I could. Because of the glue we had to get creative, which was difficult, because it almost never snows in Alabama. I promise there’s a point to this. The whole state only has two salt trucks, which are used so rarely I sometimes call them Zambonis by mistake. Which is to say: only one person in our group, who came to Auburn from Michigan, had an ice scraper. It worked well enough against the posters, and the rest of us did the best we could with our fingernails or whatever we could find: metal rulers, flat stones, credit cards.
I got back from my campus walk just before three A.M. to keep making posters. The boy with the ice scraper left with another boy to take over, and I went back to making signs. Twenty minutes later my phone rang. Ice scraper boy. They’re coming behind us and putting up two posters for every one we take down. It’s like you were never even here. Then he said the boy with him was going home because he was bleeding. Tell everyone not to use their hands anymore. The Nazis are gluing razors behind the posters to keep us from taking them down.
I hung up. I told everyone in the room about the razors. One of the College Libertarians was sitting at a desk on his laptop and he called me over and pointed at the screen. Isn’t this you? He was looking at a Neo-Nazi forum. People were posting under pseudonyms like WyattMan and InCel38, asking for backup for the Auburn rally, telling people to bring batons and riot gear. One commenter said he was driving over from Atlanta; another said South Carolina; another Tennessee. The Libertarian was pointing to a post pinned to the top of the thread: a list of ten or eleven people and their information. My name was the third or so from the top. My phone number and a link to my Facebook profile were beneath it, with commentary.
How do confront hatred that calls itself by name when it also knows yours?
Raye Hendrix. Fat fucking feminist. One of the organizers listed on the protest Facebook page. Dumb cunt didn’t make it private. Found her #. Have fun boys!
A few more lines down was someone I didn’t know but who’d been identified as a student at Auburn. Below that, a name I recognized: a professor in the English department who’d been helping us out. The Haley Center—the building that acted as our home base—was notoriously cold, even in winter, but I felt suddenly hot and sick. I don’t think I walked. It was like the floor tilted beneath me and I slid out into the hallway to press my cheek against the cold concrete wall. I cried, and the floor tilted again—no, the whole city; it sloped downward just for me—and I tumbled all the way home.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but I must have, because the next thing in my memory is the mist-gray light of a humid Alabama dawn filtering through my bedroom window. I woke up in bed but not beneath the blankets, still wearing my clothes from the day before. My teeth ached and my head was throbbing; I’d been clenching my jaw in my sleep, which—according to the clock reading half-past six A.M—had only lasted two or so hours. My partner was still asleep and had to work before he joined us that evening at the protest, so I quietly went through an abridged morning routine. I didn’t feel like I had time for a shower, but I was out of dry shampoo, so I coated my hands in flour and ran them through my hair a few times before pulling it up in a ponytail. I dressed for my day of class and teaching, put shorts and tennis shoes in my bag, then walked to school. I don’t remember what I taught my students, but I changed clothes around noon.
I walked into the office I shared with the other English grad students and sat down at my desk, which had become the official storage space for all things protest: boxes of anti-Nazi flyers and protest posters, piles of markers and tape, and a small mountain of water bottles and first-aid supplies—just in case. Two reporters—documentary filmmakers, they called themselves—came in and sat down to interview me. They’d come down from somewhere up north to follow us through the protest planning process, taking videos of us stripping down racist flyers and making signs. I was only vaguely aware of them until they walked into my office.
I don’t remember what I said in the interview. I remember being terrified I’d say the wrong thing and alienate myself from my more conservative—but by no means white supremacist—family and friends. I remember thinking that was a stupid thing to be afraid of and then trying to keep the look on my face from telling the camera I was mentally spiraling into self-deprecation. I remember that I kept looking over at my best friend to keep myself grounded and that every time I did, the interviewers had to ask me to talk to the camera.
Later, outside on the campus green space where the concert was to take place, I was busy with some of the other organizers making event shirts with stencils that said #AuburnUnites and spray bottles full of bleach when a Buzzfeed reporter approached me. Someone told me to talk to you. I gave her only a few sentences, one of which was: Look, I may have started this, but it’s outgrown me. Which is good. There are more people to talk to. One of the other organizers had secured walkie-talkies for us. For the rest of the night when reporters approached, I pretended to be on mine doing something important and walked the opposite direction.
What do you do when hatred knows your name? How do you confront evil when it invites itself into your home?
You stand in the fucking doorway. You find people willing to stand with you; people who will brace their hands against your back and trade places with you when your knees start going weak. People who will protect you by helping you blend into the background by putting themselves in the spotlight.
The people who organized #AuburnUnites did that for me. At the end of the day, I had nothing to do with planning the concert logistics, finding bands, or raising money. At the concert, which was scheduled to begin around the same time as Richard Spencer’s talk, I was included but allowed to drift to the periphery with my walkie-talkie. I made loops around campus, radioed in to say that the concert area was safe. A few times I radioed in to say it wasn’t, that Neo-Nazis and alt-right demonstrators were clustered up and marching towards the concert, banging their shields. I stopped in on the protests that were taking place outside Foy Hall and relayed information back. I stood at the perimeter gates of the concert area, helping distinguish Nazi from not before they were allowed inside.
How do you confront evil?
You find a community and announce yourselves with fanfare. You stop listening to people who say hate speech is free. You ignore the well-meaning people who tell you to let other people fight it off, and you work to build a better world, with or without them. You realize you don’t need anybody’s blessing to do what’s right.
Protesters claimed a little more than half of the free student tickets to Spencer’s speech. They sat in the audience and talked over him as he spewed his hate. They drowned him out. Across campus, the concert was so loud it echoed off the buildings, filling the city with music instead of fear. In between bands, students from all walks of life—Jewish, Muslim, Black, White, queer, straight—gave speeches about kindness and inclusion, their words ringing out strong and clear, even reaching the men seated beneath the oak trees.
You will not replace us!
We will not give voice to hate!
We will not be replaced!
Diversity is our strength!
When the speech ended, Richard Spencer and his followers left Foy Hall and were met by something they didn’t expect: in the heart of Trump country, in deep red Alabama on the campus of a school once listed by Forbes as the most conservative public school in the country, a crowd of hundreds of Auburn students stood in opposition. Spencer and his followers appeared, and the herd shifted—marched and chanted in unison and physically chased the Neo-Nazis away.
What do you do when evil walks through your front door? You shut it up. You get loud and make sure the voices of the vulnerable are louder. You drive it out. You let it know it has no home here. You make sure it understands it’s being replaced.
Raye Hendrix is a poet from Alabama who writes about queerness, womanhood, and the rural south. Raye earned her BA and MA in English from Auburn University and is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas in Austin, where she was a finalist for both the 2018 Keene Prize for Literature and the 2018 Fania Kruger Fellowship in Writing. Raye was an honorable mention for poetry in both AWP’s Intro Journals Project in 2015 and Southern Humanities Review’s Poetry Prize Honoring Jake Adam York in 2014. Raye’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Indiana Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Shenandoah, The Pinch, Cherry Tree, and elsewhere. She currently serves as the Online Content and Web Editor for Bat City Review.