Editor’s note: This story is the first in a five-part series on the Rutgers Conservative Union. Through that lens, TAPinto New Brunswick intends to provide a comprehensive look at an energetic year of on-campus activism at New Jersey’s flagship university.
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Dylan Marek went to bed an anonymous Rutgers University freshman. He woke up on March 1 to strangers calling him a white supremacist.
As he slept, the Daily Targum, the student newspaper, published an article about the similarities between a Rutgers Conservative Union flier and one for American Vanguard, a white-nationalist organization. Marek, the Conservative Union’s founding vice president, talked to a reporter the night before. He thought the story would boost the profile of the fledgling on-campus group, and perhaps attract some like-minded members.
Instead, his phone buzzed with messages from concerned friends. The piece had gone viral. “I woke up to total chaos,” recalled Marek, who sports short hair and a matter-of-fact style of speaking.
At first, he was angry. He felt misled by the Targum and misunderstood by his peers. The Conservative Union quickly published a Facebook post disavowing racism and any connection to American Vanguard. But that failed to prevent backlash on campus, widespread media coverage and national attention.
Rutgers liberals reacted with anger and disgust. After all, American Vanguard fliers appeared weeks before at Latino and Muslim centers on campus, alarming the community and inspiring an outcry against white nationalism. Now, it seemed that a homegrown group had internalized those values.
“If this group represents conservatives,” a Facebook user and Rutgers student named Maaz Khan wrote of the Conservative Union, “then conservatism is utterly bankrupt morally and has no future with any decent people.”
The news story came out amid an arguably historic year for political activism at Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus.
The election of President Donald Trump nurtured regular protests from students fearful of his rhetoric and immigration policies. But his rise also empowered conservative students, whose views had remained marginalized at Rutgers until that point, to finally feel comfortable taking center stage.
So, soon enough, Marek found humor in the chaos. To him, the visceral response to the flier episode epitomized the reactionary nature of some liberals. His colleagues agreed. Nick Knight, the union’s president, wasn’t surprised when he picked up the newspaper and saw the front-page headline. “They were trying to find something that would make a good hit piece on a brand-new right-wing club at Rutgers,” he recalled thinking. “And they got it.”
Nick Knight, left, president of the Rutgers Conservative Union, participates in a counter-protest in late January.
Was the design of the flier a mistake? “I guess you can call it that,” Marek later said. Conservative Union members said they stumbled across a boilerplate template that, it turned out, had also been adopted by the white-nationalist faction.
But some of the language was identical. Two examples: “TAKE YOUR COUNTRY BACK!” and “Is this the country your ancestors died for?” Months later, Marek told TAPinto New Brunswick that his Rutgers group had indeed encountered the American Vanguard flier earlier, but members aimed to scrub it and write their own message.
Despite feeling like they wrongly received a reputation as the campus racists, Marek and his club refused to back down.
“If you’re out there at Rutgers University on College Avenue Campus wearing ‘Make America Great Again’ hats, you’ve got guts. You’re not going into Afghanistan, but you are putting yourself in harm’s way,” he said. “But maybe I will get one person who sees what I’m doing and feels better about expressing what he thinks.”
All of a sudden, activists on the left and right knew of the Rutgers Conservative Union. But the incident wouldn’t be the final time they muttered its name.