United we stand / by Rish Basu

With the social media storms that roll in from headlines and cloud over timelines so frequently in the modern age, it was unavoidable.

Posts on Facebook stretched three scrolls down while garning hundreds of shares and likes.

Articles on ABC and NBC websites — prominently displayed for days — received thousands of clicks in just hours.

And a crowdfunding page, providing money for refugee efforts, raised more than $55,000 in just three days.

It was inevitable that an alumnus like Richard Spencer ’97, a white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right,” would, at some point, provide a connection between himself and his alma mater —  a school whose values and purpose over the years run directly in defiance of the extreme viewpoints Spencer developed — years after leaving 10600 Preston Road.

When The Dallas Morning News identified Spencer as a “St. Mark’s alum” in a secondary headline Nov. 17, it was inevitable that a rash of unwanted publicity would be directed at the school.

But maybe what was less expected was how the school community, led by members of Spencer’s own class of 1997, responded.

Facebook posts from classmates denounced their classmate, letters were sent to the media in support of their school, and, ultimately, a crowdfunding page was created, where the goal was to raise money to a cause in direct opposition to Spencer’s white supremacist views: financial assistance for refugees seeking to come to the United States.

What was unavoidable was the passion that emanated from the Class of ’97 throughout the tips of the branches of the St. Mark’s tree by way of the fundraiser and Facebook posts and letters to the community.

What was unavoidable was the love.

A love that bound together people from all over the country to serve one purpose — to help those whom Spencer seeks to force out. Through a crowdsourced fundraiser benefiting the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the Class of 1997 united to combat Spencer’s beliefs.

 

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Like his classmates, Ryan Cotton ’97, a managing director at Bain Capital, was blown away by the community support.

“If you told me four weeks ago that you’d find 750 people to give money, that I would write a letter that would get 700 likes on Facebook from people I’ve never met or heard of, I would never have believed you,” Cotton said. “Because, to me this was a nagging, personal issue and I’ve been so heartened by the universality of support that we’ve found and the amount of people that are hurting like us and wanted to have their voices to the exact resounding note that we struck.”

Despite the fact that many media outlets drew connections between traditional conservatism and the alt-right movement, Cotton emphasized the important distinction between white nationalism and the Republican Party.

“The alt-right is nothing but a branding exercise for white nationalism,” Cotton said. “Conservative Republican ideology is a fiscal policy, it is a vision of small government. It is not a vision of a government that promotes one race over others. Those are not even in the same zip code of related ideology.”

Josh Harkinson ’95, a senior reporter of the politically progressive news magazine Mother Jones who wrote an article on Spencer, was assigned over the summer to cover the white nationalist connections to President-elect Donald Trump.

But he had no idea this was going to be more than just a summer job.

Harkinson attended multiple political conventions, seminars and even an alt-right initiation party — an event where he first met Spencer.

And after listening to Hillary Clinton’s speech on the recent advancements of the alt-right movement, he knew this wasn’t going to go away.

So he reached out to him.

“The most striking thing was how ordinary he was,” Harkinson said. “He comes across in every way as no different from anybody else you meet at St. Mark’s except for the fact that he’s crazy racist.”

But there’s one thing that Harkinson isn’t surprised about. The outpouring of response from the Class of 1997 is a reaction that Harkinson predicted when he first covered the topic of Richard Spencer.

“I definitely think it was a smart move for his classmates to react that way,” Harkinson said. “It’s one thing to verbally repudiate someone, but to actually take action and do something that actually runs counter to what Richard stands for, is a more meaningful response, and I wasn’t that surprised by the reaction.”

Cotton describes the IRC as the perfect antithesis to Spencer’s ideas, and thus, the perfect recipient of their donations.

“We felt like, let’s just not go after hate groups, let’s actually do something they’ll hate,” Cotton said. “Let’s actually undermine their movement. So the IRC was picked because its singular focus is for the best of America, for the Statue of Liberty[’s motto]: we will take care ofthe tired, the poor, the huddled masses trying to be free.

Although Cotton had known about Spencer’s divisive beliefs for “the last ten to 15 years,” Spencer had not been — in Cotton’s mind — very relevant. But after Spencer brought their classmates into media attention, that all changed.

“When in the Mother Jones article [that introduced Spencer’s beliefs to the mainstream media], he came out and said, ‘Hey, I had this friend John Lewis who slept over at my house,’ he crossed a line and brought the school and brought the members of my class into this,” Cotton said. “When he called John out, that obviously felt pretty personal to a lot of us. So we wanted to rise to his aid and defense.”

In an open letter to Spencer, Cotton called his classmates to action to join the fundraiser.

“While I’m sad we were never friends, Richard, sad that I never had the chance to help you grow into a man, I am very lucky to know so many people who do share my values,” Cotton wrote. “And I ask them all now, here, in this public forum to join me and my classmates in a clear, loud and powerful statement of our values, to make a contribution to the very cause you so despise.”

For Harkinson, the expression of opinions is something that needs to be prevalent throughout this time.

“I think this school has made strides to embracing diversity since I was a student here which is great,” Harkinson said. “And I think more conversations and more dialogue about this stuff would be helpful. I think more people need to feel like they should be able to express themselves.”

Veeral Rathod ’97 first heard about Spencer in the Class of 1997’s fifteenth year reunion at the school.

At this point, Rathod had been busy running his custom clothing company, J. Hilburn, for five years so he wasn’t aware that one of his own classmates was beginning a radical movement that would explode in a few years.

“I was shocked,” Rathod said. “I never would have guessed that this would have been his beliefs.”

But similar to Harkinson, Rathod didn’t spend much time with Spencer while he was in high school. Rathod played different sports. Spent time with different people. But for Rathod, his limited social interactions with Spencer still don’t change his initial reaction of shock that someone from his alma mater could think this way.

“I think there is a lot of disbelief that someone out of the community would even feel like that,” Rathod said. “But I think, yes, it’s disbelief from the St. Mark’s community, but I think it’s disbelief that anyone even thinks like that in general especially among the alumni because we’ve all been so diverse and worldly.”

Rathod also supports the crowdfunding efforts the Class of 1997 has started in Spencer’s name.

“I think it [the crowdfunding] really helped bring our class together,” Rathod said. “I think it’s also given our class an outlet and a way to be able to channel our conversations and our feelings and our emotions into something that’s positive and also unifying. But it’s really nice to see our class come together and it almost feels like we’re back in high school again.”

Although most of the members of Rathod’s class have been in complete disbelief the past few months, Rathod is glad to see his classmates and the school’s community respond the way they have.

“We’ve been highly supportive of St. Mark’s as an institution in that we believe in diversity and I believe overwhelmingly that it feels like the school does not condone anything that he’s doing,” Rathod said. “I’m happy that they’re staying involved, moderating the conversation and fostering open conversation within guys at the school, the alumni community and the board level.”

•••                 

The little red bubble kept popping up. Seemingly as soon as Headmaster David Dini cleared his inbox, another notification would hop onto his screen for hours. Hours turned into days and days into a week, and the feedback kept pouring in.

Dini received hundreds of emails and calls in a span of a week regarding the issue of Richard Spencer, the media’s coverage of it, and the St. Mark’s connection and school response. Most were praising and some were critiquing, but he wasn’t surprised, as responding and discussing are tenets of the school community.

“We talk about important issues together, and think about solutions together,” Dini said. “...I’ve heard from graduates across the ages, back to graduates of the ‘40’s, to those in college, to those many of the guys who are currently here, I’ve talked to faculty, heard from parents, some grandparents. While it’s been unsettling to many, it’s been an opportunity for us to come together as a community and to again reaffirm and restate what we stand for and what we stand for as a school.”

Many of these calls were in response to the letters that Dini addressed the St. Mark’s community with regarding Spencer’s actions and the school connection.

Student Council President Christian McClain believes all Marksmen are bound together by their respect for others and their values. Although seeing a fellow Marksmen go so against the school’s values pains him deeply, McClain is proud of the community’s ability to bounce-back in a positive way.

“Seeing everyone come together as a community, whether they are current students or past students, is amazing and portrays what St. Mark’s is really about,” McClain said. “It shows that the St. Mark’s brotherhood does not end once you are handed a diploma.”

And although Development Director Jim Bob Womack ’98 recognizes it’s important for the media to present Spencer’s biography, he’s not sure if the school should play such a large role in the national media’s coverage of Spencer.

“St. Mark’s is 110 years old, and over the last century, the school has done some incredible things,” Womack said. “It’s tough to see one alum shift the story that we’re trying to tell. We’re trying to tell the story of our boys, and the amazing things they do every single day. They are serving their communities and impacting the world … It is unfortunate to see the narrative shift away from the positive work being done.”

Womack knows his team can’t make this controversy go away. But nonetheless, the Office of Development and Alumni Relations have spent hours talking through responses, interacting with alumni and listening to their concerns.

Womack believes it’s important for the community to remember the story is not about one alum, but about the school’s values as a whole.

“Marksmen try to go out and make a difference by caring for people, loving others, supporting our communities, working hard, making a difference and standing by the principles that define our school,” Womack said. “That’s the story.”