As soon as Julie VanDyke saw flyers with a white nationalist message stuck on cars in the parking ramp at the corner of Dubuque and Burlington Street, she decided to take action.
“You think about how many things have happened lately, where we now know there were signs of what was going to come, but no one reported them,” VanDyke told Little Village. “I wanted to make sure this was reported.”
It was almost 5:30 p.m. on Thursday when VanDyke pulled out of her parking space in the Dubuque Street Ramp.
“As I came around [the corner], I saw a piece of paper under the wiper on the back window of an older-style SUV,” she said. “Printed on it in all capital letters was ‘IT’S OKAY TO BE WHITE.’”
VanDyke couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She stopped and took a photo.
“I thought it was significant,” VanDyke explained. “Then as I slowly drove down to the next floor, I saw flyers on more cars.” She parked and took more photos. Then she drove down to talk to attendant in the booth.
“I told him what I’d seen, and I told I was calling the police and I’d wait until they arrived,” VanDyke said. She was determined to make sure the flyers were documented, even though waiting for the police would make her late for a meeting.
After calling the Iowa City Police Department’s non-emergency number and reporting the flyers, VanDyke went back to the attendant, and asked him to have the city preserve any security camera footage in the ramp.
“He told me he’d already done it.”
VanDyke estimates that it took almost 30 minutes for an officer to arrive. And when Ofc. Dustin Carolan did arrive, his response surprised her.
“I’ve had fantastic interactions with all six law enforcement agencies in the area on a variety issues in the past,” said VanDyke, a longtime community activist. “But this was completely different.”
VanDyke asked him to walk up the ramp with her, so she could show him the signs. He refused at first, she said.
“He asked, ‘What do the signs say?’ I told him,” VanDyke said. “He looked me square in the eye, and said, ‘That’s not racist. It’s not racist to say it’s okay to be white.’ It wasn’t even him telling me his opinion. I felt that he was trying to intimidate me into agreeing with him, which wasn’t going to happen.”
“Clearly, those signs mean something. They’re not about someone’s favorite crayon color.”
In online forums, white nationalists often discuss the importance of keeping messages they post in public slightly vague. Relying on a broad message, they believe, allows them to appeal to potential sympathizers who would be put off by a clearer declaration of their message. This philosophy is why the neo-Nazis who marched in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, wore polo shirts and khakis instead of swastikas.
Keeping the message vague also allows white nationalists to mock liberals as “too sensitive” and hostile to white people, if they object to the message. People posting on the eastern Iowa forum of the neo-Nazi site Stormfront, before the forum was deleted last year, were very excited by the opportunity to discredit liberals this way.
Stickers with the “It’s okay to be white” message were found in multiple locations on the Northside last week. Colleges around the country have also reported a surge in flyers bearing that message recently. Even before this latest wave of flyer distribution, the Anti-Defamation League had documented a 77 percent increase in reports of white nationalist propaganda on American college campuses during the 2017-18 academic year, compared to the previous year.
The flyers appeared on the campus of Iowa State University last week. “The messages posted around campus were often coupled with words encouraging people to vote for congressional candidate Steve King,” Iowa State Daily reported.
VanDyke said Carolan eventually followed her up the parking ramp to see the flyers on the cars. “But he continues to tell me the signs are not racist,” she said.
“It made me angry. I told him I’d be going to the chief about this,” VanDyke said. “I walked off.”
“He didn’t write down anything while I was there. He never even asked my name, although I assumed he had that from the call I made.”
After consulting with a friend about her next step, VanDyke called ICPD Thursday evening and asked to speak to the watch commander.
“Sgt. Jerry Blomgren, the watch commander, called me back,” VanDyke said. “He talked to me for quite a while, and it was completely different from the other officer. He didn’t try to argue or explain anything away. He listened and he was clearly concerned about it.”
“I felt much better after talking with him. I felt entirely confident that ICPD was taking this seriously.”
Blomgren told VanDyke that ICPD has an investigator specially trained to handle incidents like the flyers in the parking ramp. ICPD Spokesman Sgt. Derek Frank confirmed to Little Village that the department does have “an investigator who tracks complaints of people being victimized based on a protected class affiliation.” Frank wasn’t able to further comment on the flyer incident.
On Friday, VanDyke spoke with Capt. Bill Campbell, who is in charge of field operation for ICPD. Campbell wanted to talk with her about the behavior of the officer who responded to her call, VanDyke said.
“He was very clear — this is not how we respond to things, he said, and it was inappropriate for the responding officer to try to engage with me about what is racism and what isn’t,” VanDyke explained. “It was a very good conversation.”
The parking ramp incident is classified as “suspicious activity” in the incident report provided to Little Village by ICPD. As the department explained in a statement on Friday,
Although this type of language may be considered offensive, unwelcoming, and goes against our values as an inclusive community, it is protected by the First Amendment, and does not meet the legal definition of a hate crime.
“I understand that the flyers may not violate the law,” VanDyke said. “My concern is that things like this can build towards some of the things we’ve seen lately in the country.”
“Community members should report these types of incidents to the Police Department by calling 319-356-6800,” ICPD said in its statement on the flyers. “Officers will then respond, investigate, and monitor.”
In January, stickers with the same message as the flyers were plastered around the Ped Mall during the Iowa City Women’s March. In that case, the person responsible for the stickers was identified as Jonathan Charles Koch, who was on probation for a 2009 conviction for possession of child pornography.