Robert Poe’s students at Arizona State University frantically contacted him last month to ask why he was no longer listed as an instructor on their class lists.
“Hey, what’s going on?” “Are you still teaching the class?” “We didn’t know whether somebody else would come in Tuesday of next week, we don’t know what’s going on with the class,” they asked him.
The students were given no notice, but Poe knew full well what was happening: ASU was trying to scrub away any public trace of his current position as a teacher.
Poe, who is a faculty associate and a PhD student at the university, had been drawn into the white freakout over a course the school was offering on “the problem of whiteness” in mid-February. Poe held an informal debate about the course, called a “teach-in,” that prompted white nationalist groups to launch email campaigns against him and the university.
Poe told TPM recently that he believes the university is aligning itself with those white nationalist groups by choosing to stay silent about those activists’ meddling on campus. Instead of coming to his defense, Poe said ASU’s administration has scrubbed his status as a teacher from the Internet and made overtures that it wanted him fired altogether.
It all started when a member of the National Youth Front, a white nationalist organization that is working to get the “problem of whiteness” class shut down, attended Poe’s teach-in event and asked whether he advocated violence against racists. The activist filmed Poe’s response and posted it to YouTube with the title “ASU Professor Robert Poe Publicly Advocates Violence on Campus.”
“I advocate violence against racists who choose to politically mobilize,” Poe said on the video, which spread quickly among white nationalist organizations and neo-Nazi message boards. “I think we have decent historical precedent for that.”
Poe told TPM that his troubles with ASU’s administration began shortly afterward.
As complaints flooded in about the video, Poe said any information indicating that he’s teaching a course this semester was scrubbed from his faculty profile. The page currently lists a fall 2014 class called “Principles of Justice Studies” as the last course that Poe taught.
Poe said ASU even went as far as to remove his name from his current students’ class lists.
“They started contacting me being like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Are you still teaching the class?’” Poe recalled.
“So I was the one who had to sit down in class, and I even had my students watch the video that [the administration is] upset about,” he added. “My students were just like, ‘You say clearly in the video that those are your personal politics and this isn’t something you’re doing in the classroom.’”
Poe told TPM that leadership in ASU’s School of Social Transformation, where he is enrolled as a doctoral student, lobbied for him to keep his teaching job when university administration attempted to fire him. Poe described removing any public record of him teaching during the spring semester as a “compromise.”
“I don’t think that they’re worried about an ASU student speaking out,” he said. “But they are worried about an ASU faculty member speaking out.”
TPM reached out to ASU’s press office Thursday for comment on Poe’s claims that the administration attempted to fire him. An administrative assistant took down TPM’s questions but the university did not provide a response.
But if the administration was trying to stop Poe from speaking out about the “problem of whiteness class,” they failed.
The first time that Poe started telling people that the administration had tried to fire him was at a March 3 demonstration. ASU students had gathered to protest the involvement of groups like the National Youth Front on campus and to show support for Poe and the English department professor who teaches the “problem of whiteness” class, Lee Bebout.
One person who showed up to counter-protest was carrying a large flag with National Youth Front’s logo. Also, there was neo-Nazi Harry Hughes of the National Socialist Movement and a few others. Hughes was a longtime friend of political activist and white supremacist JT Ready, who shot and killed himself in 2012 after massacring four other people in a house in a suburb of Phoenix.
The demonstrations were filmed by activists on both sides. Poe’s defenders carried signs reading “Support anti-racist students and faculty” and “Silencing professors = Nazi compliance,” while his critics waved posters that read “Sorry Poe you gotta go” and “Bebout’s class is anti-white.”
In one video, Poe was shown approaching the people protesting the “problem of whiteness” class on the side of the road.
“ASU’s a liberal bastion, so it should be coming out and supporting me, right?” Poe said into a megaphone. “Actually, ASU doesn’t come out and support me, it comes and takes disciplinary action against me.”
In response, a bearded man waving a National Youth Front flag chanted “Thank you ASU” and “discipline Poe again.”
In another video, the same bearded man asked Poe about his “advocation of violence.” The Phoenix New Times identified the man as John Hess, a National Youth Front member who said he filmed Poe at February’s teach-in event. Poe responded that he was proud to resist what he described as a history of violent racism.
“I am definitely proud to count myself among the people who resist violent racism that’s backed up by the state in this country,” Poe said. “So you can go through the long history of rebellions, whether its slave rebellions, whether it’s the riots in the 1960s against racist fucking cops. … Yeah, I fucking advocate violence against pieces of shit like you that advocate and celebrate that rich history.”
“Yeah, I’m a proud supporter of violent self-defense,” he continued. “I’ll fucking say it to the ASU administration who wants to fire me too. You know what? The other thing too, after all those fucking threats, I’m standing right fucking here.”
Poe told TPM he “absolutely” stands by those remarks.
“The way that the National Youth Front argues it, they want to say, ‘Well, he’s committing violence against whites,'” Poe said. “The statement was very clear, it’s just that they don’t want to catch the nuance in it, which is racists who politically organize.”
ASU did not respond last month when TPM reached out about reports that white supremacists and neo-Nazi types were threatening Bebout, the professor who teaches the “problem of whiteness course.” Poe said that he’s gotten about two dozen emails, too, which he described as “a mixed variety of threats and attempting to engage me in some sort of conversation about things.”
But he said he doesn’t fear for his safety.
“Even though I’m mindful of my personal security, it was more that I didn’t want to have to worry about the ASU administration at the same time,” he said.
For now, Poe said he’s just going to focus on trying to complete his doctoral degree. He said he’s less concerned about his ability to teach than about the university’s silence on the activity of white nationalist groups on campus.
“The further [the university] stays silent, the more it allows other people to speak on its behalf,” he said. “The fact that neo-Nazis and white nationalists will stand out on the corner and thank them — are those are the people that you want thanking you for taking action?”