Cameron Padgett says he’s not a racist.
He calls himself an “identitarian,” a phrase coined by Richard Spencer, a leader in the white nationalist community who has explicitly advocated for a whites-only nation. That word, like “alt-right,” Spencer’s other linguistic contribution, dodges the nastier connotations that common terms like white nationalist, white supremacist or Nazi carry.
Padgett, 29, the graduate student who books Spencer’s campus speeches, is the fruit of Spencer’s rebranding campaign: A well-off young man who grew up in a non-political home who feels comfortable sitting in a public place discussing ideas of racial superiority and inferiority.
Inside a hookah cafe in Atlanta, down the street from Georgia State University, where Padgett is earning a graduate degree in finance, he sips his drink and talks race.
“Identitarian means you identify with your race, with your people, with your culture,” he said. “I’d say everyone in Japan is an identitarian. Everyone in Japan. I’d say everyone is an identitarian. They might not admit that because propaganda and things like that.”
He points to the megachurches in Atlanta, separated into majority black and majority white, to public schools, to the suburbs.
“No one forces them to do that. They just naturally do that.”
He thumps his LSAT study notes for emphasis. Padgett sees this segregation as the answer to racial division. The U.S. would be a better place, he says, if every race were relegated to their own corner of the country to live.
Spencer calls him a friend and a “go-getter,” without whom he couldn’t have been able to pull off his uninvited campus tour and spread his message of an all-white nation. He even let Padgett run his Periscope video when his white nationalist movement returned to Charlottesville to protest again, weeks after a young woman died in the protests.
“This wouldn’t be possible without him,” Spencer said.
Padgett’s involvement with Spencer and the white nationalist community has changed his life. He’s studying for a graduate degree in finance at GSU, but now he wants to switch careers and become a “civil rights” lawyer dedicated to defending the movement he’s a part of.
That was never supposed to be the plan.
Padgett grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Savannah. His father owned a small business and his family never talked politics.
“I don’t even know if my parents have ever voted before,” he said.
He went to Calvary Baptist, a private Christian school where boys put on ties every week for chapel. He played basketball and baseball well enough to end up in the Savannah hall of fame for both.
Brian Whitmarsh, who met Padgett in baseball practice in ninth grade, said they meet up every other week for drinks and deep dives into politics, a topic they never touched on in school. They don’t go to white nationalist events together, Whitmarsh, 30, said, but they attended a Donald Trump rally in August of 2016.
He says his friend is a smart, funny man with “a lot of pro-Western values.”
“He’s definitely not racist, not from my perspective as a close friend of his,” Whitmarsh said.
Padgett’s path to Spencer began when he started reading Pat Buchanan, a former staffer to President Ronald Reagan and former presidential candidate, and watching prominent “academic racist” Jared Taylor’s videos on race-based crime statistics on YouTube. He read about Spencer’s net neutral immigration policy and agreed with it.
He got a Twitter account and started posting his thoughts on diversity, white privilege and “anti-white sentiment.” Nathan Damigo, the head of Identity Evropa, a group focused on preserving white European culture, reached out through direct message and invited him into the community.
The day after Trump won the presidency, Damigo, known for punching a female counter-protester in the head at an April rally dubbed the “Battle of Berkeley,” took to the live-streaming app Periscope and described how he drove around and shouted at non-white people: “You have to go back!”
Padgett was absorbed quickly into the white nationalist movement. Damigo introduced him to the Atlanta “alt-right” crowd, where he met Sam Dickson, a former Ku Klux Klan lawyer who would go on to represent him in a case against Auburn University in Alabama.
Soon after, Padgett decided he wanted to hear Spencer speak in person. But he didn’t want to invite him to his own school, where the majority of the student body are people of color.
“I don’t want to get killed on campus,” he said. “The main audience we want to speak to are European people.”
So Padgett chose Auburn. When the school balked at hosting a notorious racist, Padgett and Spencer badgered them on a daily basis, before the university eventually came out with a firm no, based on security concerns.
Padgett hired Dickson and took the university to court, where they won on First Amendment grounds. Auburn was forced to host Spencer and pay Padgett nearly $30,000. The speech itself wasn’t well-attended, and the people that did show up were “largely middle-aged white men who didn’t appear to be students,” according to The Plainsman, the Auburn student newspaper. Victory, Spencer declared.
Padgett booked more schools, starting with the University of Florida and including Penn State, Michigan State University and the University of Cincinnati.
Then came Charlottesville. Spencer, Damigo and a host of other far right personalities Padgett follows organized a “Unite the Right” rally in the city. The night before, a crowd of right-wing protesters bearing tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil,” marched to a Confederate statue.
The next morning, the same protesters appeared in the city sporting helmets and shields. They clashed with a crowd of counter-protesters, some of them antifascists, and violence ensued. A man rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Police charged a man seen marching with the white nationalists with the killing.
Days later, the University of Florida announced that Spencer wanted to speak there too, an event booked by Padgett and supported by no student. At first, UF President Kent Fuchs denied the request over security concerns. Padgett’s new lawyer, Gainesville’s Gary Edinger, said the university was violating Spencer’s First Amendment rights.
Under threat of a lawsuit and criticism from both sides, the university agreed to host Spencer, saying it was unconstitutional to deny him speaking space. Padgett will be there Thursday to introduce him.
With his favorite thought leader set to speak at one of the biggest schools in the Southeast, in what is sure to be a media spectacle, Padgett doesn’t let what he calls the “injustice” of the initial denial go. He rails about Fuchs, the highest paid university president in the state, “telling students what to think” by suggesting they avoid Spencer’s speech.
He repeatedly tweets photos of Fuchs performing the well-known UF gator chomp, and crops the bottom of the photo to make it look like the president is performing a Nazi salute.
“He was /our guy/ the whole time,” Padgett wrote, a nod to a meme that developed on the internet forum 4chan that references someone who represents the community’s core beliefs.
It’s hypocrisy, he says, that a man he sees as wealthy could talk about equality like that.
Padgett sees a lot of hypocrisy in the world. In the leaders of Christian churches, in politicians, in the socially acceptable ways to speak about race. He insists there are real, genetic differences in the athletic and mental abilities of different racial groups, something scientists have long called wrong and racist.
He doesn’t know why it isn’t OK for him to have white pride.
“To be honest, the United States was founded by European people. Colonized,” he corrects himself. “This country is defined by European people.”
Padgett’s willingness to put his name on his views has earned him fame in the white nationalist community, but one of his mentors, the former Klan lawyer Dickson, with whom he often has cookouts with, warns him to be careful.
“Anybody that touches these issues is taking a tremendous risk with his career, and with the violence of antifa, his life,” Dickson said.
Dickson lost his own 45-year legal career after the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote “How Klan Lawyer Sam Dickson Got Rich,” and mailed it to every judge and attorney in town. He calls the story a “vile smear.”
“It’s never been easy in history,” he said, “but someone has to protest anti-white discrimination.”