It has been a summer of fear, protest and tension in this crunchy college town ever since the popular Saturday morning farmers market was jolted by allegations that a husband and wife who had been longtime sellers of organic tomatoes and kale were also white nationalists.
The accusations exploded into public view after activists and online sleuths used federal court records and the leaked archives of a far-right message board to uncover a digital trail they say connects the couple who own Schooner Creek Farm to an organization that promotes white nationalism and “white American identity.”
The rumors of white supremacy amid the stalls of clover honey and sweet corn left farmers and shoppers reeling: Not even their seemingly placid farmers market was immune from the battles over extremism convulsing the country at a time of rising alarm over white supremacist violence.
In recent weeks, residents packed public meetings to debate whether Schooner Creek should be asked to leave or allowed to stay. There were protests and counterprotests. Some decided to stay away from the turmoil. Others, like Williams farmer friend, were so disturbed by the unrest they considered arming themselves.
The situation grew so volatile that Bloomington’s mayor suspended the market late last month over public safety concerns. It abruptly short-circuited the heart of Saturday morning life in this heavily white, liberal town of 85,000 that is home to Indiana University. The market has more than 130 vendors and draws as many as 12,000 people downtown at the height of the growing season.
“It’s been the most challenging, complex, difficult situation this market has faced in its 45-year history,” said Marcia Veldman, the market coordinator.
Anti-fascist protesters showed up one weekend dressed in black to stand in front of Schooner Creek Farm’s vegetable stall. A week later, armed members of a conservative militia group drove into Bloomington to support the farm against what they called anti-fascist enemies. Online, members of white nationalist groups have seized on the story and rallied behind Schooner Creek.
Schooner Creek’s owners deny being white supremacists, and say they keep their political beliefs out of the market. They have said on social media that they are being harassed, demonized and hounded out of the farmers market by left-wing activists because of “a handful of mildly pro-white comments.” They have not been accused of any wrongdoing or violence, and say they are the ones who have become victims of “the cult of the left.”
The farmers did not respond to questions about their beliefs or political activities, but Sarah Dye, one of Schooner Creek’s owners, told the Fox 59 television station in Indianapolis that “we absolutely reject supremacy.”
“I am disgusted at the level of lies, misinformation, falsehoods and intimidation by those who do not know me or my family,” she said. Dye referred to herself as “an identitarian,” which she described as a worldview that “emphasizes the importance of identity.”
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, described the European-rooted identitarian movement as repackaged white supremacy that opposed immigration and promoted white identity.
The sense of unease grew in early August when Bloomington police said they were investigating flyers found around town that showed a hooded Klansman and proclaimed a Klan “neighborhood watch” — a menacing reminder that one of the largest, most powerful branches of the Ku Klux Klan was once centered in Indiana. A police spokesman said they have identified no suspects and made no arrests.
“It wears on you,” Williams, the gluten-free baker, said, referring to the tension around town.
His wife, Brandi, who is biracial, said the couple began worrying for their safety after she spoke up at a public meeting. She spotted a car passing back and forth in front of their home, and now has her husband, a former jail officer, sleep in the living room some nights so he can be close to the front door. The Williamses and other couples said they have stopped bringing their children to the market.
“All the joy has been sucked out of it,” Brandi Williams said. “I do not feel safe.”
In an email, Dye, who runs Schooner Creek with her husband, Douglas Mackey, said she had no plans to leave the market despite pressure from activists who now hand out buttons that say “Don’t Buy Veggies From Nazis.”
“I have helped establish other farmers markets in the area and we have strong ties to our community,” Dye wrote. “We look forward to participating in the Bloomington Community Farmers Market for many more years to come.”
Local market vendors said there had been rumblings and puzzling outbursts involving Schooner Creek Farm since late 2016. People would silently position themselves in front of Schooner Creek’s stand or aggressively ask the owners about fascism or hating Jews. Schooner Creek’s owners told Bloomington police they were targets of intimidation by anti-fascist activists.
“I thought it was a prank,” said Susan Welsand, who sells chiles at a nearby stand. She said the uproar has turned the market into a “Trump tweet.”
The public outcry crystallized this spring after federal prosecutors filed a long sentencing document in a criminal case against Nolan Brewer, a 21-year-old man who idolized Nazis and pleaded guilty to a hate-crime charge for painting swastikas on a synagogue in Carmel, Indiana.
Deep in the 200-page document was a 2018 FBI interview in which Brewer briefly mentioned meeting with “Sarah and Douglas,” and reported that the woman had been posting as “Volkmom” on a chat board of Identity Evropa, which the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center call a white nationalist or white supremacist group. The group has since rebranded as the American Identity Movement.
Activists said they had found ties between the farm and the white nationalist group after scouring hundreds of chat messages posted by Volkmom and photos of a greenhouse and organic vegetables on her property. They began petitioning Bloomington to remove Schooner Creek from the market.
Residents crowded into public meetings and argued about the limits of free expression and intolerance in the public square. For weeks, the local newspaper and public-radio station have been tracking every twist in the saga.
Dye and Mackey did not respond to questions about whether they knew Brewer or were part of any white nationalist organizations, or whether Dye had written the “Volkmom” posts. Mackey’s mother, Linda, defended the couple in a brief phone interview.
“They sell organic vegetables,” Mackey said. “They’re not horrible people.”
Bloomington has declined to remove Schooner Creek from the market. Mayor John Hamilton said the farmers had First Amendment rights to their personal views as participants in a city-run market, and said the farm did not appear to be breaking any written rules about how vendors should behave at the market.
While some in Bloomington want Schooner Creek to leave, others said they wished protesters would drop their cause. In late July, an associate professor at Indiana University was arrested as she held up a paper sign in front of the Schooner Creek stand. Protesters yelled “Shame, shame!” as police officers escorted her away from the market.
After the official market was suspended, an improvised market popped up one recent Saturday in the parking lot of a shuttered Kmart. Several farmers said they had lost money amid the unrest and just wanted the market to return to normal.
“Everybody has a right to their personal beliefs,” said Chris Hunter, who said she had sold honey since “forever” at the market. “I may not agree with their beliefs, but they’re still people.”
Little has been resolved, but the farmers market reopened Saturday, peacefully so far, with new security cameras and more police officers on hand.
“We can’t let it be hijacked by fear or hatred,” Hamilton said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.