In times when the lines between activists and journalists are more commonly blurred than defined — politically motivated smear campaigns have led to people across the nation finding themselves the target of life-destroying online witch hunts.
One such person was Nicholas Dean, a once popular New Orleans Crescent Leadership Academy public school principal who was labeled a “white supremacist” and found himself in the internet and media’s crosshairs after attending the removal of a Confederate statue.
Dean, a military veteran, went to the Robert E. Lee Memorial in the early morning hours of May 19. He told Big League Politics that his motivation for attending was to “see history in the making.”
Due to the previous three Confederate memorials in the city being removed in the middle of the night, Dean assumed that this one would follow suit, and went to the site around 2:30 a.m. When he arrived, there were already approximately 200 people gathered, around 20 of whom were holding Confederate flags.
“I naturally gravitated toward the highest point where I could have the best view and the fewest people at my back. I noticed a man who worked with me, Madania Graves, who works at Young Artists, Young Aspirations (YAYA) in New Orleans. We started an art program at my former school and he became a part of that by coming to do art with the kids about once a week. I approached Mr. Graves and we had a casual conversation. He told me he was there to do some journalism and I told him I was there to see the Memorial come down, however it didn’t look like it was going to happen that night and that I wouldn’t stay too much longer,” Dean told BLP. “We shook hands, he hugged me, and we parted ways. I didn’t know anyone else there.”
Dean maintains that he was at the memorial site simply to observe what was happening, and had not attended as a protester.
The following day, a Saturday, Graves appeared on a radio show called “The MisBelief” on WBOK 1230 AM. Despite the friendly exchange the evening before, the journalist described taking a photo of Dean at the event standing near a Confederate flag, and described how disturbed he was about seeing him at the event.
On Sunday, Dean would learn about Graves’ claims after a teacher at his school anonymously sent him the photograph — which had began to go viral on social media.
“My superintendent and direct supervisor, Tracy Bennett Joseph soon thereafter called to alert me of the pending crisis. She was concerned and insisted they would do their best to mitigate any damage,” Dean explained.
Dean then called the president of the school board, Warren Atkins, to explain his side of the story.
“He also assured me that things would settle down and that he knew the story unfolding on social media was untrue,” Dean said.
By Monday, claims that Dean was a white supremacist had taken on a life of their own. He described to Big League Politics watching his life begin to unravel.
“I left work after the morning briefing to watch my daughter’s pre-k closing ceremony. When I returned to work, I was informed that I would be suspended until further notice for my own safety,” Dean told BLP.
Local media outlets began reporting that Dean had been “removed from the school,” as if he was at fault instead of the claims by his supervisor that it was “for his own safety.”
As Dean attempted to defend himself in the media, he was removed from his email account for the school district. He asked his wife to send him an email to see what had happened, and it bounced back with an automated reply saying that “Mr. Dean is unavailable at this time. Your email has been forwarded to Superintendent Tracy Bennett-Joseph.”
Dean tells Big League that this is the point when he realized the school district did not have his best interest in mind, and would not be allied in his attempts to clear his name.
On May 25, a local reporter found a video of Dean attending a “Battle of New Orleans” protest on May 7. The reporter alleged that he was wearing “Nazi rings” in the video.
Dean was seen in the video with a shield and helmet, which has become fairly common attire for those on the right when attending protests these days due to violence from far-left protesters.
The Times Picayune reported:
“Nicholas Dean, Principal of Crescent Leadership Academy was in attendance during the May 7, 2017 ‘Battle of New Orleans’; aligned with known white nationalist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, League of the South and the Based Stick Man movement. :22 Seconds into the video, he can clearly be seen wearing two rings, one depicting the Nazi SS Skull and the other the German Iron Cross, both symbols of the Nazi regime.”
While it is common for fringe elements on the right to attend various rallies, it does not mean that everyone in attendance shares the same views with every stranger present on race relations — and it is dishonest to claim that they do.
In a statement to the New Orleans Advocate, Mark Pitcavage, of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said “Spartan symbols are often used by right-wing extremists, though he added that the video alone in this case was not enough to conclude Dean has white supremacist or Nazi leanings. He expressed some doubts that Dean’s skull ring was actually a reference to the so-called Totenkopf, an old German symbol made up of a skull and crossbones that was often used by the Nazis. And he said the Iron Cross is not necessarily used as a hate symbol.”
Though that statement should have at least made people pause and consider asking him what his beliefs are, instead the narrative and story continued on its viral flight.
The day after the article was released, Dean was asked to resign.
Big League Politics asked Dean about the rings, which he described as a “sugar skull” and a “version of the Christian cross” which his ancestors wore during the crusades.
“The ‘sugar skull’ ring is ornamental and I liked the design. If anything, the skull is what we all look like at the end of the day. When the superficial, glamour, and costume is stripped away, that’s what we all look like,” Dean said of the ring that the Advocate had deemed a “Nazi Skull.”
“The ‘iron cross’ is simply a version of the Christian cross. I have it as symbol of what my ancestors wore during the crusades. That version of the cross was present during much of Western Civilization’s development, and I am grateful for what those men and women built,” Dean explained of the ring that the Advocate had labeled a hate symbol — despite doubt by the ADL.
Unable to agree on a severance package, Dean was fired the following week and left high and dry.
“If the Times had not falsely reported that I was wearing a Nazi SS ring, I wouldn’t have been in such a grave situation. That report was devastating, and false. Politically, I am on the ‘right’ but that should not cost me my career. False reporting cost me my job and career,” Dean told Big League Politics.
BLP also asked Dean if he holds any white supremacist beliefs.
“The definition of a white supremacist is ‘a person who believes that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races’. That does not represent my core values or beliefs,” Dean stated.
He elaborated that in groups that focus on race, there is often a “sort of socialism” where if you meet someone of your ethnicity they automatically assume the person is good, “as if the presence or absence of a certain melanin is all that it’s about.”
“For me race is as much spiritual as it would be physical. If a somebody asked me to stand with them because they are white, I would first want to know things like, what is your quality, what is your intellect, how do you define your morality, what do you know about your civilization, how far are you willing to go to fight for it, what pain are you willing to endure for your family, how do you understand your own death, and such,” he added.
Tahj Cruell, a black student at Crescent Leadership Academy, was one of several students who spoke highly of Dean to NPR in 2015.
“It ain’t no bad school. The principal, Mr. Dean, is a good man,” Cruell said. “He works with you. It’s hard to get into trouble because the teachers here understand you. And if you get into trouble here, you’re just ignorant.”
NPR also reported that, “by all accounts, the school has made progress under principal Dean. The graduation rate is expected to jump to 73 percent this year, a big improvement.”
Dean told Big League Politics that he has a lawyer taking a look at his case, and may pursue a lawsuit against the Times Picayune and/or the school district.