GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Audience members began heckling and chanting Thursday at a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer, hoping to drown him out during an appearance at the University of Florida that sparked protests and intense security.
Spencer struggled to deliver his speech, but was overwhelmed by shouting and boos. At one point he said, “You know that what I am saying here will change the world.” At another point, he called the audience a mob.
People chanted, “Black lives matter!” and “Go home, Spencer!”
“Are you adults?” Spencer asked at one point. “It doesn’t look like it.”
Spencer called the crowd “shrieking and grunting morons.”
They responded by chanting, “Let’s go, Gators!”
Many were protesting outside, as well.
“We have a duty to fight for our freedom,” a woman in an orange tank top shouted, leading a group of arriving marchers who repeated her words in unison.
The campus of 52,000 students had been eerily quiet Thursday morning, with a heavy police presence, barricades and road closures, but by early afternoon, crowds of protesters had gathered to counter the event.
The event was Spencer’s first public speech on a college campus since he led torch-bearing followers through the University of Virginia in August, the start of a weekend of clashes between white nationalists and white supremacists and counterprotesters that turned deadly in Charlottesville the next day.
Spencer’s efforts to speak at UF have been closely watched, and bitterly debated — a sign not only of how raw the tensions over race and culture are in this country now, but of the intensity of the fight over free speech on college campuses.
Inside the heavily secured performing arts center where the white nationalist is scheduled to speak, Spencer answered questions at an often contentious press conference. He said it was “absolutely right” that the university and state expected to spend more than $600,000 on security for his event. “This is the free speech issue of our day.”
Asked whether he was a racist, he said he was not a racist in a “cartoonish” sense but that “Yes, race is real, race matters and race is the foundation of identity.”
Eight- undred tickets were handed out for the event but the lower level of the auditorium looked to be only about half filled moments before Spencer began his speech. A theater manager said there were about 400 people inside, including media.
People came to the event for many reasons.
“I came here to support Spencer because after Charlottesville, the radical left threatened my family and children because I was seen and photographed in Charlottesville,” said Tyler TenBrink, 29. “The man’s got the brass to say what nobody else will.”
Spencer says “raise your hand if you identify with the alt-right”. About 40 in the crowd raise their hand.
— Joe Heim (@JoeHeim) October 19, 2017
Crew Kinnard, 58, a nurse from Gainesville, came to hear what Spencer had to say “because I want to know what I’m arguing against.
“I want to know what logic and what information he might be using. It breaks my heart that this is happening in the 21st century, but we all have freedom of speech.”
Emmanuel Kizito, a 20-year-old political science major at UF, sat near the back of the auditorium with a group of black students. He said he “came to witness Spencer’s violent rhetoric and to indict the University of Florida and President Fuchs who emboldened his ideals by allowing him to speak.”
Asked if he was worried about violence or if he thought the event could be dangerous, he replied, “as a black man, everywhere in America is dangerous for me.”
Partway through the event, people began protesting.
Crowd standing fists raised and chanting Go home Spencer! pic.twitter.com/uPo5CCpWbL
— Joe Heim (@JoeHeim) October 19, 2017
Zachary Bautista, a University of Florida medical student, said he views the protest as part of a larger series of demonstrations related to hate and injustice in communities across the country. There was the women’s march against Trump and racism in Washington. There were the marches against racial inequality in Missouri.
Now, it’s Gainesville’s turn, he said.
“Having the presence of someone like Richard Spencer here is a call to action for us,” Bautista, 23, said. “This is our opportunity to let everyone know we don’t agree with this. We want everyone to know we want equality and opportunity and for everyone to get along.”
Police on Thursday had fenced off a vast parking lot adjacent to the complex where Spencer will give his speech. Campus police, officers from the Florida Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies took up positions around the campus and the designated protest zone Thursday morning.
All major roads leading to the event were blocked by dump trucks or other large vehicles.
Outside the barriers, a sign listed dozens of prohibited items: no firearms, tasers, fireworks, torches, masks or chains; no wagons or pull carts; no pets, no drones, no skateboards or laser pointers. Metal detectors would be used to screen people, the sign also noted.
The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office announced on its Twitter feed that officers had arrested a 28-year-old man from Orlando for carrying a firearm on school property.
And there’s a massive police presence including hundreds of Florida state troopers. Officers also watching from atop buildings. pic.twitter.com/4kGOjEHOWW
— Joe Heim (@JoeHeim) October 19, 2017
Gov. Rick Scott (R) declared a state of emergency days before the speech. University officials sent out cautionary emails about “the event,” as they called it, urging students to avoid the area and denouncing the “hateful rhetoric” of the National Policy Institute.
And protesters converged, blitzing social media and preparing to gather on campus. No Nazis at UF urged solidarity on social media, and offered detailed plans and shuttle rides to get as close as possible to the closed-off area.
“Today is the day, everyone,” they posted. “All our hard work will culminate in a few hours. Richard Spencer and his neo-Nazi supporters have invaded our campus and community. We must show solidarity as a community in the face of those that wish to incite fear and violence against the most marginalized amongst us.”
Mike Ryan-Siminovich, 39, a stay-at-home dad from Gainesville, was trying to find tickets to see Spencer’s speech. His plan was to attend the event and then walk out when Spencer started speaking to “demonstrate my contempt for his odious views.”
Ryan-Siminovich said he acknowledged that Spencer’s right to speak was protected by the First Amendment and he would not try to silence him by yelling.
“A roomful of angry liberals shouting at him does more to promote his ideas than people walking out in contempt does,” he said.
Spencer’s supporters were planning, as well. On the Daily Stormer, Andrew Anglin advised people to dress inconspicuously (“if you’ve got Nazi tattoos, cover them up”), avoid the designated protest area (“TRAP ZONE”) and try to get a ticket to the speech.
He also advised them to stay in Gainesville if they couldn’t get a ticket. “The entire campus is going to be crawling with security and cops. . . . The point is to confuse the situation and to create public attention, to make it feel like the entire city is taken over by our guys.”
He told supporters to create flash mobs — he suggested heading to a Jewish student center and an institute for black culture, among other sites — and suggested chants such as “You/Jews will not replace us.”
Anglin is known for his trolling tactics, said Marilyn Mayo of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism; earlier this year, he trolled a community in Montana, saying he would bring 200 racist skinheads to town, which never happened.
But she said they believe there may be 50 to 100 white supremacists in Gainesville on Thursday; several leaders of such groups said they planned to be there. Those supporters “may listen to him and do these flash mobs,” she said.
Spencer is trying to keep the momentum going for his movement by appealing to college students, Mayo said, “trying to get young disaffected whites interested in white nationalism,” as well as getting media attention.
The ADL has tracked a concerted effort by white supremacist groups to target college campuses with speeches and fliers.
The school’s Black Student Union leaders urged caution to those who choose to protest. “Your safety and well being take precedence over the ignorance that will be spewed,” they wrote.
BSU felt it necessary to release a statement in regards to the arrival of aggressive, white nationalists in our town. Stay safe! pic.twitter.com/FqUBQDtShY
— Black Student Union (@UF_BSU) October 19, 2017
Class attendance was optional Thursday for most students, with the university administration telling professors to be sensitive to students who might not feel safe being on campus while the Spencer event was going on.
UF president W. Kent Fuchs this week said the Spencer speech and the expected protests around it basically “hijacked” the university, and will costed more than $600,000.
University administrators had urged students to stay away from Spencer’s speech and the protests Thursday. And in the middle of campus, far from the barricaded area around his event, many seemed to be heeding that message, as they strolled or rode their bikes between classes as usual.
Sahara Peters, a recent graduate, said she chose to protest instead of ignoring Spencer because of the media presence.
“If Richard Spencer gets the privilege of capitalizing on the media presence to promote his message of white supremacy, then I get to capitalize on the media presence to promote a message of love, inclusivity and progress with the spirit of diversity,” she said.
Many students chose to counter Spencer’s message, including student leaders who planned a virtual assembly with videos and performances about unity.
— Paige Fry (@paigexfry) October 19, 2017
UF officials had hoped to avoid all this.
After violence followed a Charlottesville rally, several public universities, including UF, announced that they would not allow Spencer to speak on campus, citing imminent threats.
But his supporters and a lawyer countered that it would violate the First Amendment, saying the university could not deny him the right to speak based on possible protest from people who disagree with his message — the “heckler’s veto.”
This spring, a federal judge reversed Auburn University’s cancellation of a speech by Spencer, ruling that a decision based on the content of the speech was unconstitutional given no evidence that Spencer was promoting violence.
UF reluctantly agreed earlier this month to allow Spencer to speak.
No Nazis at UF posted on social media Wednesday night that school officials could have used the hundreds of thousands of dollars they expected to spend on security for the event for legal fees instead.
— The Dream Defenders (@Dreamdefenders) October 17, 2017
On Tuesday, Spencer said in an interview with The Washington Post he’s expecting about 1,000 members of the anti-fascist movement known as antifa to protest the event.
He is hoping there will be no violence, he said, but, “I’ll admit that it’s true that the tension created by the antifa that does add to the event.”
With a state of emergency already declared by the governor, Spencer said there’s a good chance that the speech will be canceled.
“There will be some violent act. There will be a fight. Someone will push over a barricade. And they’ll use that to shut down the event,” he said.
“And they will protect me, but I will basically be a prisoner. There will be no event, and I’ll leave.”
The more likely possibility, he said, is that it will go as planned, as a similar speech did at Texas A&M University. University officials created a counter-rally.
“There were tons of protesters and lots of people who wanted to heckle me. And that was fine, I kind of like it. If someone didn’t heckle me, I’d almost be disappointed,” he said.
One other outcome he could imagine: “There’s a real small possibility of real terrible s—, for lack of a better term. The antifa are terrible, they are nasty people.”
UF’s president, W. Kent Fuchs, continued to urge the campus community to avoid Spencer’s speech, saying opposition gives the oxygen white supremacists need to survive.
“By giving him attention and confronting him, it allows him to be portrayed as a victim and draws sympathy to him in some quarters,” Fuchs said.