GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Amid the heavy presence of police on the University of Florida campus, white nationalist leader Richard Spencer got heckled for more than 30 minutes Thursday afternoon as he tried to deliver remarks and answer questions in front of a crowd of mostly protesters.
Local and state law enforcement authorities largely kept the peace and prevented protesters and Spencer supporters from a repeat of the violent clashes witnessed in August in Charlottesville, Va.
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It’s not clear Spencer ever got the chance to even start his scripted speech before the UF crowd because so many protesters repeatedly told him and his allies to “go home” and chanted, "Say it loud, say it clear, Nazis are not welcome here.”
Spencer responded by telling them that he wasn’t going home, and called their response “pathetic” and childish for refusing to engage him in debate. He argued they were giving him and his white nationalist movement ammunition by shouting him down.
Spencer was later ridiculed during a question-and-answer period. One person asked him what it felt like to be punched in the face or what he’s still doing at the university when so many students had shown up to oppose him.
Inside UF’s Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts auditorium, those opposing Spencer outnumbered those backing the white nationalist.
Others asked him how exactly he would implement his ideal white “ethnostate,” though Spencer gave no clear answer as to how that would happen, or how unwilling people would be deported.
One supporter asked Spencer how he can unite the alt-right given internal religious divides.
A couple of Spencer supporters complained to police after the event that they wished the "disrupters" had been removed so they could hear him speak.
The mood inside the auditorium was tense at times as police in riot gear watched from the balcony.
At least one protester was removed from the event. He had been blocking the view of Spencer supporters with a sign when it was ripped out of his hands. A friend told reporters that the supporters had been calling him names.
Following the speech, a pair of Spencer supporters were greeted by hundreds of protesters who shouted them down. Police then escorted them to a barricaded area for safety.
Late Thursday, police reported that more than 2,500 demonstrators were at the event. They reported making two arrests.
University of Florida President Kent Fuchs applauded the work of law enforcement authorities.
“Despite our worst fears of violence, the University of Florida and the Gainesville community showed the world that love wins,” Fuchs said in a statement. “We’re exceptionally grateful to our law enforcement partners and Governor Scott for providing the resources necessary to ensure the safety of our campus and community.”
Prior to his speech, Spencer held a combative news conference with a gaggle of reporters. He started by demanding a correction from an NBC reporter whom he accused of alleging that the white supremacist and white nationalist leader was only allowing in hardcore supporters. Spencer said he would allow in anyone who “in good faith” wanted to hear him speak.
He tried to bat down the notion that he’s a white supremacist or racist, despite his support for a white “ethnostate.”
“I’m very happy that President Fuchs has stood behind us and let this go through,” Spencer said. Of the administration’s response, he added, “I don’t have any major complaints."
Fuchs condemned Spencer and urged students to boycott the event.
A number of students expressed anger at the administration for allowing the event to take place on campus.
“Most students of color are terrified that Richard Spencer is here, and two, that we have hundreds, if not over a thousand police here,” said Chad Chavira, an organizer of the protest against Spencer’s appearance, told POLITICO. “The administration has been more than complicit in allowing Richard Spencer to come here."
Spencer’s group, the National Policy Institute, was given control of ticket distribution.
Inside the auditorium, VIP Spencer supporters were given their own set of six rows, with most of the audience separated by two taped off rows. Those VIPs were mostly white men dressed in white shirts and khaki pants.
Spencer became the face of the white nationalist movement with the release of a viral video following President Donald Trump’s election last year. Appearing at a conference he organized in Washington, attendees erupted with Nazi salutes following a toast in which Spencer declared, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”
He gained even more media attention following the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., an event he organized in August that ended in violence with nearly two dozen injured and one woman dead in fights between his supporters and anti-Nazi protesters. The woman killed was run over by a speeding car that rammed her and other anti-racism protesters. The driver was a 20-year-old Ohio man who had traveled to Virginia to take part in Spencer’s rally.
Soon after the chaos in Charlottesville, Spencer made plans to speak on the UF campus, but university officials rejected the request for a Sept. 12 event citing "the potential risk for violence following clashes Charlottesville between white nationalists and counter-protesters.”
“I do not have the right to ban hate speech, or things that we condemn as beliefs and language, but we don’t have to allow real violence against our community,” Fuchs told POLITICO in August.
But under threat of a lawsuit, the school relented, setting up Thursday's event.
"Despite not being invited by the University of Florida, National Policy Institute’s President Richard Spencer is scheduled to speak on October 19 on campus,” according to a UF statement announcing the event date. "Although UF leadership has denounced Spencer’s white supremacist rhetoric, the University, as a state entity, must allow the free expression of all viewpoints."
The UF faculty union had urged the school to cancel or refuse to schedule the Spencer event, arguing that it imperiled the safety of faculty and students.
"We raise our voices to emphasize that the discussion of assaults on staff at UF as well as to our academic work on civil rights are not theoretical or futuristic,” faculty union leaders wrote in an op-ed earlier this month. "These attacks and attackers are here now, and we must collectively condemn them and protect the dissemination of knowledge by our colleagues and students. We do not need to be lectured on the nature of free speech. Rather, we need to recognize the difference between arguments based upon research and reasoning to reveal the truths of our society, versus violence-inciting speech based upon lies."
Under the agreement between NPI and UF, the school is charging the group $10,564 to rent the space and for security within the venue itself. That is far short of the at least $500,0000 in security costs the school expects to spend.
Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Alachua County in advance of the speech this week to activate the state's mutual aid plan, which allows for smoother coordination of police officers from multiple jurisdictions and directs the activation of the Florida National Guard, if necessary.
On Thursday, Scott spoke with several state and local law enforcement agencies covering the UF event and stayed away from the white supremacists and neo-Nazi supporters of Spencer. The governor traveled to a Jewish community center near Orlando, where he promoted passage of a bill to provide $1 million in security funding for Jewish Day Schools.
Fuchs urged students to stay away from Spencer’s speech, as did Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a UF alumnus.
“Richard Spencer craves publicity,” Rubio tweeted. “Desperate to incite outrage b/c terrified of [UF] speech no one shows up for.”
Protesters against Spencer and his white nationalist and neo-Nazi supporters planned a “No Nazis at UF” rally outside the auditoruim where Spencer delivered his speech. Joining protesters was Chris King, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
Students are hosting at the same time as Spencer’s event a “virtual assembly” as part of a "#TogetherUF campaign" to get students, faculty and staff talking about race relations, cooperation, diversity and other topics.
“We want to recognize that individuals can disagree and still maintain the same respect and understanding for one another,” said Ianne Itchon, one of the students planning the broader campaign. “We are seeking to rally students against hate and all its forms and to provide platforms for community action and education.”
Meanwhile, conservative firebrand Rep. Ted Yoho, a Republican whose congressional district includes UF, echoed Trump’s controversial rhetoric about “both sides” following the deadly events in Charlottesville.
"I refuse to be anywhere near this event because Richard Spencer and Antifa’s viewpoints are both morally repugnant,” Yoho said in a statement.> Share on Facebook > Share on Twitter