White Supremacist Richard Spencer Faces Barrage of Protest at Florida Speech
Lois Beckett, The Guardian, October 19, 2017
The white supremacist Richard Spencer took the stage at the University of Florida on Thursday after his supporters threatened to sue if he was not allowed to speak.
But minutes after he began to talk, the majority of the crowd of hundreds in the auditorium stood together, raised their fists, and started chanting “Go home, Spencer! Go home, Spencer!”
For the next hour, most of the crowd stayed standing, booing and chanting over Spencer’s remarks as he angrily compared the crowd to a mob and to “immature preschoolers who aren’t ready for ideas that might get a bit challenging”.
“You can’t hide,” the audience chanted back at him, “You support genocide!”
Over the screams and boos, Spencer answered a series of audience questions but spent much of his time berating the crowd, many of them University of Florida students, for heckling him.
“You are trying to shut down a dissident intellectual,” Spencer told the roaring crowd. He reproached them for not appreciating “the most important free speech event of your lifetime”.
At one point, Spencer did a quick little caper onstage, dancing along to the chants against him and waving his arms sardonically.
While Spencer praised university leaders for respecting his freedom of speech, protesters repeatedly invoked the specter of the violent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.
One questioner asked Spencer if he felt responsible for violence carried out in the name of his movement, including death of a counter-protester after the rally in Charlottesville.
When Spencer mentioned the name of Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who died when a car plowed into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, the audience began to chant: “It’s your fault! It’s your fault!”
Law enforcement officials wearing riot gear and helmets watched the raucous auditorium from balconies on either side of the stage. The event was overwhelmingly peaceful, with what appeared to be only a handful of arrests related to the event, though local law enforcement had yet to release full details by the time Spencer finished speaking.
More than 500 protesters had amassed outside the event, chanting and waving anti-Nazi and anti-racist signs. One teacher from Gainesville held a large piece of paper that read “Remember Heather Heyer”. Two students held a sign that said “Get out of my swamp”. Many protesters carried signs or wore stickers that showed the Nazi swastika crossed out.
The university’s president said that providing security for Spencer to speak had cost more than $600,000, and long lines of state and local law enforcement officers surrounded the Phillips Center, which was cordoned off behind elaborate barricades. A long list of items that could be used as weapons, from firearms to sporting equipment, posters with sticks to water bottles, were forbidden from being brought into the protest.
There was one report of pepper spray being used after the speech concluded, and a white man in a white shirt seen outside the venue after the event had the flushed, dripping face of someone who had been pepper-sprayed and then doused himself with water.
Spencer did have supporters in the auditorium he rented from the University of Florida for his speech. The front two rows of the auditorium were filled with two lines of white men in white shirts, some with Nazi-era “fashy” haircuts that are popular among the “alt-right”.
Along with this group of about 20 supporters, who repeatedly stood to give Spencer a standing ovation, there were a few other scattered pockets of Spencer backers in the crowd.
But these dozens of supporters were probably outnumbered by the media in the room to cover the event, and far outnumbered by hundreds protesting inside and outside the auditorium.
The university president, W Kent Fuchs, had urged the student body to ignore Spencer’s event and stay far away. Some students who ignored this advice said they were curious, and many said that they wanted to show that Spencer’s beliefs were not welcome, and that they would not go unopposed.
“I think his end goal is to convert people to his way of thought, and there are people who are vulnerable to that,” said Nafisa Choudhury, a 19-year-old student at the university. “If they don’t see a voice of opposition, they think that’s normal.
“We can provide to them an image of who they’re hurting,” she said.
Jackson Harris, 21, came to the protest before the speech, and though he did not carry a sign, said that he thought it was important for him, as a white man, to be protesting against the white nationalists.
“White guys started this problem, so it makes sense that white guys help fix it,” he said.
During the event, Spencer and his supporters onstage repeatedly told the loudly protesting audience that their behavior was bringing shame on their university, and would only help the white supremacists recruit more supporters, by proving that their ideas were dangerous and relevant.
“You think you shut me down, but you didn’t,” Spencer told them before he left the stage. “The world is not going to be proud of you.”
Some students in the auditorium, including John Della Costa, 20, said they were annoyed at the chanting and booing, and wished they could have heard Spencer without disruption, even if they did not support his ideas.
In a phone interview after his speech, Spencer called the event “certainly frustrating”.