Students and other audience members heavily booed white nationalist Richard Spencer on Thursday as he gave a speech at the University of Florida, where the atmosphere was tense but mostly peaceful as police in riot gear kept watch.
“We represent a new white America,” said one speaker who came onstage to introduce Spencer.
“Black lives matter,” student protesters responded. “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!”
Later, Spencer’s supporters, some of whom filled the front rows of the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, chanted back: “You will not replace us!”
“Go home, Spencer!” protesters intoned after Spencer began speaking.
“You are trying to stifle our free speech,” Spencer said as the crowd continuously booed and chanted through his speech, in which he recited his ideas about the “ideal” of a white nation.
Police and media helicopters circled over the area Thursday as hundreds of protesters marched in opposition to Spencer’s appearance. Demonstrators were met by a blockade of police wearing riot gear.
“From what I’ve learned, this guy just preaches hate,” said one of the marchers, LaMonte Kendrick, 22, of Gainesville. “What he says doesn’t make sense. It’s like the ’60s or something. Gainesville’s already had enough hate and racism in its history.”
Spencer’s last major public appearance with other white nationalists ended with a deadly riot in Charlottesville, Va., in August.
Spencer gained national prominence in recent years for his support of President Trump and for his views calling for a separate nation for white people. The apparent resurgence in white nationalism in the United States has sparked anti-supremacists to mobilize with their own efforts, including nonviolent demonstrations and pressure campaigns on companies providing services to white nationalists and sometimes violent attacks intended to drive them out of public spaces.
Spencer has turned his sights to public universities, where 1st Amendment protections of free speech limit officials’ ability to deny Spencer a platform. Officials at the Florida college have confirmed they’ve spent roughly $500,000 on security for the event, and police from around Florida gathered in Gainesville to assist local police.
About 700 free tickets were available for the event and were supposed to be distributed outside the venue on a first-come, first-served basis, according to Spencer’s website, AltRight.com. Weapons were banned from the event, along with a wide range of other items, including water bottles, masks, shields and hats.
“Everyone is welcome at #SpenceratUF,” Spencer tweeted before the event Thursday. “This is going to be an important dialogue for the entire community.”
Police corralled protesters into a single line outside the venue and turned away attendees for various reasons, including a military veteran who walked with a cane, which was deemed a potential weapon. One woman said she was denied entry by Spencer’s supporters at the gate because she was with an African American man. Some journalists with cameras and notebooks were denied access but were allowed entry without those items.
Inside the auditorium, a group of Spencer’s supporters sat close to the stage, while the audience of protesters sat toward the back, separated from Spencer and his proponents by rows of empty seats and a cordon of police.
Spencer initially protested the boos as suppression of his speech but later began taking questions from audience members who variously asked why he hadn’t left yet or how he could form a white ethno-state without performing violent ethnic cleansing. Many in the audience protested by standing during his speech and holding up their fists, the symbol of black power.
One questioner who introduced himself as a son of immigrants told Spencer he was disappointed with the crowd’s protests, saying he wanted to engage in a dialogue.
Another introduced herself as a “beautiful brown woman” of Egyptian and Puerto Rican descent. She thanked Spencer for coming, and asked, “How did it feel to get punched in the face on camera?”
The student was referring to a viral video of Spencer being struck by an anti-fascist in Washington, D.C., on the day of Trump’s inauguration. Her question drew a cheer from the crowd.
“It hurt,” Spencer said. “Yeah, it hurts when someone punches you in the face. Is that a real question?”
Spencer added: “What’s the point of such a question? Are you threatening me with violence? … Do you all want to get your hands dirty? Are you really willing to do something like that, or do you just want to shout self-righteously?”
The woman’s question was the final one during Spencer’s 90-minute appearance. He thanked the crowd for coming, and to protesters, he said: “You think that you shut me down? Well, you didn’t. You actually even failed at your own game. … The world is not going to be proud of you.”
Spencer left campus shortly afterward as the audience filed out.
Outside the venue, where hundreds of protesters gathered, small scuffles broke out when one man with swastikas on his shirt walked through the center of the crowd, seeming to relish the startled and appalled reactions of protesters. He was escorted away after someone punched him in the face, according to reporters on the scene.
Only one arrest appeared to take place before Spencer’s appearance. Police said a security guard, hired by a media outlet covering the event, had illegally brought a gun on campus.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Alachua County on Monday, saying in his executive order that a “threat of a potential emergency is imminent,” and that law enforcement must defend “public safety and security will be safeguarded and critical infrastructure, and public and private property will be protected.”
The measures, which came at the request of Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, are not in response to any specific threats, according to the sheriff’s and governor’s offices.
University officials announced that most classes would meet as normal Thursday. The school asked students to boycott Spencer, whose views university President W. Kent Fuchs has described as “repugnant.”
A group calling itself “No Nazis at UF” planned to stage a protest outside the event. About 3,000 people indicated on Facebook they planned to participate. Students also staged a sit-in at a student senate meeting earlier in the week.
The neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer urged Spencer supporters who couldn’t get tickets to carry out “flash mobs” throughout the city, including at a Jewish center, a black culture center and the Gainesville Sun newspaper, though as Spencer gave his speech, no such events appeared to have taken place.
“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,” wrote site editor Andrew Anglin, who also urged followers to dress normally, leave signs or flags in their cars and not bring weapons.
The Anti-Defamation League, which monitors hate groups, warned about attending the event.
“This type of activity is dangerous. We are working with local officials to ensure everyone’s safety,” the group tweeted. “We encourage people to avoid this event all together. Showing up will only play into their hands.”
Los Angeles Times staff writer Pearce reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Neuhaus from Gainesville, Fla. The Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.