Organized resistance shut down a recent white supremacist event at the University of Florida, where activists opposing Richard Spencer drowned out his presentation by shouting slogans like "Nazis are not welcome here," and throngs of protesters outside chanted "Black lives matter" and "We don't want your Nazi hate."
Anti-fascist groups are showing their muscle, and the faculty union views the outcome of the Oct. 19 event as proof that hate-inciting rhetoric will not be tolerated in the university community.
"If Richard Spencer thought that this would be the alt-right's Beer Hall Putsch, he underestimated how much Americans despise Nazism," said AFT President Randi Weingarten and United Faculty of Florida UF chapter President Steve Kirn in a joint statement. "Spencer aimed to hijack the University of Florida, manipulating a peaceful place of learning for the sole purpose of provoking violence. His filth has been rightly rejected by campus leaders and the university administration, by protestors—including our members—and even by the people who attended his talk, whose values did not permit them to remain silent."
The union opposed the event from the start, and the university initially canceled it, but when Spencer threatened to sue, administrators—who firmly condemn Spencer's ideas—cited First Amendment protections and allowed it to move forward. As the union continued to oppose the event, campus security was preparing for the worst: Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency, allowing law enforcement agencies to coordinate more easily, and the National Guard, local police and campus police created an imposing armed presence, lining the streets with barricades and vehicles well in advance of the event.
Kirn said there were five helicopters circling the area as Spencer's speech got underway, and most of the campus was virtually deserted, with many students choosing to stay away. Many campus buildings were shut down. Faculty were instructed to be lenient with absences and university President Kent Fuchs urged people to avoid the event.
But protesters, determined to resist, went anyway. Their signs broadcast their messages loud and clear: "Your grandchildren will look like me" read one, directed at Spencer and his followers, who yearn for an all-white nation. "Respect existence or expect resistance." "Together we fight for all." "Silence is complicity."
"As Spencer propagates bigotry and division, counter-protesters and union members are standing up for peace and tolerance," Weingarten and Kirn said. "We strongly support free speech and the protections provided by the First Amendment. But the violence stoked by the likes of Spencer—the kind we saw kill Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, and that he attempted to bring about again in Gainesville today—is not speech and, as such, cannot be allowed to spread without challenge."
According to local news reports, about 80 percent of the crowd inside the performance hall disagreed—loudly—with Spencer's views. Although control of ticket distribution was given to Spencer, this apparently did not prevent those who opposed him from obtaining enough tickets to derail his message.
Spencer, who is the president of the National Policy Institute, believes in the superiority of white people and suggests that people of European descent should work to disempower and even eliminate other races and religions. His methods are famously inflammatory, and he has recently targeted universities, where the value placed on free speech complicates opposition. But, said Kirn, "Free speech and inflammatory speech are not the same thing."
Kirn, with other union leaders, wrote an op-ed in the Gainesville Sun condemning Spencer, who he called an "ethnic cleansing advocate." Citing the violence in Charlottesville, where Spencer's appearance was accompanied by armed neo-Nazis chanting "Jews will not replace us" through the streets, and where three people died, the union was most concerned with safety. Kirn said the union is considering filing a grievance for putting faculty at risk in the workplace.
The dangers are real. Scores of students, staff and town residents reported social media messages in the days leading up to the Spencer event that indicated his followers intended to "incite mayhem and violence" that was "explicitly anti-Semitic and anti-black," Kirn wrote. The campus has already experienced hate incidents: African-American professors have been physically assaulted in their offices by white supremacists, and signs for the African-American studies programs have been repeatedly vandalized. Centers of Muslim, Jewish and black activity remained vigilant even after the event, as there were reports that Spencer’s followers would target them while they were in town. Spencer has vowed to continue his assault on university campuses—though some have banned him.
The AFT has published a guide for faculty and staff who anticipate white supremacist activity on their campuses. Resistance will continue.
[Virginia Myers, AFT Media Relations]