Richard Spencer came to the University of Florida hoping to spread his white nationalist ideas, but his speech was instead quickly drowned out Thursday by a hailstorm of chants, shouting and mockery.
At one point, Spencer said, “You know that what I am saying here will change the world.” At another point, he described the audience as a mob.
People chanted, “Black lives matter!” and “Go home, Spencer!”
“Are you adults?” Spencer asked. “It doesn’t look like it.”
Spencer called the crowd “shrieking and grunting morons.”
They responded by chanting, “Let’s go, Gators!”
The public university spent an estimated $600,000 on security for the event.
More than 500 law enforcement officers were deployed, a state of emergency was declared, and many students avoided classes, and campus, entirely on Thursday.
With an intense police presence – snipers were positioned on the rooftops of nearby buildings, hundreds of uniformed state troopers stood at attention behind barricades – the protest outside the speech proved peaceful.
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 had been closely watched and bitterly debated – a sign not only of how raw the tensions over race and culture remain but also of the intensity of the fight over free speech on college campuses.
The campus of 52,000 students was eerily quiet Thursday morning, with a heavy police presence, barricades and road closures, but by early afternoon, crowds of protesters had gathered to counter Spencer’s appearance.
“We have a duty to fight for our freedom,” a woman in an orange tank top shouted, leading a group of marchers who repeated her words in unison.
There was a brief scuffle when protesters turned on a man wearing a shirt that was branded with a swastika, and he was marched out of the crowd. But, mostly, people chanted in unison: “Not my town, not my state, we don’t want your Nazi hate!”
When an airplane carrying a banner that read, “Love Conquers All! Love will prevail!” flew overhead, the crowd erupted in cheers.
Before he spoke inside a heavily secured performing arts center, Spencer answered questions at an often contentious news conference. He said it was “absolutely right” that the university and state expected to spend more than $600,000 on security. “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 hundred tickets were handed out for the event, but the lower level of the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts 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. The protest and chants in the auditorium began as soon as the event began and continued until Spencer finally walked offstage 90 minutes later.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Joe Heim, Abigail Hauslohner, Lori Rozsa, Susan Svrluga ·