The University of Florida hosted white supremacist Richard Spencer last night in an on-campus speaking engagement. Spencer leads the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank. He originally was supposed to speak on the Florida campus in September, but school officials refused that request, citing the Charlottesville violence. University officials said they’d accommodate Spencer if he made a request for a later date.
Spencer participated in the Charlottesville rally, leading a group in a very KKK-esque march with members carrying burning torches. Upon hearing that Spencer would speak in October, Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency ahead of the event for the entire territory of Alachua County where the university resides.
He even positioned the Florida National Guard. Scott said his executive order was not intended to create alarm, but he felt it was his duty to prepare for the crowd of protestors on both sides of the argument, as well as to guard against any violence and property damage that might occur. University officials said “We are hoping this will go very smoothly and peacefully. But in the reality of this world we have to be well prepared.”
Universities are in a tough position. Public institutions and land-grant schools, like the University of Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M University, which also begrudgingly hosted Spencer, are state funded and have no choice but to allow these speakers on campus. It gets worse—by state law, these schools have to fork over the money for the additional security.
Florida spent at least $600K on security for this single event. The university said it is very unfair to the taxpayers to have to subsidize these kinds of events. There were more police on campus that at any other time since the school was founded in 1905. Police factored in lessons learned from the Charlottesville riot.
University of Florida President Kent Fuchs called Spencer’s platform “abhorrent” and urged students to stay home, saying groups like Spencer’s are only there “to provoke a reaction.” “We live in a country where everyone has the right to voice their opinion, however, we have zero tolerance for violence and public safety is always our number one priority,” Scott said.
The event is yet another tense situation balancing freedom of speech with public safety. How far does free speech really go? In past speeches, Spencer has made statements like this: “America was, until this last generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation and our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”
Prior to the event, Spencer mocked Scott, saying the emergency declaration was “flattering but most likely overkill.” Spencer said he liked being on par with “hurricanes and invading armies and zombie apocalypses.”
Spencer was wrong about the overkill part. Protestors immediately greeted Spencer with loud boos like “we don’t want your Nazi hate”. Spencer was very combative, determined to give his speech. “I’m not going home, I will stand here all day if I have to,” Spencer said. The crowd wouldn’t let Spencer get through his speech, leaving him clearly frustrated.
Protesters for both groups were about 50 yards apart outside the event, creating a potential powder keg of violence. University police banned people from carrying any items that could potentially be used as weapons. While the majority of attendees were anti-Spencer, some were rooting for him, like the three neo-Nazis from Texas who went to Florida to support him. The Texas trio said they like Spencer’s rhetoric but he needs to be even more outspoken, like mentioning that Hollywood is in the hands of Zionists.
In total, police made five arrests Thursday; three of them were the Texas trio: Tyler Tenbrink, 28, William Fears, 30, and Colton Fears, 28. They were arrested in connection with a shooting incident after Spencer’s speech; an argument apparently escalated and erupted in gunfire. Tenbrink allegedly got out of his car and fired a shot that hit a nearby building. Two of the three are affiliated with white nationalists groups in Texas. They’re being held in the Florida county jail on $1 million bond.
The police reported five other minor altercations, including a man wearing a shirt emblazoned with swastikas being punched in the face by another protester. Media outlets hired their own security to cover the event, and one of them was arrested for carrying a firearm on campus.
Spencer was asked if he felt any responsibility for violent outbreaks at Charlottesville and other rallies. Spencer responded that the circumstances surrounding the death of Heather Heyer were unclear and that the man charged with Heyer’s death was being used as a “scapegoat”.