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White nationalist's speech disrupted at Univ. of Florida

The Washington Post

October 19. 2017 11:30PM
A man walks with a bloody lip as demonstrators yell at him outside the location where Richard Spencer, an avowed white nationalist and spokesperson for the so-called alt-right movement, is delivering a speech on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla., on Thursday. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Audience members began heckling and chanting Thursday at a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer, hoping to drown him out during an appearance at the University of Florida that sparked protests and intense security.

Spencer struggled to deliver his speech, but was overwhelmed by shouting and boos. At one point he said, “You know that what I am saying here will change the world.” At another point, he called the audience a mob.

People chanted, “Black lives matter!” and “Go home, Spencer!”

“Are you adults?” Spencer asked at one point. “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 was expected to spend more than $600,000 on security for the event.

More than 500 law enforcement officers had been deployed, a state of emergency had been 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 was 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, Va., the next day.

Spencer’s efforts to speak at UF have been closely watched, and bitterly debated — a sign not only of how raw the tensions over race and culture are in this country now, but of the intensity of the fight over free speech on college campuses.

The campus of 52,000 students had been eerily quiet Thursday morning, with a heavy police presence, barricades and road closures, but by early afternoon, crowds of protesters had gathered to counter the appearance.

At its height, police estimated 1,000 people were demonstrating.

“We have a duty to fight for our freedom,” a woman in an orange tank top shouted, leading a group of arriving 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 marched him out of the crowd.

But, mostly, people chanted in unison, things such as, “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.

Inside the heavily secured performing arts center where the white nationalist is scheduled to speak, 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 for his event. “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 auditorium 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.

People came to the event for many reasons.

“I came here to support Spencer because after Charlottesville, the radical left threatened my family and children because I was seen and photographed in Charlottesville,” said Tyler TenBrink, 29. “The man’s got the brass to say what nobody else will.”

Crew Kinnard, 58, a nurse from Gainesville, Fla., came to hear what Spencer had to say “because I want to know what I’m arguing against.

“I want to know what logic and what information he might be using. It breaks my heart that this is happening in the 21st century, but we all have freedom of speech.”

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