TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Monday declared a state of emergency in Alachua County, three days ahead of a scheduled speech at the University of Florida campus by the white nationalist Richard Spencer.
Scott has issued such declarations ahead of hurricanes and after tragedies, but this is thought to be the first time he has taken such an action ahead of a planned event.
Spencer’s advocacy of a "white ethno-state" has mobilized his alt-right supporters and his many detractors who call him a racist. At past speeches, those camps have sparred, sometimes devolving into street brawls and arrests — most notably in Charlottesville, Va.
As Gainesville braces for Spencer’s arrival, Scott heeded a request for assistance from Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell.
"We don’t know what to expect, and we don’t know what kind of crowd numbers to expect," Darnell told the Times/Herald. "We all want this to be a non-event. We all want it to go very peacefully. But there is the potential for violence and for widespread property damage."
In a seven-page executive order, Scott declared: "I find that the threat of a potential emergency is imminent." He activated the same emergency powers he employed as Hurricane Irma took aim at the state last month.
The governor’s executive order, Number 17-264, gives state agencies the power to suspend rules and regulations, including for purchasing, travel and personnel actions. Scott also activated his authority as governor to spend surplus money as he deems necessary.
Sheriff Darnell said the order mainly makes resources available much faster than normal. She praised Scott for his cooperation. She said Scott’s order includes power to impose curfews but that she did not anticipate that would be necessary.
"As long as people are peacefully assembling, they‘re not going to have any problems anywhere in Alachua County," Darnell said.
UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said Scott’s action will make it easier for the state-funded university to seek reimbursement for some security costs. And, she said, it will eliminate red tape when agencies from different jurisdictions need to work together quickly.
Scott named Wes Maul, the recently-promoted interim state emergency management director, as state coordinating officer "for the duration of this emergency." The governor’s order designates the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as the lead agency for crisis management. The FDLE commissioner, Rick Swearingen, reports directly to Scott and the three elected Cabinet members.
Scott’s move comes two months after a weekend of violence in Charlottesville, where Spencer led a "Unite the Right" rally, marked by brawls between white supremacists and protesters. One woman was killed when a man drove into a crowd of protesters.
Spencer called the declaration "major overkill."
"It’s flattering, I guess. I am in the same genre as hurricanes and invading armies," Spencer said, laughing, in a phone interview. But he said the governor’s move gives him pause. Amid violence in Charlottesville, Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency before speakers at Spencer’s rally were able to address the crowd.
"That state of emergency order was used as a pretext to stifle free speech, and I do worry that this might be the same gambit," Spencer said.
In August, hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists descended on the University of Virginia campus, chanting slogans like, "Jew will not replace us," before clashing with protesters. The march appeared to catch officials by surprise, and students criticized the school and police for what they called a lackluster response.
The next day, attendees of Spencer’s rally filled a city park, many toting weapons. Protesters came wielding sticks and shields. Shouting matches and skirmishes broke into bigger brawls, while police appeared to stand by.
At the request of Virginia State Police, Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, authorizing heavier law enforcement actions "to restore public safety and order." Officers began breaking up the crowds.
In his declaration, Gov. McAuliffe said that, despite weeks of planning to allow the rally to proceed safely, and despite the presence of law enforcement, the city needed more help.
Both Spencer and his opponents have criticized police in Virginia for allowing tensions to erupt into open violence.
At UF, police have been preparing for months, with an estimated $500,000-plus in security costs. President Kent Fuchs has urged students not to attend Spencer’s talk, but to "speak up for your values and the values of our university."
Meanwhile, students and activists plan to protest. Speakers at a rally on Monday called Spencer, 39, "a white nationalist menace," according to a video posted on Facebook, and urged everyone listening to protest his Thursday afternoon appearance at the Phillips Center. They called on UF to cancel his event, at which he plans to speak about white identity. Spencer has said he does not believe in racial equality.
"We live in a country where everyone has the right to voice their opinion," Gov. Scott said in a statement Monday. "However, we have zero tolerance for violence and public safety is always our number one priority."