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Richard Spencer speaks, and Gainesville emerges weary but at peace

LUIS SANTANA   |   Times Protesters scream at supporters of Richard Spencer after his speech at the Phillips Center at the University of Florida.  [Thursday October 19, 2017] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
LUIS SANTANA | Times Protesters scream at supporters of Richard Spencer after his speech at the Phillips Center at the University of Florida. [Thursday October 19, 2017] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Published Oct. 19, 2017

GAINESVILLE — Fists raised, a sea of defiant student protesters at the University of Florida relentlessly shouted down the white nationalist on stage. Richard Spencer paced, irritated, clinging to his chance to talk.

"Go home, Spencer," hundreds chanted over him. "We won't back down."

Spencer tried taunts — "you all look like immature preschoolers" — and requests for reason. He tried preaching more loudly about his vision of a whites-only homeland. He tried shouting back.

"Who are you screaming at? What are you trying to achieve here?" he asked. "The whole world is watching this. They don't hear anything you're saying. All they hear is a bunch of shrieking and grunting morons."

But after weeks of uneasy anticipation in this college town "held ransom," as UF's president put it, by a speaker the university never wanted to entertain, the crowd refused to cede control.

PHOTO GALLERY: The scene outside Richard Spencer's speech at UF

Outside, an overwhelming patchwork of protesters swarmed white supremacists and chased them away. Police broke up a few skirmishes and made just two arrests, as more than 1,000 law enforcement officers monitored roughly 2,500 demonstrators outside. But as Spencer's event drew to an early close, it appeared the campus would emerge weary, but at peace.

"The intensity kept up," said Johnathan Etienne, a first-year student, his voice nearly gone from the screaming. "I'm proud of the way UF showed itself in solidarity."

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By the time Spencer arrived to rile up his audience — two dozen believers, a legion of hecklers and a few in between — Gainesville had been suspended in a state of emergency for days.

School leaders had spent long weeks hashing out security plans and statements denouncing Spencer's pseudoacademic brand of racism. Students had mulled over images of Charlottesville, of torch-bearing Neo-Nazis chanting, "You will not replace us," of brawls in the streets.

This would be Spencer's first speech since the bloodshed. All eyes turned to Gainesville.

"It's been terrible," said junior Shreyas Amol Jethwani, who attended Spencer's speech in protest.

Students had debated how to respond as the impending visit unsettled the rhythms of student life. Some students skipped town. Parades of uniformed officers wove through campus.

Despite his nerves, Jethwani came to the Phillips Center on Thursday to speak out.

"You can't come into our home and spew hate and expect no resistance," he said. "We understand that our physical safety is in jeopardy, but letting this go unchallenged is more dangerous."

Spencer and other fringe-right provocateurs have seized on prestigious public universities as launching pads for their viral stunts. Beyond a built-in audience of students and press, these speakers get to stand upon the First Amendment, which makes it difficult for public institutions to push away speakers with even the vilest of beliefs, and with even the most hostile of potential audiences.

Universities forced to play host are also often forced to foot the bill.

UF estimated security costs at nearly $600,000 as officers from around the state poured into Alachua County to demonstrate a show of force.

Meanwhile, Spencer paid just over $10,500 to rent the venue and provide for security inside of it. Just as his speech couldn't be banned, neither could UF legally make him pay for the heightened security.

LIVE BLOG: Some scuffles, shot fired, but otherwise calm after Richard Spencer speech at UF

"We say free speech, but somebody pays a cost when that freedom of speech is exercised," UF president Kent Fuchs said in an interview. "Somehow we are being co-opted and held ransom."

Initially, Spencer applied for a speaking gig on Sept. 12. UF officials reserved his rental space and began assessing security costs. Then Charlottesville "changed everything," Fuchs said.

The nation watched as white supremacists stormed the University of Virginia campus. Then, before Spencer's "Unite the Right" rally even began, Virginia entered a state of emergency. Later, a man drove a car into a group of protesters, killing a woman, Heather Heyer.

Chaos had taken hold. And Gainesville, Spencer's group said, was next.

UF rejected Spencer's application, citing not his rhetoric, but the threat of imminent violence.

Spencer hired an attorney. UF leaders said the rejection was never meant to be a permanent ban. As it became clear that Spencer would speak, Fuchs urged students to deny Spencer his spotlight.

Still, Fuchs worried about the unknown.

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An uneasy dawn broke in Gainesville on Thursday as TV trucks and police cars filled parking lots scoured of student life. In the heart of campus, some classes went on as usual, but many had been canceled. Uncertainty lingered. How many people would come remained unclear. Helicopters circled overhead.

Hours before the event began, protesters from near and far gathered at the edge of a shopping center about a half mile down the road, sharing water bottles and painting signs. It took only days after the university announced the event in August for a Facebook event to surface with the title "No Nazis at UF."

"I don't think there's a better way to show opposition than to show up in numbers," said Timothy Tia, a 21-year-old UF economics senior who helped organize the demonstration.

About 12:45 p.m., hundreds of protesters came around the bend onto Hull Road chanting together, "Whose streets? Our streets!" and thrusting signs into the air: "Respect existence or expect resistance." "Love not hate." "So bad even introverts are here."

Inside the theater, Spencer stormed into a room of reporters wearing a three-piece suit and proceeded to berate a handful who pressed him about his beliefs.

Veering between smirks and scorn, he repeated his talking points: that race is the foundation of identity, that anti-fascist protesters were the root of violence in Charlottesville, that "it would be a better and more beautiful world if people like me were in power."

As Spencer's organizers started passing out tickets, the protest crowd pushed toward the entrance, many trying to secure their own. Only a few identified themselves as Spencer supporters, and even fewer gave their names. One, Martin Poirier, said he decided to come because he knew the white nationalists would be outnumbered.

"I know Spencer needs us," he said.

It was a slow trickle into the venue, and the crowd grew impatient, even angry, as some people were turned away.

"Push through!" a woman yelled.

"No! Don't give them a reason!" a man yelled back.

A similar conflict flared up all afternoon as protesters navigated the tense terrain of keeping the spotlight on their message: You're not welcome here.

It came to a head as a man with swastikas on his shirt entered the crowd in the demonstration area in front of the Phillips Center. Two black men confronted him, asking why he thought he was better than them, why he didn't like them, before one pulled him into a hug.

Minutes later, someone in the crowd punched him in the jaw. The man, who did not identify himself, briskly walked with blood on his chin toward a barricade across the street from campus, surrounded by protesters and TV cameras.

But as the scene played out several more times after Spencer's speech — one man hopping a fence, landing hard on his back and surrendering to law enforcement to escape the chanting chorus — violence stayed at bay.

"Our higher minds prevailed," said Tabby Keller-Rehse, 30, of Tampa, after protesters had mostly cleared out. "Even with that tenseness, we didn't turn it into something that could have been bad."

She was one of the last protesters milling around as the sun began to slant over campus, the spotty clouds and rain from the day now clear. Still clutching their signs, protesters reclined on the curb and lumbered toward the cars.

"I'm happy that nothing serious happened," said Isabella Lorenzo, an 18-year-old UF film studies freshman.

"Everyone got to express their ideas without getting hurt," added her friend, Naoling Morales, a 19-year-old political science freshman.

"Y'all, we really did that!" said a tweet from the No Nazis group. "Gainesville had an incredible show of solidarity against fascism."

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Inside the Phillips Center, where officers in riot gear watched from balconies, white nationalist Eli Mosley of Identity Evropa took the stage. Incessant shouting broke out.

"We will represent you, white America," he called out. In response, students chanted, "Black lives matter!"

Spencer tried to quiet the audience, but quickly resorted to taunting them as "poor little babies." A Spencer organizer screamed, his voice breaking, "Y'all are intolerant. Y'all are hypocritical. Y'all are disgraceful."

"You are yelling at a dissident intellectual," Spencer said.

An hour passed, and students kept up the shouting, only quieting for questions.

"My question is, what are you still doing here?" one person asked. "This is my community."

One woman asked, "Do you really believe the things that come out of your mouth?"

"I came here with an open mind," one student said. "The protesters were extremely rude and didn't allow you to speak."

To cheers, one woman asked Spencer about a viral incident from President Trump's inauguration: "What did it feel like to get punched in the face?"

Two dozen Spencer supporters in white polos filed out as Spencer delivered his last words.

"You think that you shut me down. Well you didn't. You failed at your own game," he said. "The world is not going to be proud of you."

Students scoffed. They shrugged off Spencer's claims that they had stifled his speech.

"We were just trying to over-talk him," said alumna Jamie Bell. "We were exacting our First Amendment rights, too."

Earlier, Mike Enoch, the anti-Semitic shock jock, had taken the mic, screaming. He called the crowd's behavior "the best recruiting tool you could ever give us."

Outside, protester Chad Paris, 31, said the day proved to be just the opposite.

"It's a recruiting victory for us," he said. "This is unity."

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