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In Gainesville, UF grapples with the specter of its own brush with white nationalists

White nationalist Richard Spencer, center in sunglasses, and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police after hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" clashed with anti-fascist protesters and police in Charlottesville, Va. Saturday. Spencer's National Policy Institute has requested space at the University of Florida for a Sept. 12 event featuring Spencer as a speaker. Officials in Gainesville are puzzling over how to deal with his potential presence on campus. [CHIP SOMODEVILLA | Getty Images]
White nationalist Richard Spencer, center in sunglasses, and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police after hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" clashed with anti-fascist protesters and police in Charlottesville, Va. Saturday. Spencer's National Policy Institute has requested space at the University of Florida for a Sept. 12 event featuring Spencer as a speaker. Officials in Gainesville are puzzling over how to deal with his potential presence on campus. [CHIP SOMODEVILLA | Getty Images]
Published Aug. 15, 2017

GAINESVILLE — Suspended in its final weeks of summer doldrums, the University of Florida waits.

Its bell tower echoes across vacant red-brick paths. Construction workers labor under trees draped in wet Spanish moss.

In just days, students will return. Football games will light up the stadium. And, some fear, white nationalists will make Florida's flagship university the next site of a torch-bearing rally.

RELATED: Trump speaks on Charlottesville: 'Racism is evil' (w/ video)

In UF's administrative buildings, school leaders are mapping out how to respond to the unwanted descent of Richard Spencer, a notorious white nationalist whose rhetoric helped fuel Saturday's bloodshed in Charlottesville.

Spencer's National Policy Institute, dedicated to the "heritage, identity and future of people of European descent," has requested space on campus for an event on Sept. 12. UF has reserved that time and space while it works through contractual details, such as security costs. Officials stress that the event is not confirmed, and that UF is in a legal bind because of a bylaw that says the content of a group's platform may not be considered.

Why Spencer chose UF, officials don't know. But university and city police are already preparing. Alumni and parents are pleading with President Kent Fuchs to bar Spencer from speaking. More than 1,800 activists, including students, plan to rally the same day, hoping to leach Spencer's white separationist movement of its spotlight.

"We've gotten hundreds of notes for the president from concerned individuals," said UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes. "The bottom line is we as a university are grappling with the same exact things they are grappling with, the requirements and responsibilities of free speech and the responsibilities of having a safe and secure campus environment."

Fuchs was not available for an interview Monday, but in an email to the campus community this weekend he said Spencer's presence would be "deeply disturbing."

Yet, he wrote, the university must rent public space to any third party that covers necessary costs. He asked students not to engage Spencer and denounced symbols and statements of hate.

On Monday, amid mounting media coverage, Gators football head coach Jim McElwain weighed in.

"It's just not what we believe in here, and yet I also understand freedom of speech. That's what really our country was founded on, right?" he said. "What makes extremists nervous is when they can't get to you, because you're true to your beliefs."

RELATED: Gators coach Jim McElwain calls white nationalists 'unacceptable' as Richard Spencer applies to speak at UF

Last Friday, a few hundred white supremacists processed with torches across the University of Virginia's green lawn, chanting Nazi slogans like, "Jew will not replace us." They attacked student counter-protesters. On Saturday, they gathered again in Charlottesville, many with semi-automatic weapons. Again, violence broke out. A man in town to support the cause drove a car into a crowd, killing a woman and injuring 19 others, authorities said.

In Gainesville, university police are taking notes. Officers are talking with local, federal and state agencies, as well as schools like UVA.

"You have people who are willing to die for causes," said UF police chief Linda Stump-Kurnick. "It's not our job to judge. But it is our job to ensure safety as best we can."

Academia is built on civil discourse, but violence changes the equation, she said.

"I hope that (students) see this kind of rhetoric as what it is, and frankly, that they ignore it and do something else that's more important to their educational future than wasting their time and efforts on this kind of anger, this kind of hate," Stump-Kurnick said.

Gainesville's own tortured legacy has long been clear to students like Dwayne Fletcher, president of the Black Student Union. A Confederate monument was removed from the city on Monday. Fletcher said a lynching tree still stands in a downtown plaza.

Charlottesville, he said, was shocking — and yet not a surprise.

"People have always talked about how we live in a post-racial society, how people don't act like the way their ancestors did in the '60s and '70s with their torches and white robes," Fletcher said. "They're alive and well. They still have the same ideologies. It's just an awakening that we haven't made as much progress as we thought we had as a nation."

UF, too, has had racial flareups in recent years. In January, a student left a noose in a classroom — an apparent accident that nonetheless sparked fear. Then, a man wearing a Nazi armband on campus sparked hours of protests before two other men beat him up and burned his jacket. They were arrested.

Focusing on unity, rather than matching violence with violence, is the best way to drown Spencer out, Fletcher said.

A coalition of student groups and local activists have joined to hold a same-day protest, said Mitch Emerson, an Orlando-based political organizer who started the "No Nazis at UF" Facebook event.

Rally logistics are still taking shape, though Emerson is already coordinating carpools from Miami, Orlando and the Tampa Bay area. He said UF has a duty to delineate between free speech and hate speech that incites violence.

"You can't yell 'Bomb' in a crowded theater or people will get hurt," Emerson said. "Here you have someone saying, 'Hey, people, go hurt folks outside.' I don't understand how that is not held to the same standard."

When a group requests space at UF, the university deals with logistics like security, staffing, ticketing and parking. Since the National Policy Institute's Aug. 2 application, UF has been drawing up those complex costs. It may send the group a contract this week, but is still waiting on security cost estimates.

"Obviously the police department needed to revisit some things in light of what happened in Charlottesville," said Sikes, the school spokeswoman.

The Institute did not respond to a request for comment.

In UF's Reitz Union, mechanical engineering graduate student Justin Mathew, 23, said he appreciated the university's measured response, even though he disagrees with Spencer.

"Colleges get a hard rap for being intolerant," he said. "I don't want to play into that narrative."

Fine arts graduate student Devlin Caldwell, 24, said Spencer's views are abhorrent, but that as an artist, he hesitates to condemn the event.

"I hate to admit this to people who aren't my friends, but I do welcome this kind of event strictly because I don't believe in censorship," he said. "At the end of the day, you have to let people speak."

Along with the protesters from across Florida, Spencer supporters also could come from out of town. A map of "hate groups" from the Southern Poverty Law Center shows white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups dotted around the state.

Two chapters of the League of the South, which the center classifies as an extremist group that advocates for secession of the south and a society run by "European Americans," are fewer than 100 miles from Gainesville in Lake City and Jacksonville.

Representatives from the group showed up in Charlottesville, and there's little doubt they'll show up to support Spencer, said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the center.

Spencer is described by the center as "one of the country's most successful young white nationalist leaders — a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old, a kind of professional racist in khakis."

The separatist movement he's in the middle of started online but has since directed its efforts toward organizing in person, said Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. Part of that transition is targeting college campuses, she said, which generally encourage the open exchange of ideas between thousands of young, malleable minds.

"For any movement to grow, you need to reach young people and you need to get them on your side," Mayo said.

In the process, Spencer's campus visits — and college tours by other prominent white nationalist and neo-Nazi figures — have led to contentious clashes around the country. In December, Spencer's presence at Texas A&M drew hundreds of critics as he addressed a crowd a fraction of that size. In April, protests outside his event at Auburn University turned violent and ended in arrests.

That potential for violence and, in turn, nationwide captivation, gives Spencer and figures like him the attention they want, Brooks said. Instead, she recommended that UF organize an event away from Spencer's speaking engagement, one that encourages unity and brings together multicultural and faith-based student groups.

"People want to directly engage and stand up against hate," she said, "but on a university campus, and in a tight campus community, they can send a more powerful message by completely ignoring him."

The onus isn't just on students, but on the administrators as well. Universities should protect free speech for everyone, Brooks said. Auburn administrators blocked Spencer's appearance before a federal judge overturned their decision, citing the First Amendment.

But university leadership can take tangible steps to prepare, Brooks said. Last week, the center released a guide educating students on the Spencer's movement and suggesting how to respond to campus visits.

She suggested a similar strategy for UF: "This is who he is. This is what he's expected to say. We reject it. Let's stand together as a university community."

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com and Kathryn Varn at kvarn@tampabay.com.

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