Hundreds of protesters shouted down white supremacist leader Richard Spencer on Thursday at a university in Florida, forcing him to leave the stage without delivering his planned speech.
Officials were so fearful of disturbances that Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency ahead of the speech by Spencer, an organizer of a white supremacist rally that erupted in deadly violence in Charlottesville earlier this year.
The order enabled the governor to bring in law enforcement personnel from across the state to keep order in the town of Gainesville.
Only around 30 supporters of the controversial white nationalist made it into the University of Florida auditorium, massively outnumbered by protesters who chanted “No more Spencer!”
Three or four skirmishes occurred during the long afternoon after single Spencer supporters confronted the counter demonstrators, trying to speak and rile the crowds up. One man, wearing a white shirt with swastikas drawn on, was punched and chased out of the area. At least three others were quickly surrounded by crowds that shouted them down, chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” and pushed them until they left the area or were chased behind police lines.
The Alachua County Sheriff said at least one person, Sean Brijmohan 28, was arrested. The office said in a tweet that he had brought a gun onto the campus after being hired by a media organization as security.
Spencer has gained notoriety as a leader of the “alt-right” movement, a loose collection of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups that staged the incendiary protest in Charlottesville, Virginia in August.
Spencer, the founder of a white supremacist think tank, has advocated a white ethno-state that would exclude non-whites and Jews. The Anti-Defamation League said he has become “more openly anti-Semitic in recent years.”
The Florida speech was his first campus appearance since the August Charlottesville weekend, during which he led a a torch-lit march on the University of Virginia campus with neo-Nazis and other groups that at times chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Spencer was to be a featured speaker at the white nationalist rally the next day, but the event was canceled due to security concerns after a woman was killed when a suspected white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.
As he stepped onto the stage, Spencer was greeted with a chorus of angry and profanity-laced jeers and chants, drowning out his voice.
“This is a great greeting,” he said. “Thank you for the welcome. Are you ready to talk?”
People stood up, raising their right hands into fists and chanting “No more Spencer! No more Spencer!”
“Are you gonna keep this up the whole night?” Spencer said, describing himself as a “dissident intellectual.”
“You sent your message! Why don’t we have a conversation?” said the 39-year-old. “So you don’t believe in free speech at all, do you?”
“You are cowardly trying to shut down a movement that is growing and it’s going to stand up for white people”, Spencer yelled at the crowd.
In Gainesville, streets surrounding the University of Florida, which is home to the largest Jewish student population in the country, were blocked off to traffic on Thursday, and classes were canceled at the Philips Center, where Spencer attempted to speak.
Authorities barred people inside and near the site from carrying a long list of items, including shields, umbrellas, water bottles and backpacks.
Protesters opposed to Spencer’s arrival unfurled signs on several campus buildings that read “Love, not hate.” Chalk markings on concrete walkways carried messages supporting diversity.
Under the hashtag #TogetherUF, student leaders called for an online “virtual assembly” to counter people arriving to hear Spencer’s speech.
“We want to take the spotlight away from the controversial speaker and make headlines with the amazing things our diverse student body does together,” said one of the organizers, student Bijal Desai.
Some 9,400 Jewish students attend the university, which has an enrollment of 52,000.
On Monday, Chabad director Rabbi Berl Goldman told JTA that dozens of Jewish students, parents and staff members had contacted him with worries regarding the event.
Spencer is “one of the leaders of the white nationalist movement and he coined the expression ‘the alt-right’ so he has a lot of influence,” Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an NGO that monitors hate groups, told AFP.
The SPLC considers Spencer’s group, the National Policy Institute, to be a hate group.
Fearing a repeat of the Charlottesville violence, Scott had issued an emergency declaration for the whole of Alachua county, where Gainesville, population 130,000, is located.
“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, adding that local authorities had asked for help.
The University of Florida agreed to host Spencer in the name of free speech, but said he was not invited to give the talk.
Spencer’s group paid $10,564 to rent the space on campus, but the school will have to pay as much as $500,000 to boost campus security.
Brooks, however, scoffed at what she saw as the “over-militarization” of Gainesville.
Scott gave Spencer’s speech “tremendous attention by calling a state of emergency in advance of the whole event. It’s kind of ridiculous,” she said.
The university’s Black Student Union had warned protesters to be cautious.
“If you choose to protest, it is imperative that you utilize sound judgment with every action that you take and not be provoked to resort to violence,” it said in a statement.
“We will overcome. This experience will only further unite us and constructively focus our energies into creating a better society for future generations.”