COLLEGE STATION, Texas — It’s remarkable the difference a few Nazi salutes can make.
White nationalist and self-styled leader of the so-called “alt-right” movement, Richard Spencer, only managed to bring a few supporters to the Memorial Student Center at Texas A&M University on Tuesday night, but outside the ripple effect of his movement was obvious.
Spencer was largely known only to his extremist supporters and some journalists until a video went viral last month of him giving a speech in DC, during which his shouts of “hail Trump, hail victory, hail our people” were greeted with cheers and a handful of attendees giving the Nazi salute.
If people thought this historically conservative campus in deep red East Central Texas would welcome the newly famous white nationalist, a diverse crowd of hundreds of students and supporters rallied in the heart of the university to prove them wrong.
News of Spencer’s planned address had riled up the university’s students, also known as “Aggies,” who together with A&M officials, organized a host of counter-events including a silent march, a free concert in the massive football stadium, Kyle Field, and an energetic protest right outside the building where Spencer was speaking and where state riot police eventually had to clear the boisterous crowd.
In a sense, the scene bore some of the hallmarks of similar spectacles in Israel — a rally or speech by an extremist and a handful of supporters, outnumbered exponentially by media, counter-protesters, and the police.
Chanting “no Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA,” the protesters held up a slew of posters and placards ranging from the direct — a depiction of Hitler with a gun in his mouth and the words “follow your leader” — to the mundane, such as a man dressed in a Santa suit holding up a sign that read: “Richard Spencer, you are on the naughty list.”
There were also American flags held aloft outside the student union, next to masked protesters carrying flags emblazoned with the anarchy symbol and one which bore the Communist hammer and sickle symbol, with a Kalashnikov in place of the hammer.
The chants were interrupted by a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” coming from an oversized boombox, while a student singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” could be heard drifting out of the protest rally at Kyle Field.
Inside the lobby of the student center — a living memorial to students who died serving in WWI and WWII — protesters faced off with a handful of alt-right supporters who cited freedom of speech as their reason for demanding to hear Spencer speak, as well as one who loudly espoused Holocaust denial to whoever would listen.
The largely peaceful confrontation was interrupted by a man who shouted “Heil Hitler! Fuck all of you people” and then made a beeline for the door, much to the astonishment of those present. A woman debating with students who referred to herself as “racist and proud of it,” said the man’s outburst was “inappropriate” and “totally wrong.”
Inside the event hall, there were no Nazi salutes, unlike at the gathering last month in Washington, but Spencer gave a similar speech about the importance of the white race, issuing a call for white people to embrace their identity and regain control of America.
Twice during his address, he interrupted himself to mock and bully his critics.
As one woman who had been walking silently around the hall in a clown suit with a sign that read “he’s the real Bozo,” came back near the stage, Spencer said “she’s dancing, perhaps she’ll lose some weight,” to jeers and some cheers from the audience.
In another instance, Spencer taunted a man wearing a T-shirt that said #BTHO hate — a reference to a football saying that A&M fans commonly cheer, hoping to “beat the hell outta” the opposing team — telling him: “You are a white coward. You are not even willing to do that. That t-shirt is total bullshit. You are not even willing to go to the gym. Look at how fat you are.”
Spencer seemed to be borrowing a page from US President-elect Donald Trump, whom he’s called an “alt-right hero,” and who routinely mocked opponents and critics — often from the stage — during his controversial campaign for the presidency.
Trump and the alt-right, Spencer said at a press conference prior to the event, “have a deep connection.” Trump for his part had disavowed the group, telling the New York Times last month that it was not a movement he wanted to “energize.”
At that same conference Tuesday, A&M’s Hillel campus Rabbi Matt Rosenberg invited Spencer to read Torah with him, saying “my tradition teaches a message of radical inclusion of love, love embodied by Torah, will you sit down and study Torah with me?”
“Ok, I can’t promise to study with you which is kind of a biggie. But I will promise to talk with you,” Spencer responded, before adding: “Do you really want radical inclusion into the state of Israel, and by that I mean, radical inclusion. Maybe all of the Middle East can go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Would you really want that? You’re not answering.
“The Jewish people, why are they a people? They are a people precisely because they did not engage in radical inclusion. Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate with the gentiles…,” he said. “That is why Jews are a coherent people with a history, and a culture and a future. It’s because you had a sense of yourselves, I respect that. I want my people to have that same sense of themselves.”
The university, which once considered opening a satellite campus in the northern Israeli-Arab town of Nazareth, had been grappling with a response to Spencer’s invitation to speak by alumnus Preston Wiginton, a white nationalist with deep ties to former KKK leader and avowed anti-Semite, David Duke.
“[O]ur leadership finds his views as expressed to date in direct conflict with our core values,” the university’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer, Amy Smith, said prior to the event. “Private citizens are permitted to reserve space available to the public as we are a public university, as is the case here.”
Spencer said he was “a little surprised” by what he termed the university’s overreaction but boasted that it was in his favor.
“It ultimately strengthens the alt-right and strengthens me,” Spencer told the Austin American-Statesman Tuesday. “They are declaring that we are so powerful that they must have … diversity rituals at football stadiums. It’s a lot better than being ignored.”
Alexis Sutter, 21, who is getting her degree in Biomedical Studies at A&M, said students were worried by Spencer’s event but understood that the university’s couldn’t stop it. “That’s why they had all these counter-events.”
“It’s an effective way for people to deal with this situation,” said Sutter, who had just finished writing “love is love is love is love” on a standing wall made of chalkboard where students had been writing messages highlighting unity and diversity all day.
Spencer himself had participated, in true troll fashion, signing the “Aggies United” protest wall with the words “we triggered the world — Richard Spencer.”
Pakistani-American A&M student Samir Taruqui, 27, said he came to show solidarity with the protesters at the Aggies United event, and didn’t seem particularly worried about Spencer’s talk or the election of Trump.
“Personally I’m not worried but most of my [Muslim] friends are. I believe that perhaps some racists have been emboldened by the election, but it was always there.”
Justin Newcomb, 25, disagreed, claiming that the “era of white supremacy is gone” and that it should be “allowed to die” if only the media would let it.
Newcomb, an Orthodox Jew who does not attend A&M, drove three hours from Dallas to see the protests. He said the media attention given to the so-called alt-right was “creating more support for the movement.”
“If we gave them no voice, then they’ll go away…with less attention, there will be less white supremacy,” he said.
Back outside, tensions ran high when riot police, bigger and better equipped than your average Magavnik (Border Police officer) or Yassamnik (riot police officer), started pushing protesters back to make way for the event’s attendees to leave, with the demonstration briefly turning against the police.
“Hands up, don’t shoot,” and “who do you protect, who do you serve,” — slogans from Black Lives Matter protests in recent years — were heard, as well as the more provocative “cops and klan go hand in hand”, and a few protesters who answered the call of “don’t shoot” with “shoot back,” apparently a call to shoot police.
Sentiment shifted again when a shoving match then broke out between alt-right supporters leaving the event and protesters, as some, including Newcomb and another young man wearing a kippa, tried to keep the warring sides apart. The police stood by as the pushing escalated and two young men gave the Nazi salute to counter-protesters while the air filled with profanities and insults flowing freely from both sides.
A&M police said two non-students were arrested in the protests but gave no details.