October 20, 2017
“Are you going to frisk them all like that? We can take care of it.” A man in a white button-up shirt was talking to a police officer clad in camouflage Florida-sand tan. In his hands were a stack of tickets.
I quickly closed my blazer over the “This is not normal, Resist” t-shirt I was wearing to protest the arrival and speech of infamous white supremacist and alt-right leader Richard Spencer on the University of Florida campus. Along with 2,500 other protesters, I had marched from where the state, county and town troopers had blocked off the roads to the area near the Phillips Center, where Spencer would be speaking in an hour.
Spencer had taken over ticket distribution, and when and where they’d be given out had been a mystery. I just happened to be there in the right place at the right time. I got the fifth ticket handed out, as people jostled around me in a bottleneck, trying to get in. I was the first person they didn’t frisk, and I walked through a quarter mile of barred metal barricades to the auditorium. I didn’t want to be there, but every ticket held by a detractor meant one fewer supporter in the midst.
And we weren’t going to let what happened in Charlottesville happen here.
Most of us had been here for hours, pacing the pavement between Hull Road and 34th Ave., chanting “Who’s streets? Our streets!” and “Not in our town, not in our state, we don’t want your Nazi hate!” Though state leaders like Senator Marco Rubio, and university leaders like President Kent Fuchs had advised people to stay away from the event entirely, leaving it empty and void of life, we knew that the only way to stop Nazi sentiment from being normalized was to show up and shout it down. Ignoring these ideas and hoping they would go away is how we got here, after all.
Spencer’s followers showed up individually, immediately swarmed by reporters wanting to know if they were local to Gainesville or following Spencer around. I, myself, interviewed Colton Fears and Tyler Tenbrink in the hours before the talk began. Police arrested both men that evening in connection with a shooting. No one was injured.
“I don’t think whites reign supreme,” he said, in answer to my question of whether or not he was a white supremacist. “But look at any third world country. What do all third world countries have in common? No white people. That’s true.”
It is not true. The Ukraine, Bosnia, Chechnya, Moldova and many more traditionally light-skinned nations are considered developing at this time. But as much as the white nationalists came to town saying they wanted intelligent dialogue, all they managed to do was bring their online trolling skills from Internet communities to a real community. And that community, where I live and teach and work, wasn’t having it. Spencer could hardly get a word in past the booing.
The First Amendment speaks to speech regulated by the government. Considered a branch of the government as a public institution, UF was forced to let Spencer rent the space and to cover all costs (about $600,000) to protect him and his message. And it did, though many of us feel the university should have let him sue and taken a stand to change that language in the law where a private person can stage a public event, be entirely protected and then control the ticket distribution privately. But where the university couldn’t stand up to Spencer, Gainesville residents and UF students could. There is nothing in the First Amendment that says a crowd of people must sit silently as one person espouses a particular viewpoint. Everyone was well within their rights—so long as it remained non-violent, which it did—to boo, jeer at and heckle him as he stood on stage.
He had the right to talk at us through his microphone, and we had the right to shout him down from our seats.
As I stood and raised my fist resolutely with the majority of the residents in that hall, I looked up at the police in riot gear and saw the officer who normally walks the halls in my kids’ school, who smiles at them and ruffles their hair affectionately. I gave him a small wave and he nodded back at me, two white people at a white supremacy event, there to protect the more marginalized populations of our city.
This event, combined with the love notes, the sidewalk chalk, the wall painted in solidarity, the peaceful protest, the Century Tower bells chiming against the message he brought—all this brought me hope for our future.
Just because they bring Nazi ideology to our town doesn’t mean we have to listen to it. Gainesville has set an example for the next universities on Spencer’s list. If he even shows up at all.