As UF’s fall semester winds down, The Fine Print takes a look back at the days leading up to, and the protest of, Richard Spencer’s Oct. 19 speaking engagement at the Phillips Center. 

Photos by Anne Marie Tamburro.

The morning of Oct. 19th, an unusual quiet fell over UF’s campus. Many students chose to stay home that day, and in their place were law enforcement, who came from across the state to Gainesville in preparation of the event that would take place later that day. Patrol cars with out-of state-licenses drifted through campus, and blocked off the intersection of Hull Road and 34th Street where protesters were beginning to gather to protest Richard Spencer.

The protest—comprised of students and members of the Gainesville community—resulted in minimal conflict and violence, and was months in the making.  

On Aug. 30, following UF’s initial rejection of Spencer’s request to speak Sept. 12, UF President Kent Fuchs released a statement confirming that the National Policy Institute said it would retaliate with legal pushback. Initially, President Fuchs released a statement saying the university would “vigorously defend” its decision, but a week later—as students and faculty were preparing for Hurricane Irma—his office released a letter saying it would accommodate Spencer at a later date. 

The days leading up to that later date were marred with fear and frustration, not only toward Spencer and his supporters, but also toward the university. Fuchs repeatedly advised  students and community members avoid the event and ignore Spencer, a sentiment which many found offensive. .

“If Kent Fuchs is going to say ‘every Gator counts,’ then act like it,” said Tiara, 20, a protester who preferred not to say her full name.

Adding insult to a fear of real injury for many protesters, UF and the University Police Department released a list of banned items for the event, ranging from more obvious objects like weapons and torches to water bottles and backpacks.

“The solution to student safety isn’t to take away our water bottles and umbrellas and surround us with as many cops as possible,” UF student Timothy Tia said before the senate.

Two days before the event, roughly 50 students, including Tia, participated in a sit-in, which was planned by the UF College Democrats, to voice their concerns during the Student Government senate meeting Tuesday night.

“The administration showed blatant disregard for their students’ wishes to shut down Richard Spencer coming to UF and refused to even support protests against it all in the name of legal liability,” said Adam Rosenberg, a protestor at the event. “It was a really important legal battle that needs to be fought against this kind of speech.”

Chad Chavira, 20, an organizer of anti-Spencer coalition No Nazis at UF, contributed to a long line of students urging senators to ask the administration to cancel classes on Thursday. However, he said doing so would only be a “great first start.”

“The real thing that you should do is move to get the event cancelled,” he said. “Richard Spencer is a fascist. Richard Spencer is a Nazi. Richard Spencer is a white nationalist who wants most people in this room dead.”

Earlier that night, Chavira led the majority of the students protesting at the sit-in, in a march to the senate meeting. The march followed a teach-in hosted by No Nazis at UF that over 80 Gainesville residents and students attended, cramming into room 219 of Dauer Hall.

The purpose of the teach-in was to provide students with “a better understanding of what we’re fighting and how we’re fighting it,” Chavira said prior to the event.

At the teach-in, four UF professors gave presentations on the nature of fascism, Nazism and racism in the context of Richard Spencer: philosophy professor Thomas Auxter, history professor Paul Ortiz, African American studies program lecturer Vincent Adejumo and languages, literatures and cultures professor Dror Abend-David.

African American studies program assistant Sharon Burney also spoke about her personal experience of racist violence on campus as a black woman, such as when a member of the racist political party British Reformed Sectarian Party of Florida trapped her in her office. She reflected on the discovery of racist phrases on whiteboards in Anderson Hall, the man bearing a swastika symbol in the Plaza of the Americas and blackface parties hosted by students, all of which have occurred in the past two years, she said.

“These are the seemingly small incidents that are not taken as seriously because you don’t look at us as humans, you don’t see us as citizens,” Burney said.

Speakers concluded that the time is now to actively fight against the presence of Nazism and racism in Gainesville, and on that note, Chavira directed students to the sit-in.

The day of Spencer’s speech, resistance from students and members of the Gainesville community eclipsed his supporters tenfold.

Following a march down 34th Street early afternoon, protesters flooded the area surrounding the Phillips Center for Performing Arts, chanting and waving signs. Law enforcement officers flanked all sides of the protest area, and countless media personnel buzzed in and out of the crowds, taking pictures and interviewing  those in attendance.

A crowd funnelled into the entrance gate where National Policy Institute workers and law enforcement managed ticket distribution, located a noticeable distance away from the doors to the Phillips Center. NPI workers banned many from entering because they had prohibited items such as cameras and signs.

“I publish a newspaper, and if someone came to me and wanted to publish an ad, an anti-abortion ad in there, I’d say ‘no!’ and they’d say ‘it’s free speech’ and I’d say ‘no it’s not, I own the paper,’” Courter said. “UF owns this building. By letting him speak here, they collaborated with him.”

Others were rejected for more contentious issues like disabilities and race. A man with a cane was turned away, another with an insulin pump. The crowd buzzed with word that several had been turned away because they were people of color.

When ticketing finished, Spencer and his preceding speakers gave speeches to a half-filled auditorium with an audience predominantly composed of protesters, minus two or three rows of his supporters sectioned off at the front. Chants and yells drowned out nearly all of his speech, and the crowd outside the venue remaining just as fervent.

“The administration showed blatant disregard for their students’ wishes to shut down Richard Spencer coming to UF and refused to even support protests against it all in the name of legal liability,” said Adam Rosenberg, a protestor at the event. “It was a really important legal battle that needs to be fought against this kind of speech.”

Many protesters waved signs criticizing UF and Fuchs. One read “PRESIDENT FUCHS WE WILL NOT FORGET YOUR COMPLIANCE,” while another displayed pictures of Spencer and Fuchs with the caption “BEST FRIENDS.”

Protesters criticized UF’s decision to finance the costly security measures of over $600 thousand instead of legal action. Rosenberg commented on the irony of UF’s announcement of a $3 billion fundraising initiative, starting one week before the event.

“So you’re telling me that you can’t spend a couple million on a very important legal battle?” Rosenberg said, “. . . that tells me that you’re on the side of Richard Spencer, and you’re on the side of nazis and white supremacists.”

Joe Courter, publisher of the Iguana, was one of the protesters in attendance. He said his biggest complaint with Spencer coming to speak was his lack of connection to the community and student body, as well as the fact that UF did not need to rent the space to him.

“I publish a newspaper, and if someone came to me and wanted to publish an ad, an anti-abortion ad in there, I’d say ‘no!’ and they’d say ‘it’s free speech’ and I’d say ‘no it’s not, I own the paper,’” Courter said. “UF owns this building. By letting him speak here, they collaborated with him.”

While the protest itself had minimal violence, several hours after it ended three three of Spencer’s supporters shot at a group of protesters off campus, but they were not injured.

Protesters and organizers alike agreed that overall the event successfully demonstrated how to protest white nationalists and could hopefully serve as a model for other communities.  

“This guy came in on his own and [UF] knuckled under. And they were afraid of a lawsuit and they didn’t think about the ramifications,” Courter said, “but I think actually the ramifications are actually very educational for everyone.” •