It's unclear why Richard Spencer says there is “tremendous support” for his white nationalist movement; he can't really think that himself, especially after yesterday's dismal turnout.
At an event put on by the National Policy Institute (NPI) at the University of Florida's Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on October 19th, protestors of Spencer's speech far outnumbered the few dozen supporters that came to see the self-proclaimed “white nationalist.” Spencer couldn't fill more than a few rows of seats in a small auditorium with like-minded listeners while hundreds (at times thousands) of protesters stood outside in opposition to his platform promoting racial superiority and “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”
The scene in Gainesville, Florida, was the latest example of a predictable, yet unpredictable, scenario that's going to play out in more college towns across the country, as Spencer plans to take advantage of the fact that public schools must protect his right to free speech and allow him to rent space for these kinds of events. Predictable in the sense that his small group of supporters will continue to be met by mobs of people intent on driving out messages of hate from their community, and unpredictable in that no one knows what's going to happen at these gatherings in the wake of Charlottesville.
At the Phillips Center, three circling helicopters, dozens of media teams, and a heavy police presence (including snipers on rooftops) reminded everyone of the anticipation for violence that's been in the air since Spencer first announced his plans to speak at the school. He was initially denied, but the university relented under threat of a law suit. UF's President Kent Fuchs has denounced the event and Spencer's views several times.
However, the weak turnout of support for Spencer almost made the up-tick in security measures seem unnecessary; so few were the individuals showing open support for white nationalist ideas that one male protester said it was more like a “Nazi scavenger hunt.” Most of the time protesters walked freely among one another while police (brought in from all over the state at a cost of more than $500,000) stood lining the barricades.
The few men seen as a white supremacist were quickly surrounded and scorned. One wearing a white shirt printed with black swastikas was screamed at, spit on, and punched in the mouth. Another was sprayed in the face with an irritant before begging police for refuge with them behind the barricade; he was refused.
When asked, several officers said a few skirmishes had broken out in the vicinity of the Phillips Center, but no major violence, vandalism, or group arrests had occurred anywhere on campus. A female protester said that there seemed like “a few fake protesters” stood out from the crowd of relatively calm, peaceful demonstrators by trying (unsuccessfully) to draw people into more heated arguments. That opinion brought to mind rumors that Spencer plants provocateurs in crowds of protesters to get people riled up against him and start fights, as he frequently claims that the attention combative exchanges receive is one of his best recruitment tools.
Tickets to Spencer's speech were distributed by NPI, and since there wasn't an overflow of supporters who couldn't get in, many seats went to people opposed to the event. “I was not prepared to not be turned away,” said a female protester who made it into the speech, which Spencer didn't even finish because of the heckling.
I went to the protests taking place at my alma mater not knowing what to expect, and it was both commendable and eerie to see part of the town humming along as if nothing were happening while so much tension had taken hold in one corner of campus. I left thinking “anti-racist” protesters are, unfortunately, wasting time, money, and resources showing up en masse just to give perceived Nazis the proverbial finger. Spencer and his followers won't ever be drowned out; they must be converted.