As I sit here typing this, I wonder how the rest of the day will go when I and members of the University of Florida’s student body, face off against white supremacy.
Richard Spencer, alt right leader and President of National Policy Institute, is speaking on our campus today.
Yesterday, I sat with Chad, a UF student and one of the organizers of “No Nazis At UF” to talk about how we got here.
We spoke about the university administration and their role in allowing the event to unfold. A few months ago, the administration cited safety concerns of students when they turned away Spencer’s original request to speak.
But it only took the threat of suing the university on First Amendment grounds for those “safety concerns to evaporate,” according to Chad.
Besides simply allowing Spencer to speak, the university’s board of trustees has also given the National Policy Institute full reign over the distribution of tickets, thusly subverting protesters from buying out the event, and has allowed Spencer to control which media outlets are allowed inside his venue to cover his talk.
On top of this, the prohibited list of items within the protest zone includes things like masks or bandannas that so often protect the identities of student protesters in situations like this and the university itself is spending half a million dollars to significantly beef up security, money that could’ve “gone to legal fees if the university actually cared about fighting him.”
So why host him? Why allow a Neo-Nazi who led the tiki torch-wielding masses in Charlottesville to speak at a university supposedly dedicated to the promoting and protecting diversity? The answer that the school has continually cited, has been a protection of First Amendment rights. You see, as a public university, we are not legally allowed to turn away speakers on grounds of freedom of speech.
However, if the speaker and his/her rhetoric has the potential to incite violence or cause harm to students, the given institution then has grounds to deny the speaker access. It was this precise reasoning that the university used to deny Spencer the first time.
But Chad disagrees.
“We understand that’s [legal repercussions] is a threat, and will always be a threat, but 5 or 6 other universities have denied him without any repercussions. I mean if you’re going to spend $500,000 on this event, most people would rather that go to legal fees so that it looks like the university actually cares about its marginalized students and community members.”
He also briefly touched on the hypocrisy of the prohibited items list and the university’s decision to allow Spencer to control media coverage.
While many of the items on the list are there in testament to safety precautions learned from the mistakes of past protests (including car barricades after the tragedy in Charlottesville), they also include things like masks or bandannas that would protect protester anonymity, as well as bags that medics could use in case of emergencies.
On the argument of free speech, Chad talked about the constitutions evolving nature and referenced that after WWII’s atrocities, countries like Germany set out to define freedom of speech more clearly so that it excluded hateful, discriminatory rhetoric.
“I think universities at this moment in time have a great opportunity to set precedence against speech that incites violence or promotes ethnic cleansing or genocide,” he admits honestly, “And if they [University of Florida] wanted to, they could make the case against speech that inherently puts marginalized students and community members at risk.”
I asked about protester safety at the event, a major concern and reason why so many are hesitant to come out and protest at the Phillips Center where Spencer will be, and Chad assured that the coalition is doing everything in its power to protect the people standing up to hate.
From contacting organizers around the country (i.e. Berkeley, Charlottesville), and coordinating with seasoned protesters in the area, the group hopes to maintain a relatively safe, and nonviolent demonstration of freedom of assembly.
“Of course, we can’t account for everything,” he said, “We are dealing with violent people, so nothing is for absolute certain.”
When asked to comment on whether Governor Rick Scott’s decision to place Alachua County under a state of emergency, Chad roundly disagreed.
He stated that the increase in military and police personnel stir even more instances of agitation amongst minority students. As he spoke, we both looked out into the free speech area with alarm as armed state troopers roamed the grounds in hordes, hands constantly hovering over their lethal weapons.
“Now not only are they in danger with fascists arriving, but also the police force who we know aren’t here to protect the protesters.”
On a lighter pivot, we began to speak about the community’s solidarity during the days leading up to the event. With the press conference and following administration protest on Monday, to Tuesday’s student government sit in, and to all the protesters flying/driving in to support the cause, the community has seen a beautiful display of tangible solidarity and togetherness.
He said it was encouraging to see such a response from so many people, but also insists that the student body can do better.
We discussed that because Richard Spencer is a fascist, it is not enough to simply ignore or shun him, as the administration insisted. His message is something thrives off this kind of moderation as it only helps him acquire more platforms like this one and more recruits through his rhetoric. Leaving this kind of hatred unchecked allows it to only continue to grow and halts the progress of its eventual demise.
Which exactly what this protest aims to do.
It is the system of checks and balances that we as individuals are inherently born with. It is what keeps the fight going and the movement strong against discrimination and hatred.
I finished my time with Chad as he outlined what this demonstration would show both the UF administration and Richard Spencer:
“I think it’ll show that we as a community are able to stand in solidarity with marginalized people and have a strong show of force against fascism. We have the ability to be an example for the rest of the nation, especially college campuses, in showing how to stand up to hate.”