by Joe Courter
Background: On Oct. 19, self-styled “Alt-right” figurehead Richard Spencer came to Gainesville to speak at the Phillips Center on the UF campus.
His organization (National Policy Institute) was charged about $11,000 for use of the building, Governor Rick Scott called it a State of Emergency, and taxpayers paid about $500,000 for security outside the building.
Spencer had two or three dozen supporters sitting up front in their white shirts and khakis. About 250 people who got tickets outside from NPI sat and stood in the rear of the hall with empty rows between them.
A number of people of color and people with disabilities were excluded. A vast majority of the audience were anti racists, who were raucous but peaceful.
Video of the event inside can be seen at:
That reactionary white people are always simmering below the surface in our society, and will periodically come into view. It is a phenomena of hard times, insecurity, and some sort of catalyst which can be an event or a sort of celebrity leader (Fr Coughlin in the 30’s, McCarthy in the 50’s, George Wallace in the 70’s, Jerry Falwell in the 80’s, the onset of Talk Radio with Limbaugh et al, in the 90’s, then Fox News, and now Trump providing the heat to the pot).
That social media of today has put us into a new world that has changed the communication dynamics for everyone. It has given the outrageous pronouncements of a Richard Spencer; blatant racism and the call for a separate white ethnic state; a platform and the ability of followers to independently spread it. It has also allowed resistance to such ideas, giving the tools to build a movement to counter such reactionary and harmful advocacy. There used to be a filter of the mass media to both suppress such ideas, and to not give voice to the opposition.
That this country’s First Amendment was pushed to its very limits with this event, and that everyone who cared to think deeply, or who had to make tough decisions about it, were challenged by the circumstances. After the violence in Charlottesville, UF made a prudent decision about public safety concerns and said no. Then when faced with a First Amendment lawsuit, UF decided they had to let National Policy Institute, a small well-funded group with no ties to our community, rent the Phillips Center. Was that really necessary? If Spencer shows up next month and wants to rent it again does UF have to capitulate then, too?
That the State, when it wants to, can marshal tons of Law Enforcement personal in a mass show of force in a very short time.
That if you show up in a t-shirt with swastikas all over it and walk into and through a crowd of anti-racists and anti-fascists, you just may not be well received. I mean … really …
That resistance to Spencer’s visit also manifested in the UF Greek community. Banners saying “Love Not Hate #TogetherUF” hung from a number of Fraternity and Sorority houses, and an airplane flying a banner saying “Love Conquers Hate: Love Will Prevail” circled over the Phillips Center much of the day. That plane was contracted by a UF Sorority.
That the command leadership of Alachua County Sheriffs set a very good tone of minimal interference in the event other than the huge crowd control and enforcing the restrictions of carried in items. When the above mentioned swastika wearing dude, after receiving his, I guess, desired welcome, was being hustled out of the area by a small number of law enforcement officers, a massive, angry sounding, chanting throng was all around them as they went down to 34th St, about 200 yards away. There was no interference from other LEOs. That could have played out real different.
That no bottled water or bathrooms were available was a bit mean spirited, but we all hung in there. Thankfully it was a bit cloudy and cool.
That the powers that be, after telling everyone to not go near the event, to not give them attention, would turn around and compliment those who went out and stood up for what’s right.
That even though you have a stage, a microphone, a state of the art sound system, and a big hall, if you are a racist, ethnic separatist, those who are there in the hall do not give up their free speech to heckle and mock you. This is where the First Amendment gets close to the shouting “fire” in a crowded theater exception. I have sat through many horrible right wing speakers – Ollie North, David Horowitz, Ann Coulter and others – and as disagreeable as they were, it is a hard question whether you’d have wanted to see them shouted down. Anymore than we would want Chomsky, Jeremy Scahill, or Naomi Klein shouted down. You can leaflet the crowd, you can get on the mic and ask questions. But these guys are Nazi sympathizing smart-ass hustlers with the credibility and tactics of Westboro Baptist Church. What they advocate prompts and promotes violence. I think what they got was what they deserved.
That UF and all concerned was very lucky there was not a sizable turnout of Spencer’s followers. We thousands who showed up with our signs and our fight back spirit were celebrating a forfeit win, the other team did not show up. That said, the potential violence of these people did manifest with the three followers of Spencer who antagonized and then shot at folks waiting at a bus stop. Again, we got lucky. And they are in jail.
That regardless, it was a real win for the community that would not have happened if UF had said no to Spencer and gone to court over it. So much organizing, so many personal connections made. So many people got to their first protest, or maybe their 15th or 50th, and experienced the power of taking a stand against forces working against human rights and progressive values. Such a great array of signs, of young and old, people from across the spectrum of ethnicity, gender and political orientation, our welcoming community of Gainesville.
That these on-the-make shills, hired by wealthy right wing backers to spew their poison are real assholes, can be summed up best by their own juvenile conduct, trolling people in our downtown with video cameras, their name calling antics on stage, and their legacy of speeches and comment on the web for all to see.
But the very best indicator might be the chance conversation I had with the owner of the out-of-town place where Spencer and his people stayed, and how they totally left the place a mess, cigarette butts, beer cans all over the yard and bushes.
They are willing to crap in their own nest, and in this case, on the hard fought rights and reputations of minorities, women and immigrants. Screw them, and I hope Gainesville can inspire others to stand up to these rather toxic, racist clowns.