By Michael Sainato
When Richard Spencer appeared at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in August, the nation recoiled in horror. The “Unite the Right” rally was attended by dozens of Neo-Nazis who showed up with tiki torches to intimidate efforts to remove a Confederate Statue of General Robert E. Lee. The white supremacists wound up clashing with protesters; five white supremacists brutally assaulted 20 year-old Deandre Harris, a white supremacist used his car to drive into protesters, an attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured several others, and a white supremacist fired a gun at the rally.
Similar violence was anticipated when the University of Florida caved in permitting Richard Spencer to hold an event on the school’s campus on October 19. Several other universities cited security concerns in denying Spencer’s speaking requests, including Penn State, Michigan State University, Louisiana State University, and Ohio State University. The University of Florida was the first to opt against fighting in court against Spencer’s attorneys, providing Spencer with a safe space to hold his event.
Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in preparation for the event. Security costs for the school were estimated at nearly $600,000. A militarized police presence descended upon Gainesville, Florida where the event took place. Some main roads on campus were blockaded with dump trucks. Two police helicopters monitored the event and protests the entire day.
Though Spencer held his event, it had an abysmal turnout. Hundreds of protesters attended the event outside and several dozen managed to obtain tickets to the event inside, where Spencer was heckled and shout down. His group managed to rally only a few individuals, while students and protesters exceeded well over 1,000 in attendance despite the University of Florida administration discouraging protesters from attending.
“If you’re in high school and there’s a bully on campus that beats up kids and do this and do that, if you don’t stand up to that bully, what he going to continue to do? Bully,” one protester told me at the #NoNazisAtUF rally. He noted the Gainesville area has a history of racism, from the Rosewood Massacre that occurred nearby to his own experiences of being pulled over by police for no reason on a regular basis because of the way he looks. “So if we don’t protest and we don’t fight against this, this action that he’s trying to take, he’s going to continue. And then to tell the one’s that are quiet to have hatred towards people, ‘Hey, you can come out and join us because you don’t have anything to worry about.’ Later on it will be too late. Then how would you be able to fight them if they continue to do it, and magnify?”
Because of the peaceful protests, Spencer was forced to shut down the event early, and didn’t have the numbers or support to stage a rally resembling the ones he organized in Charlottesville. The day was not without incident though. Gainesville Police Department arrested three white supremacists for firing a gun toward protesters after Spencer’s speech around 5:30 PM. The Gainesville Sun reported, “William Henry Fears, 30, of Pasadena, Texas; Colton Gene Fears, 28, also of Pasadena; and Tyler Eugene Tenbrink, 28, of Richmond, Texas; were charged with attempted homicide and held in the Alachua County jail. Tenbrink was also charged with being a felon in possession of a weapon.” Tenbrink fired a shot at a protestor a few blocks away from the protests, but missed before he sped off with his other two accomplices.