An uneasy Florida braces for white supremacist speech and protests

In this Dec. 6, 2016, file photo, Richard Spencer, who leads a movement that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism, speaks at the Texas A&M University campus in College Station, Texas. The Internal Revenue Service has revoked the tax-exempt status of the National Policy Institute, a group run by Spencer, for its failure to file tax returns for three consecutive years. Spencer told The Los Angeles Times it was an error and that he plans to appeal. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

(CNN)– The University of Florida in Gainesville is bracing for a day of protests Thursday when white supremacist Richard Spencer arrives to deliver a speech on his racist views on campus.

The event, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, will be Spencer’s first visit to a college campus since he and others participated in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.

University and local officials are wary that Thursday’s event could also become violent, and they have taken a number of steps to prevent that.

On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Alachua County, where the university is located, to enable law enforcement agencies to work together more efficiently. He also made a provision for the National Guard to be activated if necessary.

“I find that the threat of a potential emergency is imminent,” Scott said in the executive order declaring the state of emergency.

The event puts the university in the middle of an ongoing debate about what constitutes protected speech and the extent of its limits. University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs denounced Spencer’s white supremacist platform as abhorrent in a letter to students but said the school could not stop him from renting the Phillips Center for the event.

Fara Moskowitz, the president of the Lubavitch-Chabad Student Group at the university, said it was a “very weird time on campus” ahead of the protests.

“There’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of anxiety,” she said. “There’s a lot of just unknown what’s going to happen.”

Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, is a leader of the white supremacist movement that advocates for a white “awakening” and a white state.

“America was, until this last generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation and our inheritance, and it belongs to us,” he said in a speech last November.

Florida’s response

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Spencer said he was flattered by the state of emergency declaration, which he said put him on par with “hurricanes and invading armies and zombie apocalypses.”
Still, he said he thought the declaration was overkill.

“The fact is, if the police simply do their job, my speech and the whole event will go off wonderfully,” Spencer said.

Previous speeches from Spencer on college campuses have sparked protests, including at Texas A&M in December and Alabama’s Auburn University in April. He also led a group of supporters carrying torches in May in Charlottesville in a display that critics said evoked images of the Ku Klux Klan.

That rally set the stage for violent protests that erupted in Charlottesville in August between white nationalists and counterprotesters. There, police say a man among the white nationalist demonstrators drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman.

Spencer returned to Charlottesville in October with dozens of supporters carrying tiki torches and chanting phrases like “You will not replace us.”

Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Chris Sims said the office used the lessons of Charlottesville in planning for the Florida event. The sheriff’s office and Gainesville Police Department had doubled or in some cases tripled their normal staffing levels as of Wednesday morning, Sims said.

In addition, the University of Florida has banned an extensive list of items, including torches, masks, weapons and athletic equipment that could be used as a weapon.

Fuchs, the university president, advised students to shun Spencer and to speak against his “message of hate and racism.”

“UF has been clear and consistent in its denunciation of all hate speech and racism, and in particular the racist speech and white nationalist values of Mr. Spencer,” Fuchs said. “I personally find the doctrine of white supremacy abhorrent and denounce all forms of racism and hate.”

How we got here

Spencer and the National Policy Institute first requested to rent speaking space at the university in August. After violent white nationalist protests broke out in Charlottesville, the University of Florida administration denied the National Policy Institute’s initial speaking request, citing specific threats of violence.

As a public university, Florida is prohibited from stopping the event based on the contents or views of the speech, Fuchs said. The university provided a permit for Spencer to speak, but the event is unaffiliated with the school, and no student groups sponsored the speech or invited Spencer, the university said.

By law, the school must pay for the costs of security. However, given the heightened concerns, the school is providing extra security, which exceeds $500,000, Fuchs said.

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