‘It’s basically a powder keg right now’: University of Florida braces for Richard Spencer speech
White nationalist Richard Spencer is scheduled to speak Thursday in Florida, his first speech since the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Video provided by Newsy Newslook
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As the clock ticked closer to white nationalist Richard Spencer’s speech at the University of Florida, the campus was on edge amid concerns over potential violence between supporters and counterprotesters.
Students and faculty expressed fear and worry about Spencer’s Thursday appearance and the increased security presence.
“The students are scared, especially our students who are from minority communities,” said Vincent Adejumo, a lecturer in African-American studies. “Many of them have already left town. Parents have great concern.
“It’s basically a powder keg right now.”
Sophomore Rachel Guttman said her Jewish sorority advised its members against wearing their letters on Thursday. “Honestly, everyone’s kind of scared right now and we don’t know what to expect,” she said.
But there were signs of a unifying response and a desire to rebut hate speech and racism.
Painted sheets hang from the facades of fraternities and sororities at the University of Florida repeating “Love not hate #TogetherUF.”
Ahead of the speech, No Nazi UF hosted a teach-in Tuesday night with students, faculty and staff discussing the ideology Spencer espouses and the campus response to it.
Across the street from the 2,000-acre university, Florida Highway Patrol vehicles clogged the parking lot of the Hilton UF Conference Center Hotel and dozens of officers worked to secure the area.
In August, Spencer helped organize a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., where Heather Heyer was killed by a car driven into demonstrators protesting the rally.
UF, the state’s second-largest university with more than 52,000 students, initially denied Spencer’s request to speak here in September, but in a letter to the UF community, president Kent Fuchs said the First Amendment required the university to allow the event.
The National Policy Institute, which Spencer runs, paid $10,564 to rent the 1,700-seat Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. No UF organization invited Spencer, the university said.
UF said it and law enforcement agencies will spend more than $500,000 on security for the event. At the request of Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency Monday.
Barricades went up Tuesday along the road to the Phillips Center, in the southwestern part of campus. The city will close part of 34th Street, the main road along the western edge of UF, and restrict traffic in the area around the center.
The security presence prompted a mixed response.
“It’s comforting to know that they’re there,” sophomore Tyler Kaplan. “If something were to happen, we’re the most prepared.”
Added freshman Sabrina Faks, “If anything, it’s kind of scary that they had to hire $500,000 worth of more security.”
The combination of the police presence and the state of emergency “gives off the feeling that something major is going to happen,” Adejumo said.
Fuchs has advised students to ignore the event while encouraging them to challenge Spencer’s “message of hate and racism.”
But that message is particularly harmful for certain groups on campus, Adejumo said.
“Many of these students, they’ve never seen anything like this ever,” Adejumo said. “So to say to just ignore it, you can’t just ignore it. I think that’s the wrong signal and message that the university is signaling to the students. Many of the students are from subjugated groups and you can’t just ignore the oppression that you’re feeling.”
Kaplan said his Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, has sent in a national representative “to watch over us” and that the fraternity asked university police for extra security.
In a letter he wrote to the community earlier this month, Fuchs encouraged members of the UF community to speak up for the values of the university.
“Make it clear that messages of hate on our campus are contrary to those values,” he said.
In addition to signs hung from fraternities and sororities, the #TogetherUF campaign is distributing “Gators Not Haters” T-shirts.
The Lubavitch-Chabad Jewish Student Center planned a “good deed marathon” for Thursday.
No Nazi UF started a change.org petition that had more than 3,500 supporters Wednesday morning calling for UF to prevent Spencer from speaking, and it has encouraged the peaceful protest of Spencer’s speech.
Florida does not plan to cancel classes on Thursday, though some buildings around the Phillips Center will be closed. Some students such as Guttman are still deciding whether they’ll leave campus before Spencer’s speech.
“I don’t feel unsafe,” Guttman said. “I just feel unsure of what could happen with an event like this.”
Follow Rachel Axon on Twitter: @RachelAxon
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