In late November, the University of Michigan announced that it would begin talks with Richard Spencer about granting the white-supremacist leader a venue on campus for a speaking event. “However sickening it is,” the president wrote in a statement, the university administration was “legally prohibited from blocking such requests based solely on the content of that speech.”
In October, after the University of Florida’s president allowed Spencer to speak after citing similar reasons, Spencer appeared on the school’s campus. But when he arrived, it was to a venue packed with jeering protesters. Outside, more than 2,000 others surrounded the performing-arts center, their chants condemning Spencer and his supporters’ views. Spencer left the stage half an hour before his event was scheduled to end, his increasingly shrill demands for silence answered with boos.
As a speaking event, it was a failure; as a protest, it was a visible success. The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, The Guardian, Time magazine, and the BBC all crowned their reports with headlines stating that protesters “drowned out” or derailed Spencer. Days later, Ohio State University cited the protest as a reason for the school’s decision not to host Spencer on its campus. But to go by the media accounts (The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, even the New York Post chimed in), the UF protest appeared to develop organically and inevitably; if anything, its vague origin was “social media.”
In fact, UF’s 2,500-person October protest was organized by a handful of students of color in their early 20s, largely from working-class backgrounds. (“There is no generational wealth,” one of the lead organizers told me.) They were the ones who put together the coalition of student and community groups called “No Nazis at UF,” the main vehicle to bring thousands out to the October protest, hundreds of whom packed the Phillips Center during Spencer’s speech. They were the ones who spent money they would have used for groceries and sacrificed hours they would have spent studying to launch a protest that rendered Spencer’s first speaking event since Charlottesville disjointed, disorderly, and clearly out of his control—dealing, as the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote, a “blow” to Spencer’s college-campus strategy that “threw Richard Spencer for a loop, exposing the hollowness of his message and the fragility of his ego.” They did this not only without the help of their university, but often in resistance to UF’s efforts to prevent protest at all.
The University of Michigan campus is following a similar course, with a student-led anti-Spencer movement contending with a university administration that appears most interested in upholding the free-speech rights of a white supremacist. According to Haoi An Pham, one of the lead organizers of the coalition “Stop Spencer at the University of Michigan,” the university announced that it would not support any student walkouts, arguing that they would be disruptive to the classroom environment. Yet, An Pham said, administrators seem all too ready to ignore how a white supremacist might disrupt the classroom environment for students of color. “We have an $11 billion endowment, we have some of the best legal resources in the country, and yet they prioritize a possible lawsuit over student safety,” she said. “You can say you deny white supremacy, but that’s not going to prevent a student from getting shot.” As Elizabeth King writes in Pacific Standard, “Students have become the primary defenders of their campuses from far-right forces…. While universities continue to allow dangerous speakers on campus, students will continue to find themselves bound to protest not just the speakers, but also their schools’ own administrators.”
At UF, student protesters had to deal with similar resistance, but they rallied thousands in October to ensure Spencer and his supporters knew they were unwelcome. Their labor was successful, but that doesn’t take away from the difficulty of having to fight twin fronts of white supremacy and university. As Michigan gears up to grapple with the ostensible free-speech issue of allowing Richard Spencer on their campus, it’s worth looking back at how students succeeded, despite all efforts to prevent them.
Even before Spencer came to Gainesville, the University of Florida had seen an increase in xenophobic incidents after Trump’s election. A student’s Black History Month decorations were found ripped from her door in February. In the same month, racial slurs and the phrase “This Month Is Racist” were written on a whiteboard in the political-science building. Two different neo-Nazis stood in one of UF’s free-speech zones wearing swastikas. Somebody put up Identity Evropa flyers across campus days after the sign for Walker Hall, which houses both the Jewish Studies and African-American Studies programs, was knocked over. (In September, the sign would be uprooted again.) All these incidents were reported to the university, which responded largely by waving off the incidents as jokes or mistakes. In the case of the slurs, the administration increased police presence around the building. Two women in the African-American Studies program were confronted in their office by a man who demanded they listen to him rant about Virgil Hawkins, the first black law student at the university; the man was banned from campus. In a teach-in the week before Spencer’s speech hosted by No Nazis at UF, one of the speakers—a professor who had been in the African-Americans Studies office during the incident—pointed out that the man’s mental illness had been handled much differently than an incident in 2010, when a Ghanan doctoral student suffering from delusions was shot in the head by campus police in his apartment.
When Spencer’s event was confirmed, the University of Florida explicitly advised students to stay away from the Phillips Center and ignore Spencer and his supporters. “By shunning him and his followers we will block his attempt for further visibility,” UF President Kent Fuchs wrote in a statement released after Spencer’s speaking event was announced. He encouraged people to instead participate in the Together UF campaign, a series of activities hosted by “student leaders” that focused on “dialogue, education and the embrace of our shared humanity.” One was a panel on diversity; another was a “virtual assembly” that streamed on a website only accessible with a UF ID number.
But No Nazis at UF had been organizing since Spencer issued his first event request in August, meeting regularly a mile east of campus at the Civic Media Center, a grassroots library and meeting space for the city’s radical and progressive groups. (Noam Chomsky dedicated the center in 1993; a poster of his portrait still hangs prominently on its north wall.) If the university couldn’t, or wouldn’t, resist Spencer’s speaking event, then the students and community members who gathered at the CMC figured they would. “Shutting your eyes and acting like the problem is going to go away—it’s not going to go away,” Omar Y., one of the lead organizers, told me. “You have to actively oppose it. Intercept it. And that is how we solve problems. You cannot sit idly, basking in your own privilege, and hopefully things go away—it doesn’t work like that.”
So they acted. The bulk of the work—developing a social-media presence, printing and handing out flyers, hosting planning meetings, and coordinating a 2,500-person protest that shut down a major roadway and ejected several neo-Nazis—was masterminded by the four or five organizers who convened the first meeting at the CMC. They were the ones who staged the press conferences and fielded hundreds of media requests. They were the ones to mobilize the community when threats of violence were reported downtown, and they were the ones to lead a march to the president’s office attended by more than 100 people, demanding to speak to the president about the Spencer speech. (They were locked out of the building. “In all my years organizing in Gainesville, I’ve never seen them lock the doors like that,” said Candi Churchill, an organizer with Gainesville’s branch of National Women’s Liberation.) Their decisions were the ones that would ripple across thousands of people waiting for guidance. They are all students in their early 20s. “We’re not extremely involved students,” said Omar, the oldest lead organizer at 25. “We don’t volunteer at the student affairs office. We don’t give tours. We don’t do all of the school-spirit stuff.”
“Those things don’t align with our values,” Tim Telsij, a 21-year-old student and lead organizer, added. They value justice over respectability and action that holds institutions complicit in white supremacy accountable, not action that chiefly mitigates responsibility. As they see it, the university has failed to uphold these values; until it begins to use its power and influence for people who are not white and male, they refuse to participate. Instead, they are learning to effectively do it themselves. “From the get-go, the university did anything and everything to discourage us, to downplay us, to put us down. Even to the very last day,” Omar said. “And yet people understood the dire need to show up, to show up in solidarity, and practice what little First Amendment rights we had left.”
Though the protest was led by a group of students, that didn’t mean the organizers had support from their peers. They didn’t. The Tuesday evening before the October 19 protest, the leaders of No Nazis at UF and UF College Democrats flooded the student senate chamber with 50 students in tow during a scheduled meeting. Chad Chavira, the 20-year-old UF student who organized the first No Nazis at UF meeting back in August interrupted the senate proceedings to demand the student senators pressure the administration to cancel classes, or at least tell them what they had done so far to advocate for them. The student body president, obeying protocol, refused to answer, as Chad was not a student senator. Eventually a sympathetic student senator repeated Chad’s questions, which the student body president answered without specifics.
After the meeting, the organizers formed a small circle outside the chamber, looking at each other, dazed, as the senators and fellow protesters streamed by. “I can’t believe what I just saw,” Courtney said, affecting a small shiver. “They’re robots.” Omar nodded in agreement. “Look at them,” he said. “They’ve already become politicians.”
In August, Chad invited 12 campus organizations to participate in an initial planning meeting. Only three showed up: The Women’s Student Association, the Asian American Student Association, and Volunteers for International Student Affairs—none of whom returned. In the end, the coalition included only three student groups: The Gainesville chapters of Dream Defenders and Young Democratic Socialists of America; and CHISPAS, an immigrant-rights group. In fact, in the weeks leading up to Spencer’s event, most student organizations on campus hewed to the university’s position discouraging protests, preferring instead to back the administration-sanctioned Spencer alternative. “Echoing President Kent Fuchs, JSU urges students not to attend the event,” the Jewish Student Union’s statement read. “We believe that the best way to fight back is ignore them completely as they are looking for people to respond and show weakness.”
Chad said he wasn’t surprised. “The structures that are currently in place are not going to save us,” he told me after the protest. “They are not here for us…. students outside of those student organizations and outside of those current power structures are the ones that actually made the difference—not the structures that are in place that would have told us to go home.” Outside the student senate chamber, fresh from a meeting where they had been effectively stonewalled by fellow students, Chad, Courtney, Omar, and Tim were mostly puzzled when I asked them why they were doing this. Chad laughed. “Our lives depend on it.”
“I don’t know about the rest of you,” said Tim, “but if I had seen other people step up, and there wasn’t a need to organize other than showing up at the event, I might not feel inclined to do it. But if you see there’s a need, then you fill it—it seems like the right thing to do.”
Getting to the protesters at the front meant shouldering through the kind of crowds I’d only ever seen on UF campus during football games. The mile-long stretch of road blocked off for the protest teemed with roving knots of people: families with young children, grey-haired couples, graduate students and undergrads fresh from high school—many of whom told me this was the biggest protest they’d ever been to—commingled in vast array, diverse as a university brochure. Meanwhile, wearing khakis and white polos, the National Policy Institute men watched the protesters from a distance, behind barriers and a layer of Florida Highway Patrol officers. Each wore the Identity Evropa symbol on their collars, an upside down triangle split into three, ear pieces, and wraparound sunglasses. All, of course, were white.
Both the university and the National Policy Institute regulated protesters with security systems; both were enforced by the police. The university had banned from the protest area and inside the Phillips Center 50-odd items including megaphones, water bottles, bandannas, bicycles, or bags of any kind. Two people collapsed from the heat.
But even if the police let you through for complying with the university’s banned items list, to get into the Phillips Center you had to also go through the National Policy Institute. A week earlier, Spencer had broken contract with the university and took control of ticket distribution, an unusual arrangement for the Phillips Center. (“It’s their event,” UF spokesperson Janine Sykes told The Miami Herald. “The tickets are theirs to distribute.”) The NPI men checked your driver’s license and asked you to empty your pockets. Many people who passed the initial police check were turned away: women with shaved heads, people with phone numbers on their arms, and anyone with signs. If you didn’t comply, the NPI men called the police over, who threatened to remove you themselves. The second time I made it to the police checkpoint, a man from NPI pointed at me and shook his head at the officers flanking him; the police told me I had to leave. I asked one of the National Policy Institute men to tell me why. “I don’t have to give you a reason,” he said, looking at the ground. “Is there any rationale—or are you just choosing off of feeling?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, looking up at me. “We are.” Two officers forcibly removed me. “It’s their venue,” one said to my objections.
Chad had been turned away by the National Policy Institute men, but his phone began to light up with texts from fellow Dream Defenders who hadn’t. Through text, they worked out a plan to lead the crowd in protest when Spencer started to speak. Hundreds who followed No Nazis at UF’s instructions to wear clothing that wouldn’t stand out made it inside, outnumbering the scant two rows of Spencer supporters who showed up. During the FAQ, one woman told Spencer, “We are all allowed to voice our opinions, and the government cannot stop you. We, however, can voice over your opinions. We can speak over you and tell you that you are incorrect, and that these things that you are saying are harmful to other people. The First Amendment allows us to do that.”
Outside, thousands of people brought together by five students of color were exercising their free speech in chant: “Go home, Nazis!”
What would UF’s campus have looked like if No Nazis at UF hadn’t existed, if no one had filled the need that the school’s policies failed to meet? The student leaders of No Nazis at UF didn’t have to fight to get 2,500 people to protest; people were ready to mobilize. And even after ensuring that the first post-Charlottesville event involving Spencer on a campus was a clear rejection, their efforts have hardly been recognized by the university: UF President Kent Fuchs wrote an op-ed for the student newspaper published the day after the march that avoided mentioning the protest whatsoever—even doubling down on his belief that ignoring fascists is the right strategy—and instead lauded the Together UF chalk-painting, panel discussions, and virtual assembly, which he claimed “the whole world was watching, and the whole world saw how we responded to a hateful and despicable bully.”
The thousands who came out to the protest made national headlines; the virtual assembly, if mentioned, was reported as a minor detail. Nonetheless, organizers at other universities have felt the same lack of support. Though Auburn University initially refused to allow Spencer on campus and complied with a federal judge’s order, organizers with No Nazis Auburn, the group that gathered hundreds outside the auditorium where he was speaking, said that the university itself made it difficult to organize. The University of Virginia administration has yet to speak out directly against Richard Spencer and the Unite the Right Rally, where activist Heather Heyer was killed by a white nationalist. It, too, discouraged counter-protests and urged attending university-sponsored discussions on campus instead. Student protesters with Stop Spencer at the University of Michigan, for its part, are doing what they can—and on a daily basis—to convince their administration that they do not accept white supremacy on their campus. It’s just a matter of whether or not the university will admit that their students are right: Ignoring white supremacy is not the answer, nor is it something you should teach your students to consider the answer. “You can go to as many nice chats as you want in a closed space with people that are like-minded,” said Jose, a 23-year-old UF graduate who returned to Gainesville to support No Nazis at UF. “But history teaches us that at the end of the day, power is in the streets, and it’s in people coming together.”
This story was produced for Student Nation, a section devoted to highlighting campus activism and student movements from students in their own words. For more Student Nation, check out our archive. Are you a student with a campus activism story? Send questions and pitches to Samantha Schuyler at [email protected].