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.