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Florida: Anti-racists rally against Richard Spencer

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 19/10/2017
Demonstrators gather at the site of a planned speech by Richard Spencer in Florida [Brian Blanco/AFP/Getty Images] © Provided by Al Jazeera Demonstrators gather at the site of a planned speech by Richard Spencer in Florida [Brian Blanco/AFP/Getty Images]

Chanting "No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA", protesters marched on the University of Florida's (UF) Gainesville campus to rally against a speech by white supremacist Richard Spencer.

Some 500 police officers also descended on the campus on Thursday.

Livestream video of the demonstration showed community members, anti-racists and anti-fascist activists marching and singing "Not in my town, not in my state, we don't want your Nazi hate".

Some estimated that at least 1,000 people joined the march. 

Spencer is a leading member of the alt-right, a loosely-knit coalition that includes neo-Nazis, white supremacists and white nationalists who advocate the creation of a white ethno-state.

Inside the auditorium, the audience booed as Spencer took to the podium, according to the Gainesville Sun, a local daily.

"Go home, Spencer," many shouted in unison with fists raised in the air. 

According to the Gainesville Sun, a flustered Spencer replied: "Y'all aren't tolerant. Y'all aren't anything! Y'all are full of s**t. You all are acting like animals and the communist antifa [anti-fascist] that you are."

By the early afternoon, at least one person was arrested for carrying a firearm on campus, the Alachua County Sheriff's Office said on Twitter.

Mitch Emerson, a community organiser who was involved in planning the "No Nazis at UF" rally, said protesters were voicing their opposition to "a group that poses imminent threat of violence".

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"I've seen a lot of controversial speakers," he told Al Jazeera.

"To me, that is an important part of the campus experience." 

"But there is a big difference between someone [holding controversial views] and saying we need to ethnically cleanse the country."

On Thursday morning, UF President W Kent Fuchs urged students, faculty and staff "not to follow their [white supremacists'] game plan".

In a video message posted on Twitter, Fuchs said Spencer and his followers hope to "create protests against their right to speak on campuses such as ours so that they're portrayed as on the side of the law … and that we then are against the law".

State of emergency

Because UF allowed Spencer's group to control ticket distribution, some racial minorities were turned away from the event, according to the Dream Defenders activist organisation and social media users.

Thursday's event is the first high profile appearance by alt-right figures since August's "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the country's largest white supremacist protest in decades.

On August 12, white supremacists from across the country descended on Charlottesville for the "Unite the Right" rally, where they protested the city's decision to remove a Confederate statue.

As Unite the Right participants clashed with community members, anti-racists and anti-fascists throughout the city, one attendee, James Alex Fields, allegedly ploughed his car into a march of counterdemonstrators. The attack killed 32-year-old Heather Heather and injured 19 others. 

Spencer had originally applied for a permit to speak at UF on September 12. Citing public safety in the wake of Charlottesville, the university did not grant Spencer a permit for that date.

After threats of legal action, UF allowed Spencer's National Policy Institute, a white supremacist think-tank, to reschedule the speech for Thursday.

In the run-up to the event, Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Alachua County, where the university is located.

"I find that the threat of a potential emergency is imminent," the governor said in an executive order on Monday.

The National Policy Institute did not reply to Al Jazeera's request for a comment.

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In a statement released earlier this month, UF said that although it "denounced Spencer's white supremacist rhetoric", the university was required to "allow the free expression of all viewpoints".

The statement also said the university said it has spent upwards of $600,000 on security, which involved the participation of the university's police department, the Alachua County Sherriff's Department, the Gainesville Police Department and other law enforcement agencies.

Of that total, Spencer's National Policy Institute was asked to pay $10,564 to rent the venue and contribute to security costs.

Emerson criticised the decision to spend the large sum of money on security for Spencer and his followers.

"I understand the need for security. But why are the students' tuition dollars and Florida's tax dollars going toward subsidising this?" he told Al Jazeera by telephone ahead of Thursday's rally. 

Instead, Emerson argued that UF should have denied a permit for Spencer and used the funds for legal protection against a potential lawsuit. 

'Flash protests'

Ahead of Spencer's speech on Thursday, the Daily Stormer, one of the largest neo-Nazi websites in the country, urged its followers to hold impromptu demonstrations outside of Jewish and African American institutions in Gainesville.

The site's founder, Andrew Anglin, instructed followers to cover racist or explicitly Nazi tattoos and dress in a manner that does not identify them as white supremacists.

Anglin called for brief flash protests outside of Jewish-owned businesses, the Chabad Jewish Center, the Institute of Black Culture and the Gainesville Sun office.

He also suggested that the protesters chant "Jews will not replace us", a slogan that white supremacists used during the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville last month.

Among those who were expected to be in attendance for Spencer's speech were well-known white supremacists Mike Enoch, a podcaster who is also known as Mike Penovich, and Eli Mosley, leader of Identity Evropa.

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Lecia Brooks, outreach director of the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a watchdog that monitors hate groups, explained that Spencer's appearance in Gainesville comes after months of white supremacist recruitment campaigns on university campuses.

"Their hope is to pick up as many disenfranchised whites on college campuses as they can," she told Al Jazeera, alluding to a surge in white supremacist flyer distribution and racist incidents on campuses.

Between the November 8 election of President Donald Trump and April, the SPLC documented at least 330 bias incidents at universities.

Amid widespread public backlash, a string of universities and cities declined to provide Spencer and other far-right figures with event permits after the deadly violence in Charlottesville.

Among the universities that rejected Spencer's application for speaking events are Texas A&M and Ohio State University.

"They have been trying to have Charlottesville 2.0 and 3.0 since [August]," said Brooks, "and now they are trying to regroup because they received bad media with the death of Heather Heyer."

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