GAINESVILLE, Florida — When 27-year-old “Alan” faced a neo-Nazi with a gun last Thursday, he thought he was going to die. He’d been standing at a bus stop at a busy intersection in Gainesville just hours after white nationalist Richard Spencer gave a speech at the University of Florida.
Alan — not his real name — had traveled from Tallahassee to protest Spencer’s speech. Hours later, he was standing with four friends looking to catch a bus back to his car and head home. One friend was holding a sign with a swastika with a line through it, mostly to shield her eyes from the sun. At about 5:30 p.m. a silver Jeep pulled up and someone rolled down a window.
“Have you seen Kyle?” asked a man later identified as William Fears, 30, of Pasadena, Texas.
Alan, thinking they were fellow protesters looking for a friend, got up and walked over to the vehicle.
“You don’t get it,” Fears shouted. “Seen Kyle, like ‘Sieg Heil.’” Then Tyler Tenbrink, 28, of Richmond, Texas, William Fears and his 28-year-old brother Colton Fears, also of Pasadena, did Nazi salutes out the window.
As the Jeep pulled away Alan struck it with a baton he was carrying. “From there it all blurs together,” said Alan, an activist and U.S. Navy veteran. His name is being withheld by VICE News and the Gainesville Police Department out of concerns for his safety.
“I felt like my group was in danger,” he said. “I had a baton. I hit the van that was threatening us. I hit the car to get them to drive away, which they did at first. And then they stopped, about 20 feet down the road. Windows rolled down and I heard ‘shoot ’em.’”
Tenbrink allegedly got out of the car and pointed a gun at Alan and his friends, many of whom fled toward a wooded area just beyond the parking lot.
Alan froze, worried that if he fled to the woods, the young men would chase his friends.
“I threw the baton on the ground and put my hands in the air,” Alan said. “[Tenbrink] pointed his gun at me, paused for a second, and then shot.”
Alan couldn’t tell if he’d been hit. “It felt like someone blew air at me, on my stomach,” he said. “My memory is that I got shot in the stomach. I was standing there with my arms up and got hit by a bullet.”
But he wasn’t hit. Instead, the bullet whizzed past his midsection and lodged in a RadioShack storefront across the parking lot. Tenbrink, a convicted felon, got back into the Jeep, and it sped away.
“They were so close to me… I have no idea how I didn’t get shot,” he said.
Until the shooting, the protests during and after the speech of infamous white nationalist Spencer on the University of Florida’s Gainesville campus had been relatively peaceful. An assortment of Spencer fans, including white nationalists and neo-Nazis, were vastly outnumbered by protesters, and hundreds of heavily-armed police reduced the possibility of violence.
Two days later, when Alan spoke to VICE News exclusively by phone, he was still trying to process what had happened in the seconds after Tenbrink pulled the trigger.
For a moment, Alan said, it looked like Tenbrink considered firing another shot. Instead, at the urging of his friends, he jumped back into the vehicle and fled eastbound out of Gainesville.
During this encounter, Alan’s friend, who remained seated at the bus stop the entire time, had the forethought to jot down the vehicle’s license plate number.
Moments later, Gainesville police arrived on the scene and located the bullet casing. Alan said he was numb. “I’d just brushed it off, and blocked it out of my brain the whole time,” he recalled. “I had not one ounce of emotion. Was answering their questions like ‘No sir, yes sir.’”
He spent the next five hours at the police station, where he and his friends were offered psychological support, takeout from Olive Garden, and coffee as they tried to piece together what happened.
“The police asked me what I smelled at the scene of the crime,” wrote Michelle Gershon, a University of South Florida student who witnessed the shooting, in a statement shared with VICE News. “They were trying to jog my memory. But I couldn’t offer as much as the others… I had focused on the spark of the bullet, my friend frozen with his arms in the air, the RadioShack sign, the blonde-slicked-back hair and the crisp whiteness of the buttoned-down shirt of the Nazi as he gave us the Nazi salute.”
An off-duty Alachua County deputy later stopped the silver Jeep and took the driver and three passengers into custody. One man was released without charges; the Fears brothers and Tenbrink were charged with attempted homicide. Because of Tenbrink’s previous felony conviction, he was slapped with an additional weapons charge. According to police reports, Tenbrink admitted that he was the one who tried to shoot Alan.
Alan left the police station around midnight and drove all the way back to Tallahassee.
The shooting incident is a stain on what Spencer and his supporters celebrated as an otherwise perfect success for the so-called alt-right movement. In their eyes, they took the high road, remaining cool and collected even when protesters tried to drown out Spencer’s speech with chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “Nazis go home.”
Spencer insists that his rhetoric does not incite violence. It’s important that he avoids this label if he wants to continue speaking on college campuses. The Supreme Court reaffirmed in June that hate speech is protected by the Constitution, but not if that speech incites violence. Until school administrators can directly link his speech to violent acts, they have little legal standing to prevent him from speaking.
Spencer and other organizers of the violent “Unite the Right” rally in August in Charlottesville have worked hard to distance themselves the death of Heather Heyer, who was killed when a neo-Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd. Even during his speech on Thursday, Spencer cast doubt over the official account of what caused Heyer’s death.
Tenbrink and the Fears brothers drove all the way to Florida from Texas to hear Spencer speak. Before the speech, they milled around in the vicinity of the venue, talking to journalists and spouting white supremacist beliefs.
Colton Fears sang Spencer’s praises to reporters, saying he “sounds like he’s writing a book when he talks.” William Fears was clad in the alt-right uniform — white shirt and khakis. Colton Fears and Tenbrink opted for more subtle looks, wearing black T-shirts and boots.
As of Monday, Spencer was trying to figure out how to address the shooting incident, according to Evan McClaren, executive director of Spencer’s National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank.
“Richard tells me he’s considering making a general statement to advise members of the public how we expect them to behave at or around our events,” McClaren told VICE News. “The three people charged were not with our group, regardless of what outlook they expressed to the media.”
Gainesville police said two of the three men arrested have ties to extremist groups, but didn’t say which two or identify the groups. William Fears, according to an interview with the Washington Post after Charlottesville, became radicalized while serving a prison sentence for criminal trespass, aggravated kidnapping, and drug possession.
“I don’t think any race experiences racism in the modern world the way that white people do in jail,” Fears told the Post. “In jail, whites come last.” In a separate interview with the Chicago Tribune, he said that he self-identified as a Nazi. “Nazi is like the N-word for white people,” said Fears. “I just embrace it.”
William Fears also told reporters that he and his brother had traveled to Gainesville because they hoped to “trigger people, piss people off.” Colton Fears said he’s tired of being a “white male who’s been demonized for being a white male.
Wesley Durrance, a 2016 graduate of the University of Florida who currently works for a construction company, says he heard the gunshot and witnessed what happened from a short distance away. He said he’d spent much of the following day thinking about the relationship between the shooting and Spencer’s rhetoric.
“I think there’s a direct relationship,” Durrance concluded. “Spencer’s speech and presence caused something like that to happen.”
Alan, too, thinks there’s a connection.
“The thing about the alt-right, and about fascist movements in general, is that they are trying to keep their movement within legal bounds so they can build momentum,” said Alan. “Richard Spencer may not have literally said he wanted this to happen, but his people look up to the violence of the past…. These people are terrorists. They are treasonous. They are traitors to our state, and there’s nothing in the Constitution that accepts their ideologies.”
White supremacist and so-called alt-right blogs are already working to cast doubt over the official account of events.
“Antifa attacked the car, they got out to confront them, antifa moved in to assault them, something happened involving a gun where a shot was fired,” wrote Andrew Anglin on “The Daily Stormer,” his neo-Nazi website.
Anglin reels off the no-nos committed by the Fears brothers and Tenbrink, like “knowingly” violating alt-right security protocol by talking to the cops and packing firearms. “I’m not sure any crime was committed,” Anglin wrote. “That said, these three guys screwed up a bunch of very basic stuff. This is bad for not just them, but us as well — we don’t need to be tied to this type of thing,”
Alan says he plans to write Tenbrink and the Fears brothers letters in prison if they’re convicted.
“These guys deserve everything they’re getting, but truly I believe they are just misinformed people who’ve lived a different life than I have,” he said. “I can’t blame them. I’ve seen what can happen when people are raised badly, and how easily they’re affected by the people they’re surrounded by and their parents.
“They’re talking about how they’re in danger, how they’re persecuted for being who they are. It makes me feel bad,” Alan added. “I hope that their experience in prison is somehow positive, that they realize there’s no reason to hate the way they hate.”