GAINESVILLE, Florida — The sprawling University of Florida campus, often called the “Berkeley of the South” was essentially put on lockdown Thursday. There were checkpoints for media and crowd-control barricades. Heavily-armed state police swarmed the campus, and choppers flew overhead. All this because Richard Spencer was coming to town, in what had been billed in some so-called alt-right circles as the first big thing since the August’s violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In the end, it was anything but. An increasingly frustrated tweed-clad Spencer struggled to get his message out because of the loud booing and chanting from audience members.
His event, on the broad theme of ‘identity” was held in the opulent two-tiered Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which Spencer himself shelled out more than $10,000 to hire for what was about a three-hour speaking event.
Reporters, after a terse press conference with Spencer in a separate location, were ushered through rows of metal detectors, brought in especially for the event, into the allocated media seating area. At that time, two rows of seats at the front and center were occupied by young men and a few women, all white, mostly wearing white polo shirts and khakis.
“Even though today’s topic is controversial, a civil discourse is both possible and desirable,” announced a voice (that sounded a lot like Spencer) over the loudspeaker system. “The audience should allow the speaker to talk without disruption. Vocal disruptions, sign holding, approaching the stage and actions that disrupt programming by infringing on the rights of speakers or audience members is prohibited.”
Hopeful ticket-holders queued up outside the event. As the University of Florida had explained in an email earlier this week, Spencer would be entirely in control of the ticket distribution process. Three young men in “fashy haircuts,” white polos and khakis, the white supremacist uniform du jour, superficially vetted potential audience members. Several students in “Black Lives Matters” t-shirts later told VICE News that they’d turned them inside-out until they got inside the venue.
As the audience began to take their seats, Depeche Mode’s “Where’s the Revolution” blared from the speakers. Spencer has made no secret of his fondness for Depeche Mode, the British 1980’s electronia band which continued to play for at least another half hour. (The group’s frontman Dave Gahan formally disavowed Spencer back in March, referring to him as a “cunt”.)
The Orwellian loudspeaker alert about acceptable behavior during the event played again, and Cameron Padgett, the clean-cut college student dressed in a navy suit, strode onto stage to introduce the speakers. Eli Moseley of Identity Evropa was up first, followed by Mike Enoch of the “Right Stuff,” a white nationalist podcast, and then, the headliner, Richard Spencer.
At one point, Moseley got the troops riled up with chants of “You will not replace us,” the same Identity Evropa chant that rang out across Charlottesville in August (“You” was often substituted with “Jew” in that case).
The audience on the whole was sparse, about 300 in total. There was a small contingent of audience members who did not boo — they remained seated, even occasionally cheered for Spencer.
But the speakers could hardly get a word in. The audience was loud; booing, heckling, chanting “go home” or “Black Lives Matter.”
“White people have learned something this year,” said Moseley. “We have learned that identity politics work and we’re not going anywhere.”
Moseley, Enoch and Spencer spent most of their time trying to get their message across to white people in the audience, which was mostly white . “Diversity. What does that mean to you as a white person,” said Enoch. “If you’re a white person in this audience, what does that mean to you. It means you’re not going to get into that school, you’re not going to get that job, you’re not going to get that promotion.”
The “conspiracy theory of white privilege… is designed to incite violence against white identity,” Enoch continued.
But it wasn’t just Spencer’s troops who were interested in his message.
Some members of the audience were seemingly on the fence, including some of the people who came forward to ask questions. One student pointed out that Spencer’s ideas weren’t new, and began rattling off philosophers whom he believed shared his ideas. “You understand the alt-right better than your contemporaries,” said Spencer. When the apparently perplexed student mentioned something about having a white identity, Spencer interjected. “You have a white identity, you’re halfway there. Just be patient.”
Phillip Hooks, 68, a resident of Gainesville, told VICE News that he’d come along to the event because he was curious to hear what Spencer had to say. Hooks, a Vietnam war vet, said he’d voted for Trump because he liked that he speaks his mind, and saw Spencer as being similar in that sense. “He has a right to come here and he has a right to be listened to,” said Hookers. “It’s like going to church. You can listen, but you don’t have to hear it.”
Other students were less sympathetic. One black student asked over and over again “Why are you here?” Another student asked Spencer pointedly what it felt like to be punched in the face, referring to an incident in which an Antifa member punched Spencer in the face while he was doing an on-camera interview. “It hurt,” he replied.
Spencer and his cronies lost patience with the audience. “You’re at the premier event for free speech in this country and THIS is how you behave,” he asked. He also called the crowd a “cartoonish caricature of the left.”
“You have intimidated people who wanted to be here,” Spencer scolded. “Unlike you… childish Antifa.”
Padgett was less tactful. “You only stand for dying your hair red, wearing nose rings and shopping on Amazon,” Padgett said. “Y’all are pieces of shit if I’m being very honest.”
About ten minutes before the event came to a close, Spencer’s troops on the front row got up and exited out the side door. Later, a fleet of UberXLs and a couple of large white vans drove around the side of the venue and away from campus.
Outside, where it was hot and humid, a couple hundred protesters remained outside the venue carrying signs, and encircling anyone suspected of being a nazi sympathizer. One man, dressed all in black, was chased by protesters, hopped barricades, and was promptly handcuffed by police.
Five minor injuries were reported and treated by fire rescue teams at the scene. There were two arrests: Sean Brijmohan, 28, of Orlando, Florida, who was charged with possession of a firearm on school property, and David Notte, 34, of Gainesville, Florida, charged with resisting an officer without violence, according to the University of Florida.