University of Florida students arose Thursday to a campus outwardly expressing messages of love against the backdrop of a heavily armed law enforcement presence and the specter of a divisive mid-afternoon speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer.
Banners hung outside fraternity and sorority houses called for “Love Not Hate #TogetherUF.”
The Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Student Center had been open since Wednesday for a three-day “Good Deed Marathon,” which drew praise from University President Kent Fuchs.
Spencer, a self-described “identitarian” whose supporters chanted “Jews will not replace us” at a Charlottesville, Va., rally that turned deadly this summer, has been labeled an anti-Semite and white supremacist by groups such as the Anti-Defamation League.
“Another example of countering darkness with Light on Oct 19,” Fuchs, who has repeatedly called on students to Spencer and “his racist and anti-American message,” tweeted Wednesday night of the “Good Deed Marathon.”
Just before 11:30 a.m., the first of Spencer’s supporters, claiming they “like being part of a collective,” arrived. At the same time, the first protesters showed up, one carrying a sign stating “No Trump Nazis.”
Wary of clashes that have erupted on campuses elsewhere, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Alachua County Monday night, at the behest of county Sheriff Sadie Darnell.
The head of the National Policy Institute, Spencer was one of the key speakers at an August “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., that turned deadly when a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters. Heather Heyer, 31, was killed, and dozens were injured.
Girding for the Thursday afternoon speech in Gainesville, streets near the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, where Spencer is to speak, were barricaded. Heavily outfitted law enforcement, some carrying riot helmets, marched along roads near the performing arts center.
Hundreds of journalists from around the globe inundated the campus of the state’s premiere university.
Some facilities near the center were closed, but the campus remained open, adding to the anxiety of students and faculty, many of whom strongly objected to the university allowing Spencer to appear.
While touring barricaded roads near the performing arts center and away from the heart of campus, Â Jawamza Tucker, a 21-year-old telecommunications major from Miami, said that the university has been calm during the past week.
The emergency declaration issued by Scott “kind of set a precedent,” he said.
“A lot of my friends are telling me to be careful, and I’m not taking their words lightly, but I’m not worried,” said Tucker, who said he intends to “observe” the event. “I will proceed with caution. You never know what people have up their sleeves.”
Spencer, Tucker said, “feels threatened,” adding that the UF appearance won’t change things.
“This is, honestly, just one big event to get attention, to increase his platform, to increase his notoriety and infamy,” Tucker said.
The school had initially denied Spencer’s request to speak. But Fuchs has noted that, while Spencer’s appearance isn’t sponsored by any student group, the public university couldn’t lawfully prohibit the event based on the content or views expressed in the speech.
Security costs for the UF event have grown to $600,000, and an estimated 500 law enforcement officers, from the city, county and state, are said to be on campus.
It is unknown how many of Spencer’s supporters will attend the speech — organizers are distributing 600 tickets to individuals they view as friendly — or how many others will show up to protest his appearance and white ethno-state platform.
Antifa – anti-fascists – members from Atlanta and Orlando are expected to flood into Gainesville, even though they may not have access to the venue where Spencer will speak.
Organizers of the event decided to distribute tickets to the speech, instead of the typical process in which the center provides the tickets, after reports that ticket-holders could exchange the passes for free beer or even money.
A group called No Nazis at UF, which called for classes to be canceled and asserted that their mobilization kept “fascists” from marching Wednesday night, used Facebook to plan a demonstration for Thursday. More than 1,000 people expressed interest for the event.
University graduate U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is among state leaders, including Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, urging students to boycott Spencer’s event.
“#GatorNation not asking u to ignore his racist message.” Rubio tweeted Wednesday. “I am suggesting you embarrass him by denying him the attention he craves.”