From Whence the Violence?


Richard Spencer

Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency; the University of Florida spent a half-million dollars on security; protesters were peaceful, if boisterous; and neo-Nazi nincompoop Richard Spencer managed to speak on the Gainesville campus for nearly two hours and even answered questions from the audience.  (At one point CUNY Professor Angus Johnston, listening to the event remotely, tweeted: “Richard Spencer, speaking without interruption, has spent the last ten minutes claiming he’s being silenced.”)

To be sure, his moronic supporters claim that Spencer “won.”  “Mission accomplished,” boasts Andrew Anglin at the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website. “Libshits freak out, university spends $600,000, we get mad media coverage, we look great in front of a bunch of apes.”

Bob Moser, editor-at-large of The New Republic, agrees:

Spencer is following the tried-and-true model of far-right provocateurs like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, recognizing that university campuses and 19-year-old activists are easy marks for the snake-oil salespeople of white nationalism. Book a speech, and voila: University administrators will react with undue alarm, anti-fascist groups will peddle completely unfounded rumors about the terror about to come to town, the mainstream media will hype the proceedings like a heavyweight boxing match, and some well-intentioned and misinformed student activists will resist calls to boycott the event and show up to try and shout down the speaker.

That’s precisely what happened in Gainesville—and that’s why Spencer, though impossibly outnumbered, won the battle.

But did Spencer and his band of cretins really win?  For one thing, even The New Republic‘s account acknowledges that he answered questions, that his claim that he’d be silenced was proven wrong.  More important, the magazine apparently published its response before the day’s events came to a close.  For while clearly Gov. Scott’s decree and the university’s security preparations were aimed at ensuring that protests did not become violent, as they had, for instance, at Berkeley back in February, by and large protesters were peaceful.  Yet there was violence in Gainesville nonetheless, although thankfully no one was hurt.  And the source was once again, as in Charlottesville, not the protesters.  Instead, a few hours after Spencer concluded his event Gainesville police arrested three of his supporters, charging them with attempted murder after one of them, egged on by his friends, fired a gun at protesters “with the intent to kill.”  Here is how the Los Angeles Times reports it:

The event was heavily protested but mostly went off without violence, until three men in a silver Jeep pulled up to a bus stop around 5:20 p.m. Thursday after Spencer had ended his speech.  They had just come from the speech and were recorded on video giving interviews to media outlets, defending Spencer’s appearance.

“One of the passengers began yelling Hail Hitler and other chants” at the people at the bus stop, according to arrest reports released by the Gainesville Police Department.  “An argument ensued,” and one of the people at the bus stop, whose name was redacted, “used a baton to hit the rear window of [the] vehicle.”

Tyler Eugene Tenbrink, 28, of Richmond, Texas, got out of the Jeep and pulled out a gun, police said.

Colton Gene Fears, 28, and William Henry Fears, 30, brothers who live in Pasadena, Texas, told Tenbrink to “kill them” and “shoot them,” according to the arrest reports.  At one point William Fears got out of the vehicle too, according to one witness.

Tenbrink fired one shot, which missed a person at the bus stop and hit a business behind the person, and the men then got back in the Jeep and drove away, police said.  The person took down the Jeep’s license plate number and the men were arrested 20 miles north of Gainesville, with a gun found in the car, police said.  Tenbrink then confessed to being the gunman, they said. . . .

Tenbrink came from Texas to hear Spencer speak, and he told the Gainesville Sun in an interview before the shooting: “This is a mess. I’m disappointed in the course of things. It appears that the only answer left is violence, and nobody wants that.”  He appears to be the same man who leapt over a police fence after being chased away from the event by protesters.

Before the shooting, William Fears told one journalist that he supported Spencer’s message, and he also told a Miami CBS news affiliate that the “only people who think we’re the violent ones, causing violence, are people who watch CNN.”

William Fears also told the Gainesville Sun:  “It’s always been socially acceptable to punch a Nazi, to attack people if they have right-wing political leanings.  Us coming in and saying we’re taking over your town, we’re starting to push back, we’re starting to want to intimidate back.  We want to show our teeth a little bit because, you know, we’re not to be taken lightly.  We don’t want violence; we don’t want harm.  But at the end of the day, we’re not opposed to defending ourselves.”

A Miami Herald video appeared to catch Colton Fears shouting at protesters, “Fourteen in the sheets, 88 in the streets,” two numbers commonly used by white nationalists and neo-Nazis to express white power.  “Our founding fathers were white nationalists,” Fears told the newspaper in an interview.  “Now I’m not saying you have to be a white nationalist, but understanding that it’s OK and it doesn’t make you a racist.”

The number 14 is shorthand for the “14 Words” slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”  The number 88 stands for “Heil Hitler” (H being the 8th letter of the alphabet).  So much for those who claim Spencer and his supporters are “nationalists,” not Nazis.

How will those who decry nonviolent disruption as a major threat to our democracy respond to this latest assault?  Will the outrage be proportionate, say, to that directed against those who shoved a professor at Middlebury after Charles Murray spoke?  Or to that directed at Melissa Click for pushing aside a video camera?  Or will the focus remain on those who heckled — but did not silence — Spencer?  After all, a heckler may silence speech, at least for the moment, but a gun can silence someone forever.

And one other thought:  The University of Florida claimed that it had no choice but to permit Spencer’s talk because it could not legally impose content-based restrictions on the use of its facilities.  That is true, but there’s a catch.  The university apparently makes its facilities available to the general public and not only to groups and individuals associated with the university.  I don’t know if this is a university policy or a provision of Florida law, but I am certain that nothing in the First Amendment would prevent the university from limiting use of its facilities to those with some sort of sponsorship by a group within the university — students, departments, the administration, etc.  The Berkeley experience suggests that it’s not too hard for a well-financed speaker like Milo Yiannopoulos (or Spencer) to find a campus stalking horse.  Still, this would be a reasonable approach.  If you haven’t been invited, you don’t get to speak.  In the current environment it seems to me a mistake for a school to simply say, you can rent our facilities so long as you pay.  Not only does it open them up to this sort of Spencer situation but it also has no educational logic.  Classrooms and lecture halls are not public meeting rooms.

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3 thoughts on “From Whence the Violence?

  1. Pingback: Responding to Spencer | ACADEME BLOG

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