The right thing at the University of Florida

It took a declaration of a state of emergency and $600,000 worth of security, including snipers, paid for by taxpayers, but the appearance of white supremacist Richard Spencer at the University of Florida last week passed largely without violence. That’s a very different outcome from the August march Spencer led in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of a counter-protester who was run over by an apparent Spencer supporter.

It’s clear that authorities in Gainesville learned the lessons of Charlottesville and provided enough security to dampen the possibility of riots and murder. They should be commended for their advance planning, which rendered Spencer’s provocative appearance just another exercise in unpopular speech.

There’s no secret why Spencer chose UF for his appearance. The public university has the largest Jewish enrollment, 9,400 of 52,000 students, in the country. But Spencer’s ideology — he has advocated a white ethno-state that would exclude non-whites and Jews — is a threat to more than Jews. And student opponents of all backgrounds who turned out to protest outnumbered Spencer’s supporters. The day passed largely without violence, although a man wearing a T-shirt branded with a swastika reportedly was roughed up. We applaud the students who were witness to Spencer’s appearance but didn’t take the bait of his provocations.

Spencer was asked if he is a racist. His answer is instructive: “Race is real, race matters and race is the foundation of identity.” That’s true if you’re a racist. It’s real if a pseudoscientific division between humans is your top concern, and if you rally around provocative symbols of a white race.

In his profile of Spencer in the Atlantic, Graeme Wood contrasted Spencer’s prep school look with his fiery and hateful rhetoric. “His appropriation of Nazi tropes is relentless. In his notorious speech that ended in a roomful of fascist salutes, for instance, he referred to the mainstream media as the
‘Lügenpresse’ (‘lying press’), a Nazi-era smear against anti-Hitler media, even if Spencer flubbed the pronunciation. More to the point, Spencer’s ideas themselves are Nazi to the core, and he knows it, even if many of his followers do not.”

Right-wing radicals have lately been met in opposition by antifa, left-wing antifascists who are willing to use violence to oppose white supremacists and neo-Nazis. That thankfully did not happen in Gainesville. As antithetical as neo-Nazis and white supremacists are to us — we agree with the recent meme reminding all that the United States fought a world war which opposed Nazism — a violent response only escalates the problems that must be confronted by law enforcement that is trying to do its job to protect the rights of all.

At UF Spencer was typically smug and self-involved. He told his audience, “You know that what I’m saying here will change the world.” We embrace those in Gainesville who did their best to peacefully prove him wrong.

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