GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Loud chants of “Say it loud! Say it clear! Nazis are not welcome here!” greeted white nationalist Richard Spencer when he took the stage Thursday for a controversial University of Florida speaking appearance.
Spencer spoke and – eventually — fielded questions from a boisterous audience packed with opponents at Phillips Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida.
“I feel sorry for you. Do you know how this is going to be read? Do you think this is going to be read as, ‘Great victory for U of F?’ No,” Spencer told the heckling crowd.
“It’s going to be read as, ‘The University of Florida is filled with childlike Antifa who shout at people — as opposed to talking to them,'" Spencer said.
Organizers had announced that 700 tickets would be distributed, but numerous seats were unoccupied across the theater. Hundreds of sign-waving protesters descended on the venue, chanting and marching up and down nearby Hull Road.
“Go home, racist, go home!” the crowd chanted at Spencer, standing and shaking fists toward the stage. He repeatedly exchanged barbs with the audience.
“You are attempting to turn your academic community into a stifling place. Is that what you want?" Spencer asked the audience.
On Monday, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Alachua County ahead of the event. Violence marred a white nationalist August rally in Charlottesville, Va., during which counterprotester Heather Heyer was struck by a car and killed.
UF remained open for classes Thursday, although numerous roads and facilities were shut down near the Phillips Center at the southwest corner of campus. Hundreds of law enforcement officers patrolled the city, and officials blocked key roadways using cement barricades, dump trucks and other large obstacles.
By early afternoon, a yellow plane started circling the vicinity pulling a banner that read “Love conquers hate! Love will prevail!” Hundreds of protesters congregated at the ticket distribution site, sparking confusion among those trying to attend. Dozens of Florida Highway Patrol troopers marched in military-style formation across the scene.
Inside the venue, crowd outbursts filled much of the event’s opening 20 minutes. Obscene remarks and gestures popped up throughout.
Fielding questions from the audience, Spencer disavowed comparisons with German dictator Adolf Hitler. He also said he was not responsible for the violence in Charlottesville, and the circumstances of Heyer’s death remain unclear. The crowded responded by chanting, “It’s your fault!”
Spencer told the audience he grew up in the suburbs, and said his generation was born into a country where they are “strangers in our own lands.”
“I, like millions of other white people in their 20s and 30s now, have a dramatically different ‘lived’ experience than our parents. Our parents can remember peak America. They can remember the America of ‘50s diners, and ice cream dates, and drive-in movie theaters,” Spencer said.
“They can remember a white America in the midcentury. We can’t. We were born into something fundamentally different,” he said.
Spencer was joined on stage by Eli Mosley, leader of Identity Europa. Mosley likened Spencer’s hecklers with “wild hyenas” who had been “brainwashed by anti-white propaganda from their professors, from the media.”
“This right here, what you’re doing, is the best recruiting tool for us that you could possibly ever give us,” Mosley said.