Alex Kline, a freshman at the University of Florida, described the center of campus as “eerily quiet” today.
“Turlington Plaza is usually packed with students,” he said, describing a normal scene of students tabling, laughing with friends or catching a late lunch. “Today, there’s nobody there.”
Kline, 18, along with thousands of other students, faculty and emergency personnel, are bracing for the arrival of Richard Spencer, the outspoken white supremacist and alt-right ringleader, who will be speaking on campus later this afternoon. Spencer — who frequently shares anti-Semitic and racist views on social media and has been known to quote from Nazi propaganda and give the Nazi salute — will address an audience at a performing arts center on campus.
The University — which said no one from its staff, administration or student body invited Spencer to speak — is obligated under the First Amendment to allow the event to take place. Spencer and The National Policy Institute rented the venue on their own.
After clashes broke out between white nationalists and counter-protesters at the University of Virginia last summer, UF was able to delay Spencer’s speech, arguing that the First Amendment did not require them to risk “imminent violence” and they they needed time to prepare.
According to reports, the school is spending an anticipated $500,000 on security measures.
Now — with the governor declaring the university a “state of emergency” — Jewish students are speaking out about facing off with anti-Semitism at the heart of the campus they call home.
“When a natural disaster, like a hurricane, is coming, the university tells students to stay at home,” said David, a Jewish student on campus who preferred not to use his last name because of safety concerns. “This guy is a natural disaster, in my opinion.”
Organizations on campus that support Jewish students — including a large Hillel chapter and Chabad — have been “quietly” offering Jewish students a place to take refuge, he said. “If a Jewish student can’t go home, they have another place to stay.”
“When a natural disaster, like a hurricane, is coming, the university tells students to stay at home. This guy is a natural disaster, in my opinion.”
“I do believe he [Spencer] was very methodical in picking this location,” said Kline, who is part of the school’s 90-member Jewish Zionist fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau. UF is home to approximately 40,000 undergraduate students, 19 percent of whom are Jewish, according to Hillel International. Though Kline and his fellow fraternity members originally considered protesting the speech, they decided against it “to ensure our own safety.”
Several students noted the emptiness on campus preceding Spencer’s appearance.
“Most students stayed home today,” said David. “The sky here is grey, but it feels as if it’s summertime — there are so few students around.”
Many classes were canceled and “most” students opted to travel home or stay in their dorm rooms, David said. Teams of police, FBI personnel and state troopers are positioned all around campus.
“Last night, we began seeing truckloads of security coming in,” said Kline, who grew up in nearby Boca Raton. Despite choosing to attend morning classes, he plans to bunker down in his dorm room for the rest of the day — “as a precaution.”
Ben Haut, an 18-year-old freshman from New York City, said a “heightened sense of panic” has permeated the campus in the days leading up to Spencer’s visit.
“We’re all ‘preparing,’ whatever that can mean,” said Haut, who described himself as a “proudly traditional Jew,” a business administration major who grew up attending BBYO. On his mother’s side, most of his family was wiped out by the Holocaust. Confronting this “level of hate” today, on an American campus, “blows my mind,” he said.
“I can’t fathom that someone can have such hate for other people,” he said “It’s hard to believe.”
Spencer’s speech — and the “unleashing” of bigoted views around the country — has caused students with “extremist views” to “come out of the woodwork,” said Haut. On the otherwise-abandoned Turlington Plaza, Haut said a group that called themselves the “Aryan Brotherhood” was meeting. (To the best of his knowledge, it is not a student group.)
“They were chanting something against gay people,” he said. A few gave Nazi salutes. Many of them carried guns. The display seemed bizarrely out of place, Haut said.
Despite the tight security situation, students have banded together to protest. About 3,000 people joined a Facebook page to say they will be attending a protest rally called “No Nazis at UF,” which will be held outside the venue where Spencer will speak. Signs around campus promote solidarity, including one that says “It’s great to be a Nazi Hater.”
Haut said many on campus, including a large group of Jewish students, bought tickets with the intention not to attend.
Haut said many on campus, including a large group of Jewish students, bought tickets with the intention not to attend. “I really don’t think many students are going,” he said. Most speech-goers are anticipated to be from independent alt-right and white nationalist groups. Spencer tweeted out ticket information — 700 tickets will be distributed to attendees on a first-come basis. Hundreds of members of the “resistance” will also be showing up on campus.
On the white supremacist website The Daily Stormer, a post today encouraged speech attendees to dress in regular clothes and cover up racist or anti-Semitic body art in order to gain entry. Author Andrew Anglin suggested attendees not to wear khakis and polo shirts, the new “uniform” of the alt-right.
According to a memo sent out by the Anti-Defamation League, whose Center on Extremism is closely tracking the event, Anglin suggested that those who can’t gain entry take part in “flash demos,” a new tactic that has emerged in the wake of Charlottesville, in which white supremacists show up unannounced at locations to avoid contact with law enforcement and counter-protesters.
Anglin also posted the addresses of the Chabad Jewish Center, the Institute of Black Culture, the Gainesville Sun and Starbucks (whose founder is Jewish), and suggested that people find additional locations, demonstrate there for 10 minutes and then repeat the demonstration elsewhere.
He encouraged people to use the chant “Jews will not replace us,” which became a rallying cry by white supremacists at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August.
“Richard Spencer’s scheduled appearance at the University of Florida and other campuses is part of a concerted effort by white supremacists to recruit college students to build new support for their hateful and bigoted ideologies,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement.
“This has to be allowed because of free speech, but the campus is going to shut it down if any violence breaks out,” said Haut. “Free speech has to be allowed, but as soon as someone is endangered … that’s the fine line we have to walk.”
Though UF tried to dodge a visit from Spencer, white nationalists have filed several lawsuits in recent months, increasing pressure on schools to accommodate controversial speakers.
University President Kent Fuchs urged students to not attend the event and denounced Spencer’s white nationalism.
“By shunning him and his followers we will block his attempt for further visibility,” Fuchs said in a statement earlier this month.
Hillel’s head rabbi, Adam Grossman, wrote to students that “As a Jew and a rabbi, I am deeply concerned that these groups feel emboldened to come to our community.”
Despite the hype, the students I spoke to all said they are not concerned for their safety.
“The administration has done a great job making sure that students feel safe and have access to to additional mental health counseling,” said Kline. Professors have all addressed the upcoming speech, permitting and even encouraging students to skip class today. “Everyone has really come together.”
According to a report released by the ADL earlier this year, white supremacist incidents on college campuses have surged since the school year began in September.
White supremacist groups have increasingly targeted college campuses over the past year and a half in an effort to recruit new followers. This has picked up in the past six weeks.
ADL’s Center on Extremism has counted 79 reports of racist fliers, banners, or stickers being posted on college campuses since Sept. 1. This compares to only nine incidents in September and October of 2016. A total of 260 incidents have been recorded on 173 campuses in 40 states since September 2016.
“Young people are a prime target for recruitment,” Oren Segal, director of ADL’s Center on Extremism, told the Jewish Week earlier this year. In the past few months, white supremacist groups have been “emboldened.”