By Rob Rushin
The Butterfly Rainforest at the Florida Museum of Natural History is beautiful and peaceful. Visitors wander through a 6,400-square-foot screened enclosure populated by a thousand or so butterflies and birds, not to mention a few hundred amphibians, fish, bromeliads, orchids, and other radiant flora. It’s fabulous.
But last Thursday, the museum was closed “at the request of the University of Florida due to a speaking event in the UF Cultural Plaza requiring additional security.”
The appearance of infamous white supremacist and sperm-lottery millionaire Richard Spencer — and his merry band of neo-Nazi jokers — was more circus than speaking event. Spencer had once again forced himself upon a community that made clear over a period of months that his presence was utterly unwelcome. But laws and constitutional protections apply to us all. Even Nazis. (“Alt-right,” my ass.) After blocking Spencer’s planned visit in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy, UF President Kent Fuchs (pronounced “fox”) relented in the face of legal action.
The violence in Charlottesville, spurred by Spencer and his followers and resulting in the death of Heather Heyer, loomed over the UF event. Counter-protesters established active and visible social-media networks to encourage a robust presence. The denizens of the white-supremacist subnet conducted a flurry of less public exhortations, calling not so subtly on their fellow believers to arrive ready for violence. Alt-righters (read: Nazis) were encouraged to spread out and mount “flash demonstrations” around town to maximize disruption. The stage was set for another Charlottesville.
UF responded with an impenetrable security cordon, at a cost to taxpayers of upwards of $500,000. Airborne security included three helicopters, two planes, and four drones. (Another plane flew in circles with a streaming banner in its wake: “Love conquers hate! Love will prevail!”) A thousand-plus officers, in every uniform from standard-duty to full-on assault gear, kept close watch. They had been marching in formation around campus since early morning. By noon, most were deployed around the UF Cultural Plaza where protesters, eventually numbering several thousand, began to assemble.
The rest of campus was nearly empty. Most classes were cancelled. Snipers and police photographers ringed the rooftops of the student gym and other strategic locations. A half-mile stretch of SW 34th Street on the western border of campus and the entirety of Hull and Museum roads grid were barricaded by garbage trucks, heavy construction machinery, and dozens of Florida State Patrol cars. Vehicles and personnel from a dozen jurisdictions as far away as Miami filled out the ranks.
But the biggest question was “Where are the Nazis?”
Sure, there were a few Spencer-ites, including one guy sporting head-to-toe white-supremacy tattoos who seemed to be on year three of a serious meth binge, all inchoate rage at how white guys like him can’t catch a break. He was having a hard time standing still and shutting up. He rubbed his shaved head like it was a job.
Identified by police as Tyler Tenbrink, of Richmond, Texas, he was arrested later that evening on charges of attempted murder after opening fire on a group of protesters waiting at a bus stop. He remains in jail; his bail was set at $3 million.
A less visibly tormented supporter held forth on eugenicist “science,” which he said proved the impossibility of races (whatever that means) living together. A kid in an Infowars T-shirt kept shoving a microphone in people’s faces trying to get them to say something scandalous. Protesters began pointing and laughing, calling him out as an alt-right infiltrator. He took a runner, leaving his trembling friend growing paler by the second as he accused the crowd of violating his rights and trying to commit genocide against him. Then he scarpered, too.
Overall, white supremacists’ numbers were as thin as their intellectual prowess. By around 1:15 p.m., protesters outnumbered Nazis 10-to-1. The police began to relax a bit; the street scene took on a carnival air. Protesters and media chatted casually with law enforcement, but it still seemed nobody — cops included — really knew what was going to happen. Or when.
The Spencerites had taken charge of ticket distribution, and nobody knew where to get tickets until a sudden surge toward a narrow opening in the barricades gave clue. There stood a couple dozen security guards surrounded a couple of Spencer’s minions, recognizable by the customary neo-Nazi fashion standard: white shirts, khakis, and hair sidecut ludicrously high-and-tight. The littlest of the little men held a fistful of tickets. The crowd shuffled toward the funnel. Things were getting interesting. At last: Nazis to harass.
But dilemma! Acting out now would mean banishment from the big top. One dreadlocked African-American man was turned away: “Not you, no way,” said the littlest man. A woman carrying a camera with telephoto lens was turned away. Another was jettisoned over a checkered bandana. But mostly, any vetting was reflexive and borderline incompetent.
We herded into the cattle chute, skirting the rainforest enclosure where birds and butterflies fluttered their daily routine. Nothing but the sound of birds here, a striking contrast to the Hull Road hullabaloo.
I reached the circus, aka the Philips Center for the Performing Arts, and looked back across the plaza toward the distant barricades, the hubbub inaudible. I handed over my ticket, endured metal detection and TSA-style wanding. I passed. The guy beside me wearing a U.S. flag as a cape did not.
The homeless guy behind me had on a tattered ballcap.
“But it’s my only hat.”
“Toss it or leave.”
He tossed it.
Rows of seats were taped off to allow rapid security movement. The balconies were filled with police. The first two center rows were reserved for “guests,” the side fronts reserved for media. The back rows were cluttered with tripod-mounted cameras.
The theater filled slowly. The Spencerite strategy to stack the crowd had failed spectacularly. The meth-tweaker guy from Texas got in, still twitching. The eugenicist nerd got in, but stormed out when security confiscated his placards. “Free speech for you but not for me,” he yelled as catcalls rained on his retreating back. He looked about to cry. There was a stray white shirt, a few other probable Spencer fans. But the fact remains: The Nazis held a rally and nobody came. On their side, anyway.
A recorded announcement looped: No recording or photography of any kind except by credentialed media. Violators would be ejected. Observe “behavioral expectations” and engage in “civil discourse.”
From the wings, two dozen whiteshirt-sidecut guys marched into the front rows, invited guests of the ringmaster and the single largest group of Nazis we would see all day. They boosted the total of Spencer supporters to around 35. With five taped off rows behind them for safety’s sake, their isolation was emblematic. And pathetic.
Like any good carny, Spencer has supporting acts. One guy was described as the host of the “second most popular podcast on the TRS network.” (The hell?) He and the third stooge, representing a group called Identity Europa (Do not Google that. Seriously.), filled the customary role of fluffer. They tried to generate some energy, but their presentation was too lame and tired to draw more than the occasional “shut the fuck up” from the crowd.
Finally, along came Spencer. Almost as one, the crowd rose to their feet, raised fists aloft and voices at full volume, and kept them there for the duration.
Spencer declared his thanks for President Fuchs’ “support” (Fuchs in fact denounced Spencer repeatedly, both before and after the event). He declared UF one of the world’s greatest centers of learning. He claimed his circus was “the greatest free speech event of your lifetime.”
The crowd drowned him out with rhythmic chant.
“Go home, Spencer.”
“Say it loud, say it clear. Nazis are not welcome here.”
And my favorite, a nod to Gainesville’s recently departed favorite son: “Won’t back down.”
Spencer mimicked the Gator chomp. Louder boos.
“Whose campus? Our campus!” the crowd shouted.
The carnival barker soldiered on, bounding about like an impotent Vaudevillian. He referred to himself as a “dissident intellectual.” He called for “tolerance and equality,” right after he claimed “equality is an attack on white people.” Laughter mixed with the catcalls.
“What, are you poor little babies afraid to hear me?”
Then he danced, kind of, mocking the crowd as childish. His gamboling was met, to borrow from Monty Python, with hails of derisive laughter.
Fact: Spencer never intends a civil dialogue. His currency is disruption and provocation. In his more visible appearances, he is hampered by the need to appear reasonable, to not reveal the throwback knuckle-dragger within. In his restricted echo chamber, he can preach the darker side of supremacy movement pseudo-intellectualism, certain of approval from his disaffected and ignorant followers. But his public strategy is little more than neutered and degraded performance art. If he’s lucky, a protester takes the bait, or one of his less-housebroken followers might start up some trouble on his behalf. Like in Charlottesville.
“Don’t you want to talk about Charlottesville? It’s a fascinating topic.”
He never quit smiling, even when he described Heather Heyer as a provocateur and her killer as a “scapegoat.” Even as he replied to a question about the theft inherent in slavery by saying, “We created the United States through will and power. And you know it.”
To their credit, the crowd went silent as people lined up to ask questions. But as soon as Spencer or one of his dancing bears started to peddle their snake oil, the roars returned.
The circus devolved from farce to fiasco, so I left to see if any more Nazis had turned up outside. A self-described Nazi skinhead from Idaho, Randy Furniss, strutted into the crowd. There was yelling. He got a hug from an African-American man. Then, he caught a sucker punch in the face, and someone stripped off his suspenders. Police led him to safety.
There were two fenced “protest zones”, one reserved for protesters, the other for Nazis. The pro-Nazi side was empty. Police confirmed it had been all day. A squirrel froliced across the empty area, similar to Spencer’s onstage capering. Stupid Nazi squirrel.
Even with the Nazi failure to show up in numbers, it was as vibrant an expression of First Amendment rights as I’ve witnessed. Spencer asserted his right to put on his little show. People in the streets asserted their right to protest. People in the theater asserted their right to speak out. It was predominantly non-violent. You could the count the arrests on one hand, including the three Nazis arrested for attempted murder. This was a great free speech event all right, but not the one Spencer intended.
Lament all you wish, but there is no Constitutional right to expect civility in discourse. In the end, Gainesville and UF mounted a damned impressive response to Spencer’s aggressive intrusion into their community. Posters and banners declared “All Are Welcome Here” and “Love Trumps Hate.” The bells in UF’s Century Tower rang out “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” People circulated petitions and voter-registration forms. Outside the restricted area, groups handed out free water and sunscreen, and their generosity extended even to the Nazis.
After the circus, one of the whiteshirts took a face full of pepper spray, so most of their bund elected to leave via another route, like their fearless leader, who slipped out the backdoor under armed guard.
But two of these heroes wanted to go out the front door, so a phalanx of police surrounded and escorted them out and away. The crowd followed close by, taunting. The Nazis responded by waving and blowing kisses. One of the cops told him to “cut that crap.” The Nazis ignored him, displaying the kind of courage that comes from knowing a dozen-plus police are charged with your safety. It was 15 minutes of glory before they scurried back under the rock.
The episode summed up the character of the so called “alt-right.” Their courage is as robust as their intellectual rigor. Inside safe spaces, they play-act at fearlessness and brave intellectualism. Faced with prepared and committed opposition, they fold like cheap lawn furniture and shrink behind the protection of the very institutions they deride.
Their arguments are mordantly comic. White privilege does not exist, they claim, although it somehow is the greatest thing ever. Western Europeans are the only pure whites. The white ethno-state is God’s will. Ethnic purification — sorting — will come about through peaceful migration. Lots of racial and eugenic “science” and historic “facts” that justify authoritarian racism.
And make no mistake. These Nazis love Donald Trump. The feelings, sadly, appear mutal.
Post-Charlottesville, Trump described the neo-Nazis as having “some very fine people,” certainly a first for an American leader. The close ties between Trump’s administration, Steve Bannon’s media organization, and the supremacist movement is terrifying. The supremacists hail Trump as a paragon of their values. This is no small detail. Spencer’s philosophy is shared throughout Trump’s populist movement. Recurrent violent expressions of “white economic anxiety” are themselves a response to encouragement signaled from the administration. It is a perilous moment for our commonwealth.
But Spencer himself? What a schmendrick. This prancing coward would fuck up a two-car parade, even if you spotted him three cars. Like any number of “populist” rage stirrers before him, his ideas are flimsy. Aside from his ability to keep smiling in front of a hostile audience, Spencer’s empty bag of tricks would be comic if his ideas were not so vile.
I wish the entire neo-Nazi goon squad was as transparently impotent as Spencer and his sidekicks. Make no mistake, there are bona fide threats at large in the world, people who think nothing of committing assault, armed intimidation, even murder in the name of ethnic purification. We would be fools to pretend otherwise.
But when it comes to Richard Spencer, let’s recall this exchange from “The Big Lebowski”:
Donny: Are they gonna hurt us, Walter?
Walter: No, Donny. These men are cowards.
It’s a fact of history. Nazis are the losers. Let’s give Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones the last word.
Nazis. I hate these guys.