AUBURN, Ala. —White nationalist Richard Spencer spoke Tuesday at Auburn University in a campus auditorium filled with a mix of alt-right disciples and critics and over the objections of university officials.
Earlier in the week, university administrators attempted to block the alt-right leader from speaking on public safety grounds. Spencer vowed to come to campus anyway and appealed the university’s decision to federal officials in Montgomery.
A few hours before the scheduled speech, U.S. District Court Judge Keith Watkins ordered the university to accommodate Spencer, who had paid to rent a hall on the public university campus.
“We won a victory that is going to have echoes around the world,” Spencer said to loud applause, largely from the front of the hall where a group almost exclusively of white men sat. University officials estimated the crowd inside to be 430 people.
Outside, counter-protesters, organized in large part by a group of anti-fascist activists from Atlanta, attempted to disrupt the appearance. The counter protesters clashed immediately with campus police who demanded the group remove bandanas and masks.
“You want to go to jail for loitering or do you want to take your mask off,” one police officer said, grabbing a masked female counter-protester.
Tensions on campus were high. Afternoon classes were cancelled; many buildings were locked down. Police were everywhere. Three counter-protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct, according to a university police spokesman.
Following the speech, a small group of Spencer’s alt-right supporters left the campus hall and fled on foot as hundreds of students chased them off campus at a full sprint.
The attempts to block Spencer only appeared to raise the ideologue’s profile. A man wearing a T-shirt with President Donald Trump’s likeness and the legend “#altright” waited in a long line outside the university’s Foy Hall to hear Spencer. The man, who only gave his name as “Duff,” said he drove 12 hours from Chicago once he heard of the university’s attempt to cancel the event.
“I’m for free speech,” he said.
When asked if he subscribed to Spencer’s white nationalist rhetoric, he said, “I advocate for my own people, but not at the expense of other people.”
Face of the alt-right
Spencer is given credit for coining the term “alt-right,” which has come to mean an extreme mix of populism and white supremacist thought.For many, he has become known for receiving a punch to the head on camera from a protester following President Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C.
His Auburn speech itself was a kind of rambling discourse on white identity and meaning in a modern, “global, capitalist, consumer” society — often building to a shouted crescendo that provoked applause from his supporters and hoots and boos from others.
“The great challenge to the system is when you say I am German, I am English, I am white. That is what they do not want to hear. That is the true challenge. That fundamentally is what the alt-right is about,” he said. “The alt-right is about being a white person, a European … that is what this movement is about and that is something we will never let go of.”
Throughout the hour-long appearance, Spencer deflected catcalls from the audience, often turning them around on his critics.
At one point, Spencer excoriated the whites in the audience for rooting for the Auburn football team, describing black players as “not great exemplars of the African race” and accused them of “sexual abuse of white women on campus,” perhaps drawing the loudest boos of all.
Spencer’s visit is the latest in a series of disturbing episodes this month on the southeastern Alabama university’s campus, including leaflets from a group describing itself as the Auburn White Student Union expressing racist and anti-Semitic sentiments. The university released a statement calling the fliers “reprehensible” and encouraged students and faculty to respond “with their own views in the spirit of robust exploration of ideas.” But some student organizations urged a stronger official response from the administration.
While unsuccessful in their attempt to stop the event, Auburn officials sought to further distance themselves from Spencer’s divisive speech.
In a joint statement Tuesday, Auburn’s vice presidents for academic affairs and inclusion and diversity said, “Whether it’s offensive rhetoric, offensive flyers around campus or inappropriate remarks on social media, we will not allow the efforts of individuals or groups to undermine Auburn’s core values of inclusion and diversity and challenge the ideals personified by the Auburn Creed.”
Hours before Spencer’s arrival, a knot of about a dozen young white men gathered near the auditorium, some wearing surgical masks to hide their identities. One member of the group identified themselves as “alt-right” and some some of the group were Auburn students, but referred additional questions to “Mr. Spencer.”
Another group of students who sat nearby on the front porch of the honors college despaired at the scene.
“We’re not used to this kind of attention,” said Will Allee, a freshman from South Carolina, who eyed the group from behind a bag of Doritos. Allee said students learned of Spencer’s plans last week, just days after the racist fliers appeared on campus.
Emily Koelle, a freshman from Huntsville, fought back tears at the sight of the white nationalists on campus.
“I had grandparents in concentration camps, and to me this is how it all started,” she said.
Students countered Spencer’s appearance with a quickly organized music festival across campus. In 24 hours, students raised $1,200 to fund the event and provide free pizza.