Leadership & Governance

A White Supremacist Comes to Auburn

The university tried to block Richard Spencer's talk. A judge said it could not.

April 19, 2017

David J. Phillip, AP Images
Despite campus administrators' attempt to cancel the event, the white supremacist Richard Spencer went ahead with a speech at Auburn U. on Tuesday night. Mr. Spencer (shown speaking in Texas in December) focused his remarks at Auburn almost entirely on defending the so-called alt-right movement.

Tensions ran high at Auburn University on Tuesday evening as Richard B. Spencer, a white supremacist whose uninvited visits have roiled college campuses, delivered his message of racial division to a packed hall.

“The alt-right is about identity,” he told the crowd, his voice thundering into a crescendo as he went on. “Period. End of statement. It’s about being a white person in the 21st century. That is why we’re dangerous!”

White people, he said, are burdened with “this black cloud, this eternal guilt trip” that prevents them from achieving greatness. “The great challenge to the system is when you say ‘I am German. I am English. I am white.’ That is what they don’t want to hear. That is the true challenge. And that is fundamentally what the alt-right is about.”

Outside, as Mr. Spencer prepared to speak, students and others shouted at each other about free speech, Black Lives Matter, and whether or not Mr. Spencer, the president of a white nationalist think tank called the National Policy Institute, should be allowed to appear on the public college’s campus.

In a chaotic webcast filmed by a group that supports Mr. Spencer, a voice could be heard shouting, “Whites are a minority who have no political power and are being slaughtered!” Another yelled for the many white supremacists who had converged on the campus from outside Auburn — some from outside the state — to leave.

As a fight broke out between two men, police officers wrestled them to the ground, handcuffed them, and led them, at least one of them bloodied, away from the scene. The police later confirmed that three people had been arrested on disorderly-conduct charges.

For a moment, the tone turned more lighthearted. Accompanied by drums, protesters shouted, “Good night, alt-right” while a man in an orange bodysuit with a green crown danced. His sign read “I don’t carrot all about your outrage.” In the background, strains of “Why Can’t We Be Friends” played.

‘A Heckler’s Veto’

The talk almost didn’t happen — at least in the organized forum Mr. Spencer had hoped for. After initially agreeing to allow him to speak, the university on Friday canceled Mr. Spencer’s appearance, citing “legitimate concerns and credible evidence that it will jeopardize the safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors." The decision came amidst tension over anti-Semitic fliers that had been posted around campus promoting the creation of a “white student union.”

“What they’re doing is granting a heckler’s veto,” Mr. Spencer said in an interview with The Chronicle on Monday, referring to the suppression of speech because of the fear of a violent reaction by hecklers. “If this happens once, it’s a very bad precedent. I will not allow it to stand.”

Mr. Spencer, who had vowed to appear at the university anyway, challenged the university’s decision to cancel his talk, arguing that there was nothing alarming about his views and no reason to think he posed a danger to anyone. On Tuesday afternoon, a federal judge granted an injunction that effectively required the university to let the event go on as scheduled. Mr. Spencer hailed that decision as a victory for the “alt-right” and for free speech.

He focused his speech, at the university’s James E. Foy Hall, almost completely on defending the so-called alt-right movement — a term he is largely credited with coining to describe a far-right belief that embraces white supremacy and anti-Semitism and rejects political correctness.

“We have to demand meaning. We have to demand identity. We have to become something greater than ourselves,” he told the crowd, which responded with cheers, laughter, and a few jeers. “We have to become part of a family. A story. That’s what the alt-right is.”

“You are a white person. You have a deep connection with Rome, with Athens, with this whole world that's been ripped away from you. Instead, they substituted some stupid, bullshit football game!”

Mr. Spencer elicited his first boos when he said college football should be banned. It makes no sense, he said, “for alumni to be funding these kinds of programs – bringing in people they have nothing in common with, who they wouldn’t invite into their homes, who engage in all kinds of abuses, including sexual abuse of white women.”

He went on, alternating between jocular familiarity, insulting jabs, and fired-up rhetoric that left many audience members unsure whether to laugh, boo, or cheer.

“You are a white person. You have a deep connection with Rome, with Athens, with this whole world that’s been ripped away from you. Instead, they substituted some stupid, bullshit football game!”

It’s much easier, Mr. Spencer said, being black. “Having an identity that comes to them like dew comes in the morning. It’s natural. You don’t need an intellectual movement to create it.”

A black student challenged him, asking what he knew about being black and he admitted he didn’t really know.

In addition to the large contingent of campus and local police on hand, Mr. Spencer brought his own security detail, which he said includes “a number of people who are very close to me and effectively never leave my side.”

Auburn Responds

In a letter released just hours before the scheduled talk, Auburn’s provost, Timothy R. Boosinger, and its vice president for inclusion and diversity, Taffye Benson Clayton, confirmed that the judge had ruled in Mr. Spencer’s favor. They said that it is “more important than ever that we respond in a way that is peaceful, respectful, and maintains civil discourse.”

The letter defended the university’s decision to cancel the speech in the wake of “attempts by uninvited, unaffiliated, off-campus groups and individuals to provoke conflict that is disruptive to our campus environment.”

The Auburn administrators added that the university understands the rights afforded by the First Amendment. “However, when the tenets of free speech are overshadowed by threats to the safety of our students, faculty, and staff, we have a responsibility to protect our campus and the men and women who unite our academic community.”

While the controversy was heating up, critics of Mr. Spencer quickly organized a music festival with local bands and free pizza, hoping to lure people away from Mr. Spencer’s appearance. They raised more than $1,000 through an online campaign that stressed their goal of sending a message of support for minority-group members and denying Mr. Spencer a platform for his white supremacist views. That move was similar to the response at Texas A&M University at College Station, where Mr. Spencer’s appearance in December angered many on the campus and was countered with a “unity rally” in the football stadium.

At Auburn, some students decorated sidewalks around the campus with colored-chalk messages of love and peace.

Blaming the Black Bloc

In his interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Spencer said it was “ironic” that the university was worried about the safety of its students. “Do they really fear that Richard Spencer is going to be randomly attacking people?” he asked. “The aggressors are the black bloc.”

The term, which dates to a tactic used in the 1980s in Germany, refers to protesters who wear head-to-toe black clothes and masks to conceal their identities. In February, the University of California at Berkeley canceled an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative provocateur, after vandalism and violence broke out. The university said much of the mayhem was provoked by black-clad protesters who weren’t affiliated with the university. A flurry of posts on social media this week from groups both in support of and opposition to Mr. Spencer led to speculation that similar groups might be planning to descend on the Auburn campus.

“Do they really fear that Richard Spencer is going to be randomly attacking people? The aggressors are the black bloc.”

Some of those groups are self-described anarchists often referred to as antifascist or “Antifa.”

“I would be perfectly happy to engage in people who disagree with me, but Black Bloc is not like that. They don’t want to talk — they want to attack and shut you down,” Mr. Spencer said.

“The idea that I have caused this is absurd,” he said of criticism that his inflamed rhetoric incites violence. “People who say that might be overestimating my powers.”

He said it’s possible that the controversy over another “alt-right” leader’s altercation with a protester in Berkeley, Calif., on Saturday might have created further tensions that could erupt at Auburn. (The protest, which resulted in several injuries and 20 arrests, did not take place on the Berkeley campus.)

But he said he didn’t think Nathan Damigo, the student at California State University at Stanislaus, did anything wrong when he he was seen on video punching a female protester in the face. It wasn’t, he said, a “sucker punch” like the one that landed on Mr. Spencer while he was talking to a reporter during the inauguration festivities for President Donald J. Trump.

“Nathan was in a maelstrom and the girl who was punched had said on her Facebook page that I’m here to get the scalps of 100 Nazis.”

Mr. Damigo founded Identity Evropa, a white-nationalist group that has been recruiting on college campuses.

It’s is hard to know how many of the audience members who loudly cheered Mr. Spencer, when he called diversity “awful” and said white people were the most oppressed in the world, were connected with the university. Dozens of people who responded to a call from alt-right groups to show up came from outside the region.

Outside his speech, anti-Spencer protesters seemed at times frustrated and incredulous at the racist rants coming from some of the pro-Spencer activists. “Have you completely lost your mind?” a student wails.

As Mr. Spencer exits the stage, the chants outside the building, against Nazi scum and Commie infiltrators, reach a fever pitch. He drives off, mission accomplished, leaving behind a campus more divided than ever.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.