Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Alachua County on Monday ahead of expected protests around a speech by prominent white supremacist Richard Spencer at the University of Florida.
Spencer, the president of the white nationalist group National Policy Institute, is expected to deliver his views on Thursday afternoon at the university, and officials are wary that the incident could turn violent.
Spencer said in a phone interview with CNN that he was “flattered” by the state of emergency declaration.
“I’m up there with hurricanes and invading armies and zombie apocalypses,” he said, laughing. “I think that’s the best way to look at it.”
But he added that he thought the declaration was “overkill” and worried it would be used to shut down the event.
“The fact is, if the police simply do their job, my speech and the whole event will go off wonderfully,” he said.
Previous speeches from Spencer on college campuses have sparked protests, including at Auburn University in April and Texas A&M in December.
He also led a group of supporters carrying torches in May in Charlottesville, Virginia, in a display that critics said evoked images of the Ku Klux Klan. The display preceded the violent protests in August in Charlottesville, during which a car slammed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman. The driver was arrested and faces second-degree murder charges.
Spencer said Tuesday that the protests at Auburn and Texas A&M were limited to “some mild violence” because police did their jobs. He said the state of emergency declaration in Florida might be used as a justification to cancel his speech, as happened in Charlottesville in August.
“I don’t think Florida is going to become Charlottesville in the sense that chaos will ensue, but there is a small possibility they might use this state of emergency as justification to end the event,” he said.
Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell requested the emergency declaration, she said in a statement.
“I appreciate Governor Scott’s support and continued concern to the citizens of Alachua County and the State of Florida,” Sheriff Darnell said. “Together with our federal, state and local authorities we have developed a comprehensive safety and security plan for the speaking event.”
“We live in a country where everyone has the right to voice their opinion, however, we have zero tolerance for violence and public safety is always our number one priority,” Scott said in a press release.
‘Make white privilege great again’
Spencer is a leader of the growing white nationalist movement in the US and identifies as being part of the “alt-right.” He has criticized diversity and inclusion as “word salad gobbledy-gook,” and often speaks about the need for a white “awakening” in the US.
Janine Sikes, assistant vice president of public affairs at the university, said in a statement that the state of emergency declaration was “not in response to any specific heightened threat.”
“It is a process that enables various law enforcement agencies to work together more efficiently. For example, agencies from multiple jurisdictions can be mobilized, if necessary, without bureaucratic delays,” Sikes said. “We appreciate Gov. Scott’s support and commitment to UF’s campus safety.”
Florida has most recently declared states of emergency for the hurricanes that have rocked the state in recent weeks. On Twitter, Spencer posted an image of his head over a map of a hurricane nearing Florida, saying that “Hurricane Ricardo” was expected to hit Gainesville.
Spencer may be best known for a controversial speech last November in which he mixed his white nationalist views with praise of Donald Trump’s election win.
“America was, until this last generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation and our inheritance, and it belongs to us,” he said.
“Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” Spencer said, as those in the crowd gave Nazi salutes, according to video from The Atlantic magazine.
In addition, Spencer said he wanted to “make white privilege great again” in an interview with CNN’s W. Kamau Bell.
“We bring a level of civilization. We’re more interested in power. We’re more interested in exploration and domination. I just want to bathe in white privilege,” he said.
Freedom of speech v. safety
Spencer’s planned visit has caused repeated headaches for University of Florida administrators.
Spencer and the National Policy Institute first requested to rent speaking space at UF in August. After violent white nationalist protests broke out in Charlottesville, the UF administration denied the National Policy Institute’s initial speaking request, citing specific threats of violence.
But as a state entity, UF is required by law to uphold the First Amendment rights that forbid state discrimination based on the content or views of a speech. The event is unaffiliated with the school, and no student groups sponsored the speech or invited him, the university said.
By law, the school must pay for the costs of security. However, given the heightened concerns, the school is providing extra security which exceeds $500,000, according to University of Florida President Kent Fuchs.
The university provided a permit for Spencer to speak, though Fuchs clarified that he strongly disagreed with Spencer’s views.
“UF has been clear and consistent in its denunciation of all hate speech and racism, and in particular the racist speech and white-nationalist values of Mr. Spencer,” Fuchs said in a statement. “I personally find the doctrine of white supremacy abhorrent and denounce all forms of racism and hate.”
In the statement, Fuchs asked the community not to give Spencer and his followers the spotlight, yet also urged people to “speak up for your values.”
“Mr. Spencer’s message is disproportionately hurtful to members of our Gator community who are targets of hate and violence simply because of their skin color, religion, culture, sexual orientation or beliefs,” he said. “Those of us in the majority must speak up for those in the minority and make our voice of love and support heard.”
The university set up an entire webpage dedicated to questions about the event, which includes details on the plans for heightened security. Several buildings and classrooms near the speech will be closed Thursday, and Gainesville Police have announced road closures that day.