Democracy Dies in Darkness

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‘Kill them’: Three men charged in shooting after Richard Spencer speech

October 20, 2017 at 8:40 PM

Protesters surrounded and shouted at Tyler Eugene Tenbrink, who attended Richard Spencer’s speech, as he tried to leave the University of Florida on Thursday. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Three men were charged with attempted homicide after they argued with a group of people protesting a white nationalist’s speech and fired a shot at them, police said Friday.

About 90 minutes after Richard Spencer’s speech Thursday at the University of Florida — which generated so much controversy that the governor declared a state of emergency days before the event — a silver Jeep pulled up to six to eight protesters near a bus stop and confronted them, according to Gainesville Police Department spokesman Sgt. Ben Tobias.

Related: [‘Go home, Spencer!’ White nationalist’s speech disrupted by protesters]

Tyler Tenbrink (Photo courtesy of Alachua County Jail/)

The men, whom police identified as white nationalists, threatened the group, making Nazi salutes and shouting chants about Hitler, police said.

One of the people in the group, who were in their 20s and heading home after protesting, hit the Jeep with a baton.

Tyler Tenbrink, 28, of Richmond, Tex., jumped out with a gun, authorities said. According to the Alachua County sheriff’s arrest report, Colton Fears, 28, and William Fears, 30, of Pasadena, Tex., encouraged Tenbrink to shoot, yelling, “I’m going to f—— kill you,” “Kill them” and “Shoot them.”

Tenbrink fired a single shot that missed the people, police said, and hit a nearby building.

“Once the altercation began, it started ramping up very quickly until the gunshot,” Tobias said.

Wesley Durrance, a 2016 graduate of the University of Florida, had just said goodbye to his friends — who were sitting at the bus stop with their signs from the protest — when he heard a loud pop. “Clearly a gunshot,” he said.

He turned around and saw chaos. “Some people were running, one of my friends was still sitting there, my friend who was shot at was standing there,” Durrance said. “Everybody was freaking out, but he was pretty calm, considering. I mean, they had just tried to kill him.”

The men then fled in the Jeep, but one of the people who had been targeted got the license plate number and reported it to police. An off-duty sheriff’s deputy who had worked at the Spencer event found the Jeep.

Gainesville police confirmed Friday that the arrests were related to the event.

Tobias said all three admitted to having been involved in the shooting when they were stopped by police on Interstate 75 about 15 miles north of Gainesville. Tenbrink admitted he was the shooter, according to the Alachua County sheriff’s arrest report.

Spencer’s speech was repeatedly disrupted by people shouting at him, but the protests outside remained largely peaceful, despite tensions between his supporters and more than 2,500 counterprotesters.

“I hesitate to make a comment on an incident that just happened,” Spencer said Friday evening. “If it actually happened as it is described in the news, then it is an absolutely terrible incident and it can’t be defended. But I think we should all remember that it is a developing story.”

He urged supporters to avoid violence.

“There are time when one can rightfully defend oneself, but these kinds of confrontations should be avoided. The eyes of the world are upon us, and we need to behave in the way that is of the highest standards,” Spencer said.

Tenbrink told The Washington Post on Thursday that he came from Houston to hear the speech. “I came here to support Spencer because after Charlottesville, the radical left threatened my family and children because I was seen and photographed in Charlottesville,” Tenbrink said, referring to the “Unite the Right” rally in August that ended in violence.

“The man’s got the brass to say what nobody else will,” Tenbrink said, referring to Spencer.

Members of the Florida Highway Patrol arrive on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville ahead of a speech by Richard Spencer, an avowed white nationalist and spokesman for what some call the alt-right movement. (Correction: A previous version of this caption misidentified the officers in this photo as members of the National Guard.)
Demonstrators rally before the speech by Richard Spencer at the University of Florida.
Journalists interview an alt-right-identifying man who came to Spencer’s speech.
Members of the Florida Highway Patrol had fenced off a large parking lot adjacent to the complex where Spencer will give his speech. Campus police, officers from the Florida Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agents took up positions around the campus and the designated protest zone.
Police survey the area from atop a building in Gainesville, Fla.
GAINESVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 19: Demonstrators gather at the site of a planned speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer, who popularized the term 'alt-right', at the University of Florida campus on October 19, 2017 in Gainesville, Florida. A state of emergency was declared on Monday by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to allow for increased law enforcement due to fears of violence. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
The campus of 52,000 students had been eerily quiet Thursday morning, with a heavy police presence, barricades and road closures, but by early afternoon, crowds of protesters had gathered to counter Spencer’s appearance.
Demonstrators march on the University of Florida campus.
The event was Spencer’s first public speech on a college campus since he led torch-bearing followers through the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where clashes between white nationalists and white supremacists and counterprotesters turned deadly.
University administrators had urged students to stay away from Spencer’s speech and the protests Thursday. And in the middle of campus, far from the barricaded area around his event, many seemed to be heeding that message, as they strolled or rode their bikes between classes.
Demonstrators protest outside where Spencer’s speech occurred.
A man stands on a Nazi flag and an antifa flag at the University of Florida.
Members of Richard Spencer's security team, center, stand behind police and decide who gets tickets to the speech.
Demonstrators outside the site of the speech at the University of Florida.
Police check the bags of journalists entering the speech venue. Outside the barriers, a sign listed dozens of prohibited items: no firearms, stun guns, fireworks, torches, masks or chains; no wagons or pull carts; no pets, no drones, no skateboards or laser pointers. Metal detectors would be used to screen people, the sign also noted.
Richard Spencer, right, and Mike Enoch, from the Right Stuff, hold a news conference at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Spencer speaks during the news conference.
Spencer, right, holds a news conference at the University of Florida.
Spencer speaks during a news conference at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Supporters of Spencer fill the first two rows of the auditorium at the University of Florida while a few hundred protesters occupy the back seats.
Protesters ask questions during Spencer’s speech.
Spencer speaks onstage to a mostly empty University of Florida auditorium.
Spencer supporters sit together in the auditorium.
Protesters shout and chant during Spencer’s speech.
Police keep watch over the people in the auditorium.
A protester shouts during the speech.
A police officer can be seen as Spencer speaks.
Protesters raise their fists as Spencer speaks.
Protesters surround and shout at someone who attended Spencer’s speech as he tries to leave the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.
Photo Gallery: The speech by the white nationalist on campus sparked protests and intense security.

Tenbrink said from inside the event venue that all he cares about are the 14 words, a reference to a white-supremacist slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

“That doesn’t mean I hate all black people I see,” Tenbrink said.

“And homosexuals, if they want to be homosexual, keep it to yourself. Nobody wants to see that s—,” he said.

The Gainesville Sun reported that William Fears had told the paper Thursday that he believed James Fields, the man accused of driving his car into a crowd of people protesting the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, killing one woman and injuring others, wasn’t unjustified.

William Fears told The Washington Post in August that he came to Charlottesville equipped for violence — and found it. He threw and took punches.

Related: [The road to hate: For six young men of the alt-right, Charlottesville is just the beginning]

“It was like a war . . . it was an eerie feeling,” Fears said after he had gone home to Texas and his job as a construction worker. “Things are life and death now, and if you’re involved in this movement, you have to be willing to die for it now.

“If I’m killed, that’s fine,” he said. “Maybe I’ll be a martyr or something, or remembered.”

At least two of the three who were arrested in Gainesville have demonstrated connections to extremist groups, police said.

All three men have attended white supremacist events, according to the Anti-Defamation League, and all three were at the torchlight march and the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.

Protesters walked alongside Tyler Eugene Tenbrink, who attended Richard Spencer’s speech, as he left the University of Florida on Thursday. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

Spencer’s speech was his first on a university campus since he led a torchlight march through the University of Virginia in August, with followers chanting, “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.” That was the beginning of a weekend of clashes between white nationalists and white supremacists on one side and counterprotesters on the other that turned fatal in Charlottesville the next day.

After that violence, University of Florida officials denied Spencer’s request to speak on campus — as did several other public universities — “amid serious concerns for safety.”

Spencer, who leads the National Policy Institute, was not invited by the university or a student group. University of Florida leaders have repeatedly rejected his message as hateful. But under threat of a lawsuit, university officials acknowledged Spencer’s First Amendment right to speak at a campus venue they rent out, and began planning extensive security.

Gov. Rick Scott (R) declared a state of emergency in the days before the speech. More than 1,000 law-enforcement officers converged on campus, and the public university expects its total costs for security measures to exceed $600,000.

Richard Spencer spoke Thursday at the University of Florida. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

Tenbrink, Colton Fears and William Fears were charged with attempted homicide and were in the Alachua County Jail on Friday. Tenbrink faces additional charges for possession of a firearm by a felon.

Joe Heim, Jennifer Jenkins, Alice Crites, and Terrence McCoy contributed to this report.

Colton Fears. (Photo courtesy of Alachua County Jail/)
William Fears. (Photo courtesy of Alachua County Jail/)

Susan Svrluga is a reporter covering higher education for The Washington Post's Grade Point blog. Before that, she covered education and local news at The Post.

Lori Rozsa is a freelance reporter and frequent contributor to The Washington Post. She is a former correspondent for People magazine and a former reporter and bureau chief for The Miami Herald.

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