EAST LANSING, Mich. — Fights broke out between white supremacists and protesters Monday as anti-fascist activists, students and community members converged in and around Michigan State University to counter a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer.
Hours before the speech began, police blocked access to the venue as protesters, including some masked antifascists, gathered outside and hundreds marched toward the speech venue shouting, “Nazis go home!”
As some of Spencer’s supporters and people planning to attend the speech arrived on campus, masked protesters shouted obscenities at white supremacists and at police. A group of white nationalists marching down the road toward the venue — Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education — was blocked by protesters. Shouts turned to punches thrown at protesters, but the group was forced by protesters away from the pavilion where Spencer later spoke.
More law enforcement officers arrived, lining both sides of the road leading into the venue, snapping cuffs on people and restoring calm.
But as others arrived to attend the speech, which was delayed past its planned 4:30 p.m. start time, a mob of protesters swarmed around them. A circle of law enforcement officers protected those wishing to go in, but two were pushed to the ground. Another man wanting to attend the event was pelted with sticks, dirt and cans by protesters.
Two were blocked from entering, despite the police escort. They bowed as they retreated, to jeers from the crowd.
Capt. Doug Monette, a spokesman for the MSU police department, said two dozen arrests, including felonies, were made. He said there were some weapons charges, as well as charges of hindering and obstructing, but that it was too soon to confirm individuals involved.
“What happened outside was really worrisome and heinous,” Spencer said Monday evening. “That was an attempt to use violence to prevent people from attending a speech that was peaceful.”
He said that more than 150 tickets had been distributed, but many people were not able to get through the chaos outside. “In terms of suppressing attendance, they really achieved that.”
But he was able to deliver a speech, albeit curtailed, he said, and there was a good question-and-answer session.
Samantha Turner, a Michigan State sophomore from Detroit who attended the protest with her parents, said, “I hope to send the message that we’re just not going to do whatever they want and step all over us. I feel like showing a presence out here today lets them know that we do indeed care.”
Omar Karim, an MSU student and member of the local anti-fascist group Solidarity & Defense, said he is proud of the protesters. “These are my friends and family and co-workers, my brothers and sisters, people I get coffee with. These are people who I walk my dog with. This is my community. And my community in here in our home, representing our home, fighting against fascist ideology.”
Spencer’s National Policy Institute has sought to hold events on college campuses across the country. But several university presidents rejected such requests after he led a torchlight march of people shouting slurs at the University of Virginia in August. The next day, at a rally in Charlottesville, violent clashes with counterprotesters broke out, leaving one dead and dozens injured.
Days later, MSU officials denied Spencer’s request to speak at the public university, citing concerns about safety. But in January, after settling a lawsuit brought by a supporter, the school agreed to allow an event on campus. “Michigan State is wholly dedicated to freedom of speech, not just as a public institution, but as an institution of higher education, ” university officials explained in a public statement in January. “Here, ideas — not people — are meant to clash and to be evaluated based on their merits.”
Spencer’s speech comes at a time when tensions are raw over issues of race and politics and national identity, over freedom of speech and the cultural leanings of academia. In the days before Spencer’s 2017 speech at the University of Florida, the governor declared a state of emergency. At MSU, Spencer arrived at a campus in turmoil over a sexual-abuse scandal that forced the ouster of the university’s longtime president and sparked numerous investigations and lawsuits.
On Monday morning, Spencer said it is “very, very sad,” that they have to sue, or threaten to sue, universities simply for the right to engage in debate in a public forum. “The obstacles just keep rising — it’s very difficult to continue,” he said. “But we have to . . . as opposition mounts, we know that we’re making more and more of an impact.”
He said he knew antifascists would be there. “They present a major problem for police.”
The MSU campus is on spring break this week, which is not a coincidence. The timing and the venue of the speech were chosen to minimize the risk of violence and disruption to campus, according to university officials.
The Pavilion for Agriculture is a small arena well south of the campus’s developed core. Beyond it is farmland used primarily for research.
Still, protesters gathered in the bright but chilly air, a coalition of students, faculty and residents called Stop Spencer at MSU, to march on the pavilion.
Josh Lown, a protest organizer and graduate student at Michigan State, said midday Monday that they were hoping to avoid violence while disrupting Spencer’s appearance as much as possible. He said they want to “make Richard Spencer and his motley crew know that they’re not welcome here. We’re a very loving and diverse community, and we don’t want this speech to turn into normalcy.”
The group wrote on social media that they must “defend against racist and fascist attacks on every campus and in every community” and “oppose the fascists, the racists, and the university administration, the cops and ICE and the government who are complicit in these attacks and the enemies of our communities.”
They had posted an image on social media playing off the university’s “Spartans will …” campaign, showing a still from a video of a man punching Spencer, with a Spartan helmet imposed on the image.
Well north of the pavilion, a broad coalition of organizations including the city of East Lansing, the undergraduate and graduate student governments, MSU’s College Democrats, College Republicans, the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, and an interfaith clergy group were collaborating on a full day of activities in an effort to ignore Spencer.
Ashley Fuente, president of the Council of Graduate Students, planned to first spend two hours with about 30 volunteers, packing food for Meals on Wheels. “I think the way the community has come together has been absolutely incredible,” Fuente said of the Spartan Day of Love & Solidarity.
It was important to unite both the university and the larger community for this, said Aaron Stephens, an MSU senior who is a member of the East Lansing City Council. He said that having all the major political groups on campus — Democrats, Republicans and libertarians — join together signals that “if you believe in white supremacy, you don’t disagree with me politically, you disagree with me morally. Even if we disagree on issues, we agree everyone is equal and we deserve to be treated as such.”
The student government was also sponsoring a free screening of “Black Panther” later in the evening, and bought out a 270-seat theater to accommodate the attendees.
At the All Saints Episcopal Church north of campus, the Rev. Kit Carlson, the church’s rector, admitted she’s “a little bit overwhelmed” by the magnitude of the response to the celebration of diversity they hosted Monday afternoon: More than 1,000 people RSVP’d online for the fair.
“This is an opportunity to bring the community together, reaffirm our shared values of tolerance, love and diversity and really try to ignore what’s going on at the pavilion as much as we can,” Carlson said.
“Absolutely, people need to say hate is bad and probably need to say it to his face. That’s not our role here today,” Carlson said. “The only thing that concerns me about the antifascists and the counterprotesters is that sometimes that devolves into hate, too, when the two groups get face-to-face. When that happens, then basically you’ve bought into Spencer’s narrative.”
Spokesmen for the university deferred questions to police and to the National Policy Institute, and sent a link to university statements from January.
On Friday, MSU’s interim president, John Engler, addressed the issue in an email to the community: “Nobody affiliated with Michigan State invited this small, hateful group, and I doubt they’ll find support. The remarkable accomplishments of our diverse community of scholars expose the fraudulence of their racist rhetoric every day.
“But they come here hoping to gain energy by provoking reaction to their taunts,” Engler continued. “If we take the bait — if we return their hate — it only supports the preposterous claims to victimhood that sustain their ideology. They court headlines. They crave confrontation, because without it, their message of hate falls on deaf ears.” He called on people to signal their opposition by ignoring the event and avoiding the area.
Svrluga reported from Washington.