Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who has been speaking on college campuses in recent months, said Sunday in a video posted on YouTube that he is rethinking his strategy for public events after violent protests led by Antifa and other opponents.
Opponents celebrated Spencer’s video as a win for their cause. Protesters have sought to shut down his events to keep him from academic platforms that might confer legitimacy to white nationalism.
At Michigan State University last week, anti-fascist protesters marched toward the venue where Spencer planned to speak, intent on keeping his supporters out. Fights quickly broke out, and people were shoved to the ground, punched and pelted with sticks and dirt. Some people wanting to attend Spencer’s speech were forced back. More than 20 people were arrested, most of them people protesting Spencer.
Spencer has been a lightning rod as he seeks to spread his National Policy Institute’s white-nationalist views to the public, while others fight to keep that ideology from a forum that might lend it credibility.
Spencer’s events have exacerbated the same raw tensions that have led to clashes between far-left and far-right extremists at other events across the country. After he led a torchlight march at the University of Virginia that ignited a weekend of violence between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville last August, many universities tried to keep Spencer from speaking on campus, citing safety concerns.
Michigan State leaders reluctantly agreed to let Spencer speak after settling a lawsuit brought by one of his supporters.
In the YouTube video, Spencer said he was committed to keeping his views in the public forum but acknowledged that anti-fascist extremists, sometimes known as Antifa, had been successful in preventing people from getting to his events.
At the University of Florida, where the governor declared a state of emergency in the days before Spencer’s visit and the public university spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on security, protesters chanted and shouted down Spencer and other speakers, effectively drowning them out and shutting down the speech.
The idea behind the “college tour was not to inspire pitched battles between our side and the Antifa,” Spencer said. The intent was to go “into the belly of the beast,” “academic Marxist-controlled territory” and introduce “alt-right” ideas to an intellectual debate, he said. What happened at Michigan State was “a near riot” outside the venue, he said. “When they become violent clashes and pitched battles, they aren’t fun,” he said.
“Antifa is winning,” he said, because of its willingness to go to extreme measures to stop the events.
Stop Spencer at Michigan State University, which had rallied people to march and keep supporters out of the speech, welcomed Spencer’s video, sharing it on social media.
Pete Johnson, a former MSU graduate student who helped organize the protest, said he was encouraged by Spencer’s video, and that their protests had been successful. He said it was important for Stop Spencer at Michigan State University to disrupt the event to avoid giving Spencer’s cause a platform, any sense of legitimacy and an opportunity to build the movement. He said it was “community self-defense,” and said their efforts were successful in keeping people who might be curious away from the event.
It’s not just that Spencer’s ideas are despicable, Johnson said; it was important to prevent the spread of those ideas at a time when some people feel emboldened by the rise of white-supremacist thinking in the country.
Asked if the violence directed at Spencer supporters was appropriate, Johnson said, “The self-defense efforts were effective. In that sense, it was appropriate.”
Spencer said Monday he will find different methods to speak on campuses. “We can’t name the place and time if the police refuse to do their job with regard to Antifa,” he said.
The University of Michigan has agreed to allow Spencer to speak if an event can be held safely, but no potential dates are being considered before the summer break.
Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the University of Michigan, said he and other officials at the school had seen Spencer’s video, “which still was a bit vague on next steps. We have no updates to report from U-M.”