Large protests are expected to take place in opposition to a white supremacist event at the University of Florida (UF), amid increasing tensions that have led the state’s governor to declare a state of emergency.
On Thursday, Richard Spencer, director of the National Policy Institute, a Virginia-based white supremacist think-tank, is slated to speak at UF in Gainesville.
Chad Chavira, a student and one of the organisers of the “No Nazis at UF” protest, said he expects thousands of people to demonstrate against Spencer’s presence.
“Our stance from the beginning is that Richard Spencer should not have a platform here and that the university should not have provided him with one,” Chavira told Al Jazeera.
“By hosting Spencer, not only does it bring white nationalists into the community,” he said. “But it also emboldens the ones who are already here and gives [Spencer] the opportunity to recruit those who are on the fringe of his movement.”
Spencer is a leading member of the alt-right, a loosely-knit coalition of white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis who advocate a white ethnostate.
On Monday, Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Alachua County, where the university is located, in anticipation of the speech.
“I find that the threat of a potential emergency is imminent,” the governor said in an executive order.
“We live in a country where everyone has the right to voice their opinion,” Scott said in a separate statement, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “However, we have zero tolerance for violence, and public safety is always our number one priority.”
Asked on the Alt-Right Politics podcast what he would do if the university announced a last-minute cancellation, Spencer claimed he would still go through with the event.
“If there is some kind of totally unwise decision on behalf of the university to suppress our rights,” he said, “we will use the university as a public space, and we will certainly exercise our right to free speech.”
At the time of publication, the National Policy Institute had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment.
In a statement released earlier this month, UF said it expects security precautions to cost $500,000 and involve the participation of several law enforcement agencies, including the university’s police department, the Alachua County Sherriff’s Office and the Gainesville Police Department, among others.
“Although UF leadership has denounced Spencer’s white supremacist rhetoric, the university, as a state entity, must allow the free expression of all viewpoints,” the statement read.
Of that total, Spencer’s National Policy Institute has been asked to pay $10,564 to rent the venue and contribute to security costs.
The event comes just two months after Spencer and hundreds of white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the Unite the Right rally, which descended into widespread violence.
When Unite the Right participants descended on Charlottesville on August 12 to protest the city’s decision to remove a Confederate monument, they clashed with community members, anti-racist activists and anti-fascists.
The violence boiled over when James Fields, who was photographed marching with a neo-Nazi group earlier in the day, allegedly ploughed his car into an anti-racist march, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others.
Amid public outrage in the wake of Heyer’s killing, Spencer and other white supremacist groups faced a string of cancellations at university campuses, including UF, and in cities across the country.
Although UF initially cited security concerns when it blocked Spencer’s request for a permit to hold a speech on September 12, he was permitted to reschedule for a later date after threatening legal action against the university.
Last week, the University of Cincinnati announced it would allow Spencer to speak on campus. The university has yet to confirm the event’s date and venue.
Scott Crow, an Austin, Texas-based author and former anti-fascist organiser, dismissed concerns that cancelling far-right events constituted a violation of their right to free speech.
“They don’t care about free speech at all,” said Crow, whose upcoming book, Setting Sights, examines the history of left-wing self-defence. “They are using it as a ruse to get back in these places, and liberal cowards are letting them do it.”
Although Spencer coined the term “alt-right” in 2008, the movement grew to national prominence last year during Trump’s presidential campaign. Supporting his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies, the alt-right celebrated Trump’s victory in the November 2016 presidential elections.
Since Trump’s inauguration in February, supporters of the movement have increasingly engaged in street brawls with anti-fascists (known colloquially as Antifa) and anti-racists in cities and towns throughout the US.
In Berkeley, California, anti-fascists broke through police barricades and battled right-wing protesters during the Say No to Marxism rally in Berkeley, California. Police arrested at least 13 people during the altercations.
They don't care about free speech at all. They are using it as a ruse to get back in these places, and liberal cowards are letting them do it.
Earlier that month, hundreds of alt-right supporters and anti-fascists faced off in Portland, Oregon, where gun-toting members of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group, used pepper spray on counterdemonstrators.
On April 15, as far-right groups assembled in Berkeley for pro-Trump demonstrations, they clashed with anti-fascists and other counterdemonstrators, using pepper spray, poles and makeshift weapons.
“They are calling for genocide and exclusion of huge populations of people. That’s not a disagreement,” Crow added. “Anywhere they have public speaking events … anti-fascists will be there.”
With tensions high in Gainesville in the run-up to Spencer’s speech on Thursday, UF President W Kent Fuchs urged students and others to “avoid the event” in a video statement released last week.
Mitch Emerson, a community organiser involved in planning the rally, insists that it is important for students and community members to voice their opposition to Spencer’s presence on campus.
“Showing up is important because it makes the message clear and helps protect our allies,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We don’t want them in our community, our state or our country. Wherever they try to espouse their hate, people should come together and stand united against them.”