Students and activists are planning to counterprotest a neo-Nazi rally at the University of North Florida (UNF) on Monday, while the university plans to deploy regular and undercover police officers to prevent clashes.
The neo-Nazi rally was called to support Ken Parker, a political science student who was suspended this month after publishing a threatening image on a Black Lives Matter-linked student group’s Facebook page.
“Let SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and the other clowns come at me, I will shut them down,” he wrote in the post that was accompanied by a photo in which Parker is shirtless and wielding a rifle. Tattooed on his chest is a large swastika.
Parker is a former Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and a member of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), according to an expose published by The Tab, a university news site for schools in the US and UK.
Speaking to the local Action News Jax, Parker defended his comments and said he did not believe they constituted a threat.
Monique Williamson, president of SDS and a junior at UNF, told Al Jazeera that she expects between 100 and 200 counterdemonstrators to show up to oppose around 40 neo-Nazis on Monday.
“We thought this is happening because the president of the university refused to take a strong stance on racism [in the past],” she said.
Williamson, who says she has been personally threatened by neo-Nazis, said that “people don’t feel safe on the campus”.
In an email sent to students, faculty, staff and parents, UNF President John Delaney assured the campus community that proper security precautions were under way.
“I wish I had a magic wand that could address all of that and could solve the historic problems of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc,” he said in the email, which was provided to Al Jazeera. “I really wish that we could take away the pain and fear.”
Explaining that the university is coordinating with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department, Delaney said the campus would bring “extra police in uniform and also undercover”.
“Law enforcement practice is to request that there isn’t a counterprotest. There’s always a possibility of friction between the opposing parties,” Delaney added, urging both sides to “protest peaceably”.
In response, Williamson of the SDS said: “Do you really want students to not push back against Nazis on campus? That’s unacceptable.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an Alabama-based watchdog that monitors hate groups, the NSM is the largest neo-Nazi organisation in the US and had 61 chapters in 35 states in 2009.
Speaking to Al Jazeera by email, NSM Commander Jeff Schoepp confirmed that Parker is a member of his organisation. He referred to the suspension of Parker as part of a “political witch-hunt, pure and simple”.
“White nationalism is rising, and if these left-wing lunatics expect to be treated fairly when our time arrives, they had better quit their punch-a-Nazi-and-kill-white-people ideology right now … or it could come back to bite them later on when the tables have turned,” Schoepp said.
Campuses as a focal point
The rally and counterdemonstration come amid increased tensions over white supremacist activity on campuses across the US.
In October, more than a thousand students and community members held a demonstration at the University of Florida in Gainesville to oppose a speech by Richard Spencer, a leader in the alt-right.
The alt-right is a loosely knit coalition of white supremacist, white nationalist and neo-Nazi organisations that advocate a white ethno-state.
White supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have faced widespread public backlash since the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12. The NSM was among the groups that participated in the protest.
During that rally, hundreds of far-rightists descended on the city to protest a decision to remove a Confederate monument. They clashed with community members, activists and anti-fascists throughout Charlottesville.
That afternoon, James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Ohio resident who had been photographed marching with a neo-Nazi group earlier in the day, allegedly ploughed his car into a march and killed 32-year-old anti-racist activist Heather Heyer. At least 19 others were injured in the incident.
According to the SPLC, at least 130 chapters of the KKK, 100 white nationalist organisations and 99 neo-Nazi groups are currently active in the US.
The watchdog group has documented a sharp uptick in far-right recruitment efforts on US universities this year, with at least 329 incidents of white nationalist fliers distributed at 241 college campuses between January 1 and October 17.
Earlier this month, the FBI reported a five-year high in hate crimes, with a five-percent increase in 2016 when compared with the previous year.