White nationalist Richard Spencer addressed Auburn University Tuesday night, making a typically inflammatory speech, which the university had tried to block. Some attendees interrupted his talk, and a large group protested outside, chanting, "No fascists, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A."
Earlier Tuesday, U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins ruled that Auburn, as a public institution covered by the First Amendment, had to allow Spencer to speak. The university previously said that doing so would create unsafe conditions.
Before a crowd that alternated between cheers and jeers, Spencer spun a narrative: white identity has been ripped away from people, and people are no longer comfortable celebrating "European" heritage and its place in history. A "black cloud" eternally hangs above the heads of most white people, a sense of guilt for their ancestry and concepts like misogyny, Spencer said.
Instead, white pride has been replaced with weak substitutes, like the kinship on football teams, which Spencer went on to insult as "bullshit," drawing boos from the crowd at a university where pride in the football team crosses political lines.
"All of those identities are ultimately toothless, they’re ultimately meaningless," Spencer said.
At times, audience members snapped back at Spencer. When he said that it was "truly sick" that Auburn would bring in people who were "not the greatest exemplars of the African race," who would sexually abuse the white women on campus, someone in the crowd screamed back that "white men rape, too." (From video of the audience, it was unclear how many of those there were connected to Auburn, although it was clear some were not. Spencer had supporters and critics in the crowd.)
Spencer said that the so-called alt-right -- of which he is seen as a leader -- is all about identity. Another person called out, "You're about hatred, that's what you're about."
Spencer shook his head: "Seriously, try to get a little more creative."
He also spoke at length about the battle to secure the space for the evening's talk, touching on free speech and the power of language. Spencer said his rhetoric disrupts "business as usual," which is why his "enemies," like the "communist scum outside" fight him. Outside, students and nonstudents rallied against Spencer. At least two arrests were made.
Cameron Padgett, who told the crowd that he was a student from Georgia, rented a university building for Spencer and filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court in Alabama to demand that Auburn let Spencer appear.
In his complaint, Padgett wrote, “Auburn is not allowed … to pick and choose what views are to be presented in a facility open to the general public for holding meetings and giving and hearing speeches. Auburn is engaging in a thinly disguised ideological litmus test by which those sharing its official views find their rights protected while those who challenge the Auburn views have their right to freedom of speech canceled based on some anonymous telephone threats.”
University administrators published a statement Tuesday indicating they would comply with the judge’s order, but said that Spencer attempted to stoke conflict on the campus in a way that is “divisive and disruptive.”
“Whether it's offensive rhetoric, offensive fliers around campus or inappropriate remarks on social media, we will not allow the efforts of individuals or groups to undermine Auburn's core values of inclusion and diversity and challenge the ideals personified by the Auburn creed,” the statement reads in part.
An earlier statement from the university said it “deplored [Spencer’s] views, which run counter to those of this institution.”
Spencer posted a video statement to YouTube, calling the judge’s ruling a “great victory” for the alt-right and free speech. He was much more buoyant compared to another video he released Friday, in which he sharply criticized the university.
“If Auburn thinks that I’m going to back down because they canceled on me, that I’m just simply going to politely go away, then they don’t know me at all. They should have done their research,” Spencer said.
Spencer, in addition to helping coin the moniker “alt-right,” is president of the white nationalist think tank National Policy Institute. The Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that monitors bigotry and racist organizations nationwide, labels Spencer as an extremist and calls him “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old, a kind of professional racist in khakis.”
Spencer vowed in November to take his message to college campuses. He spoke at Texas A&M University in December. Some called for Texas A&M to block Spencer’s appearance, but university officials said as a public institution it had to allow the visit, however deplorable educators find Spencer's views. The university sponsored an event that coincided with Spencer’s, which featured speeches denouncing him and some musical performances. The university also constructed a wall where students could write out their thoughts in light of Spencer’s visit.
Read more by
You may also be interested in...
Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes
What Others Are Reading