On October 19, white supremacist Richard Spencer, who promotes the creation of a white “ethno-state,” invaded the University of Florida campus. His vision is, frankly, hardly “un-American.” To deny its Americanness is to deny the foundational role that genocide and slavery played in this country’s creation. A serious account of white America’s treatment of black and brown people, who live under a threat of personal and structural violence that is often invisible to white people, teaches us that Spencer and his moneyed patrons merely seek to take time-honored, all-American modes of ethnic cleansing and murder to their horrifyingly logical conclusions. The presidency of Donald Trump and its emboldening of white supremacists has exposed the inability of white people in positions of power, such as UF President Kent Fuchs, to engage in the genuine political risk-taking necessary to effectively challenge this history of racism.
Few influential white male leaders are taking these political risks head on in openly speaking out against white supremacy. Most prominently, in response to black NFL players’ protests against police brutality and structural racism, San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich spoke strongly in favor of his own players’ right to protest and also recognized the dangerous racial comfort zone inhabited by too many white people. “We still have no clue of what being born white means,” he said “… it’s hard to sit down and think ‘yes’, it’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a hundred-meter dash. And you’ve got that kind of a lead, yes, because you were born white.”
However, Popovich is the exception to the rule among influential white male voices. Particularly instructive are the depressing parallels between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s response to players’ kneeling protests during the national anthem and UF President Fuchs’ acquiescence to Spencer’s request to rent space for his October 19 event. Both faced major tests of leadership as white men running immensely wealthy organizations responsible for employing or serving many people of color, while answering to politically unaccountable committees of largely white and male millionaires or billionaires. While Goodell’s job rests in the hands of 32 team owners, several of whom donated to Trump, Fuchs answers to a Board of Trustees mostly appointed by Republican Governor Rick Scott. In each case, their responses demonstrate how the insulation of powerful white men from the consequences of oppression results in their complicity, coming in the form of decisions that aid and abet racism under the guise of “unity” or “free speech.”
Both Fuchs and Goodell offer damaging examples of what happens when protection of “the shield” and the slavish devotion to boosting ratings or improving rankings metrics become the primary pursuit of white Americans in power. In the NFL, verbal attacks on black players by a race-baiting white U.S. President were met with the Commissioner’s bland calls for “unity.” By ignoring the player’s protest (and using money and authoritarian might to force them to stop) and focusing instead on unity, the league in fact acted out the power dynamic that the players are protesting. Colin Kaepernick, who began the protests last year while still a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, remains “whiteballed”, in the words of journalist Dave Zirin, by the billionaire owners for the temerity of his actions. One of Goodell’s bosses, Trump friend and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, ultimately threatened to bench players who kneel during the anthem (The owners’ efforts to conduct damage control over the protests are reportedly holding up Goodell’s contract extension).
Here at UF, white supremacists, who would murder the university’s black, brown, Jewish, Muslim and LGBTIQ populations if they could, were permitted to use its premier performing arts center, subsidized by a de facto honorarium of over half a million dollars to pay for a heavily-armed police occupation of the campus for the protection of Spencer and his neo-Nazi supporters. Meanwhile, students, faculty and staff were put at risk, as UF refused to close on the day of the speech itself. In a classically-classist move, UF did offer those who could work from home the opportunity to do so if they felt uncomfortable or unsafe, but hourly-wage staff and maintenance workers were required to come to campus or face lost wages.
In both situations, the urgency and life-and-death stakes of challenging oppression were subjected to the all-too-predictable methods of obfuscation. On the NFL protests, many commentators and fans readily distracted from the issue of police brutality against black Americans, arguing that standing for the anthem was a matter of respect for the flag and “the troops.” Former Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka, when asked to comment on the protests, told an interviewer that there “has been no oppression in the last 100 years that I know of.”
Meanwhile, one of Fuchs’ bosses, UF Board of Trustee member Jason Rosenberg, wrote in a letter to the editor that allowing one of Spencer’s wannabe Nuremberg rallies and the accompanying militarization of campus was important to UF’s status as a top public research university. Invoking the famous right-wing straw man that universities are failing to challenge students’ “feelings with their intellects,” (thereby implying that Spencer has something to offer, other than debunked lies) he argued that permitting the event would prove UF’s leadership on “free speech.”
As the political scientist Corey Robin pointed out in a brief article in Jacobin last month, “ideas don’t simply enter and exit a power-less space; speech doesn’t just happen.” The “marketplace of ideas” to which Trustee Rosenberg refers is influenced by such factors as the donations that racist publishing heir William Regnery II makes to Richard Spencer, who because of his access to money and social media has ample opportunity to spread his message. Making a robust attempt to block Spencer’s appearance by fighting it in the courts would not have been a denial of free speech but would have demonstrated an understanding of how institutions of power must actively seek to stop fascism and white supremacy.
Standing up to Spencer’s threat of a lawsuit would have firmly situated UF as the defender of the basic rights of staff, faculty, and students, though his failure to do so in this case reflects a larger pattern in Fuchs’ priorities. His willingness to spend over $600,000 to protect Nazis contrasts with the Fuchs administration’s three straight years of delaying the implementation of employee raises until midway through the state’s fiscal year, against the demands of faculty and Graduate Assistant union negotiators. Moreover, Fuchs’ protection of Spencer is breathtaking when considering the climate of fear and intimidation facing UF’s communities of color. This year, a white supremacist threateningly harassed staff at the African-American Studies program, the sign marking the building housing African-American Studies and Jewish Studies was vandalized, and nooses and racist graffiti have been found in classrooms.
Attending the protest, planned by the student coalition group “No Nazis at UF,” it was clear that the great “threat” that the university used rooftop snipers, multiple helicopters, barricades and legions of heavily armed state troopers to defend itself against was the anti-Spencer/anti-fascist protestors. Amidst the countywide state of emergency declared by Governor Scott, the diverse crowd of students, faculty and Gainesville residents braved extended walks in the heat to the protest ‘zone’, a heavily regulated area manned by several hundred law enforcement officers and in which basic items, such as water bottles for hydration and backpacks, were banned.
Entrance to the protest area required passing through an armed, guarded checkpoint on Gainesville’s 34th Street, fortified by riot police (no riot police were stationed at the separate VIP parking area for Spencer supporters with tickets to the event). Days prior, rumors that officials within the police and UF administration were openly blaming protestors for the security needs floated through the Gainesville community. In an exemplary case, one campus police officer told one of us during an earlier sit-in just outside the contemptuously locked doors of Tigert Hall (which houses Fuchs’ office) that the police were needed to protect the campus not from Nazis, but from “antifa,” or antifascists.
Those who protested Spencer, especially members of black, brown, Muslim, Jewish and LGBTIQ groups (not to mention those protestors who boldly confronted an openly discriminatory event admissions process managed by Spencer’s National Policy Institute (NPI), obtained tickets, and challenged Spencer face-to-face) displayed tremendous courage. The sense of risk was amplified by UF’s decisions to allow NPI to administer ticket distribution on campus, designate the news organizations which would be given press badges (one of which had a member bring a gun to the protest, for which he was arrested), and either approve of or overlook the NPI’s request for the alt-right Anti-Communist Action (Anticom for short) to aid with event security. All the while, President Fuchs, repeatedly hinted that our stand against Nazis was the greatest challenge to UF’s attempt to escape Thursday with its “top ten” brand unscathed. As the tense afternoon drew to a close, one of these same Nazis shot at several protestors with a pistol.
Finally, in his own shameful version of Roger Goodell’s recent, tone-deaf request for all NFL players to stand for the national anthem, President Fuchs repeatedly distanced himself from protest organizers in what seemed a preemptive effort to wash his hands of responsibility in the event violence were to occur. Putting the finishing touches on his embarrassing performance, he threw all 2,500 or more protesters an audacious sucker punch of Trumpian false equivalency by repeatedly claiming that we (and not the UF administration’s craven brand management) provided “the oxygen on which the white nationalists and white supremacists survive.” He had previously sent e-mails to the student body conveying essentially this same message. Without a hint of irony, he followed them up with other e-mails announcing the launch of UF’s new $3 billion fundraising initiative, known as “GO GREATER.”
Confronted with the protesters’ “oxygen,” Spencer proved to be a gasping fish out of water, barely getting a word in over the cries of an audience doubtless frustrated that their university President’s feckless decision-making had necessitated this civic obligation to shout the Nazi down. Among the crowd were many faculty members, Graduate Assistants and students who ignored the university’s mealy-mouthed “guidance” that classes, at least officially, were to carry on as usual.
Donald Trump’s blatant burnishing and enabling of racism increases the pressure to distinguish between those white folks who genuinely (if never perfectly) attempt to stake out an anti-racist position and those who Martin Luther King Jr. deemed “white moderates,” willing to sacrifice justice for the sake of order. The irony about white members of the ruling class, such as Kent Fuchs and Roger Goodell, is how faced with leadership tests regarding questions of white supremacy and ethnic cleansing, they so often resort to peddling the common, even boring, delusions about race and power to which countless millions of our fellow white people subscribe. They are the delusions that locking arms on a football field and relegating advocacy work comfortably out of sight will end police brutality. They are the delusions that enable someone to believe that a violently white supremacist movement with rich donors and extensive media platforms will be defeated if only its opponents pretend it does not exist. They are also the delusions of a white majority living in a state of denial over the murderous toxicity of its rule over America.
The anti-Spencer protest, as well as the protests of NFL players like Kaepernick, have demonstrated how oppressed people and their allies are courageously winning, against terrifying odds, in their effort to rid our society of such delusions. This struggle is more important than ever, because society’s ever-present white leadership has proven time and again that they cannot be trusted to be Gregg Popovich.
All photos by Jennifer Boylan.