On Thursday, I stood for more than four hours on Turlington Plaza staring at hate: an individual who came to our campus wearing a swastika armband.
I will admit that when I saw him standing on Turlington, my rage rose like wildfire. You see, I am Jewish, and that symbol does not sit well with me, as you might imagine (I should note, too, that one of my areas of research is in visual rhetoric — how we use images to communicate and exchange meaning). I admit that I approached the Nazi with the intent of violence. Fortunately, the two University Police officers already on the plaza intervened, along with Rabbi Berl Goldman. But my rage did not abate.
About two weeks ago, the UF community received an email from UF President Kent Fuchs in regard to a noose found in a campus classroom. He wrote to us: “I want to be clear that I believe symbols of hate and racism undermine the kind of community that is so vital to the university’s goals of mutual understanding and respect. I also want to be clear that racial discrimination has no place at our university.”
However, Thursday’s symbol of hate was given both a place and police protection right in the heart of our campus.
Several times throughout the day, we heard the term “free speech” as a justification for why this individual was allowed to remain on the plaza. Let me be clear, though: This was not free speech. This was hate speech. Free speech does not guarantee you an audience, that someone has to listen to you. On Thursday we were not given a choice.
UF has the fifth-largest Jewish student population in the country. The fact that our campus specifically was targeted for this incitement seems to suggest the intent to harm.
Several times during the day, I wondered if this would be the case if someone had shown up wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and holding the noose President Fuchs spoke of. I’m betting not.
I don’t want to suggest a homology between the KKK and Nazis. They have their historical distinctions, and each is horrific.
When the Nazi on Turlington threw his hand up in a heil-Hitler salute to the plaza, he did so to taunt us. The administration should have escorted the Nazi off our campus the moment he was spotted for the simple reason that he was there for no other purpose than to instigate and speak hate.
I am grateful for the students, faculty, administrators, staff, community members and everyone else who made clear to the hate-mongering visitor that his presence is not welcome. And when he asked me to have the police escort him out, he was broken. His voice quivered, his commitment lost: a coward scared.
But, we did not win anything Thursday. Instead, we were given heed to be alert.
Sid Dobrin is the chair of the UF Department of English.