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Saturday, September 30, 2023

Protesters take a stand, outnumber Spencer supporters

<p><span id="docs-internal-guid-ce41109c-38c9-a5df-ff95-cac5f9b2ba6d"><span>Hundreds of protesters yell, chant and display signs on their initial approach to the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday.</span></span></p>

Hundreds of protesters yell, chant and display signs on their initial approach to the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday.

Syleena Powell went to bed listening to whirring police helicopters flying overhead.

On Thursday morning, Powell woke up anxious, just a few hours ahead of white supremacist Richard Spencer’s speech on UF’s campus.

By 12:45 p.m., about 2,500 people, mainly protesters, flooded Southwest 34th Street near the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, located at 3201 Hull Road, to make clear  to  Spencer his radical beliefs don’t belong in Gainesville.  

“It wouldn’t feel right just staying home when literal change is happening in our backyard,” said Powell, a 22-year-old UF African-American studies senior.

Over Powell’s head, an airplane flew in between overcast clouds, casting a banner high that read, “Love Conquers hate! Love will Prevail!” Troopers stood on the roofs of the nearby Southwest Recreation Center and the Harn Museum of Art to keep watch over protests.

As she stood among pockets of protesters, Powell exhaled.

“All of this here did not start with Richard Spencer, and it will not end with Richard Spencer,” she said.

As early as 10 a.m., protesters gathered at the corner of Southwest 34th Street and Southwest 20th Avenue. Groups including Women’s March of Gainesville, No Nazis at UF and National Women’s Liberation made signs and passed out water bottles to protesters.

At 2 p.m., as hundreds of protesters lined up for tickets to Spencer’s speech, the group chanted, “Whose campus? Our campus,” their voices echoing down the road.

Mariam Mohamad, a 19-year-old UF philosophy and women’s studies student, said she and other protesters were turned away for having phone numbers written on their arms or being a visible minority.

Mohamad said she was denied entry for having emergency contacts scribbled on her forearm. When she offered to wash them off, the distributors laughed in her face, she said.

“I mean, it’s clear they’re systematically denying entry to people who they think will disagree with them,” she said.

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Juan Paniza, a UF history junior who wore a walking boot on his left leg, said he was turned away by event organizers who thought he could use his crutches as a weapon.

“It’s obvious that they haven’t heard about the American Disabilities Act, but it’s whatever,” the 20-year-old said.

William Fears, 29, identified himself as a Spencer supporter and said he heard him speak twice before, once at Texas A&M and once in Charlottesville, Virginia, this summer.  Compared to the vast number of protesters, Fears was one of few Spencer supporters who came to the event.

On Thursday, Fears said he traveled to Gainesville from Houston, Texas, for the speech.

“I wasn’t for segregation at first,” Fears said. “But it doesn’t seem like we’re gonna be able to get along.”

Fears said he’s concerned about the future of America and the white race. He’s worried his children might live in a country where white people “become the minority.”

Protests were almost entirely peaceful Thursday, with the exception of a few instances where crowds of more than 100 chased after Spencer supporters. Five injuries were recorded and treated by fire rescue teams. Law enforcement officers arrested two men, according to a joint press release. Sean Brijmohan, 28, of Orlando, was charged with possession of a firearm on school property, and David Notte, 34, of Gainesville, was charged with resisting an officer without violence. Notte was issued a trespass warning.

At about 3 p.m., a man wearing a T-shirt decorated with swastikas walked in the crowd of protesters, who pushed him toward police. Other Spencer supporters were also surrounded by people shouting expletives and “Nazi scum” as they followed them to police barricades. Some urged the crowd not to become violent. The swastika-wearing man was shoved by multiple protesters, and witnesses saw a protester punch him in the mouth.

At about 4:30 p.m., another Spencer supporter walked out of the event to a crowd of more than 500 protesters that flooded Hull Road. Protesters chased the man eastward on Hull Road until he hopped over a barricade and was handcuffed by police and escorted away.

As most protesters chased after the man wearing a swastika, some approached Larry Green, a Westminster Presbyterian Church pastor.

Wearing a clerical collar over a sweat-puddled purple shirt, Green said he attended the protest to offer support. He hugged and prayed with anyone who asked him to, he said.

“When I realized most clerical groups in the community decided not to come, I knew that I needed to be here,” the 47-year-old said, adding Spencer’s message is the opposite of everything Christianity teaches.

As Alex Tepperman stood in front of the Phillips Center, he held up his white sign and looked at what he had taped onto it: a rainbow-colored Star of David.

And then he sighed.

“It’s kind of a miserable experience to confront people who want you wiped off the face of the Earth,” he said.

Tepperman, a 34-year-old UF doctoral student, said he woke up Thursday feeling conflicted about whether to attend.

“Normally Nazis wouldn’t be a very significant concern of mine,” he said. “But we have to start taking Nazis seriously.”

Outside the Harn Museum on Hull Road, about an hour before Spencer’s speech, a group of five people from East Gainesville played a beat from their phones and started rapping verses to a homemade track about what modern racism would look like if a white man could be in a black man’s shoes.

Remy Ferrara pointed to his skin as to why he and his friends came out to protest Spencer. As a black man, Ferrara, 24, said he had an obligation to protest.

“We’re being told to ignore it, but we’ve got to be here,” Ferrara said. “I understand why he has the right to speak, but that doesn’t mean we’re not gonna be here; we’re going to keep coming … Here we are.”

On the days leading up to Spencer’s visit, Juan Lozano’s cellphone blew up. The UF public relations senior planned to protest, but his family begged him to drive home to Miami for the weekend.

In a text message, Lozano’s mom told him she was holding the rosary in front of her mouth praying for his safety. Six alarming exclamation marks punctuated the message.

As a result, Lozano, 22, walked with his sign that read “Mom! I’m OK.”

As a small smile danced on his face, Lozano sighed and said, “Moms will be moms.” He then narrowed his eyes, getting serious, and added, “But I had to come. Today is a fight day, not a flight day.”

Oggi Parry, a UF computer science senior, protested Spencer with his body wrapped in an American flag and wearing red, white and blue sunglasses. He said he believes American ideals are not inherently racist.

Parry said he voted for President Donald Trump in the recent presidential elections and wanted to show others that Trump supporters don’t align with Spencer’s views.

“Conservative views are not (Spencer’s) views,” the 21-year-old said. “We are not with him.”

As Spencer took the stage at the Phillips Center, Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe watched on a Florida Department of Law Enforcement livestream from about six miles away at the city emergency center in the Gainesville Public Works Department, located at 405 NW 39th Ave. Poe said he felt “dirty” while watching Spencer’s speech.

“It was nothing but division and hatred and everything we stand against here in Gainesville,” he said.

Poe said he was proud of the protests, which he felt were entirely peaceful and expressed a message of love that contrasted Spencer’s hate.

“The No. 1 thing, the thing that guys like me lose sleep over, is whether or not things will get violent, and that didn’t happen,” he said. “It was a message of unity, inclusiveness and common, universal love.”

After the crowd finished filing into the Phillips Center to hear Spencer speak, Wanda Nelson, 54, stood outside with her handmade sign. “God is love,” it read. A red heart was drawn next to the words.

“To me,” she said, looking down at her sign, “this means love is the answer.”

Nelson, a Gainesville resident, said she felt nervous about coming to the protests. But once she arrived, she said she realized there was no reason to worry.

The chants from protesters had died down slightly. One protester leaving the crowd saw Nelson’s sign and asked to take a picture with her. Nelson smiled.

“It’s not about who can yell the loudest,” she said. “People’s hearts have to change. That’s the bottom line.”

Ian Cohen, Romy Ellenbogen, David Hoffman and Jimena Tavel contributed to this report.

Hundreds of protesters yell, chant and display signs on their initial approach to the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday.

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