Two days after a man was sighted on UF campus wearing a swastika armband, he returned Thursday, this time drawing a crowd of protesters.
The man, Michael Dewitz, 34, who was dressed in all black and a red armband that bore the Nazi symbol, circled the potato statue on Turlington Plaza at about 9 a.m.
He would remain for at least three hours, his presence almost immediately prompting backlash from students offended and angered by his use of the symbol.
By noon, the crowd that gathered around grew to about 100 people.
Tensions stirring on Turlington Plaza over man with swastika on sleeve https://t.co/02eFC7cAm8— Max Chesnes (@ChesnesMax) January 26, 2017
Some hurled expletives at Dewitz, while others defended his right to free expression. One man, a guitarist, attempted to fight the anger by singing “I love you” repeatedly at one point.
But when Marco Fonseca saw Dewitz’s display, he immediately went to Marston Science Library to print images of Wonder Woman punching President Donald Trump, with a swastika superimposed on Trump’s face.
In protest, he stood by the statue and held up his sign.
“I wasn’t going to give him the space to do what he was going to do,” the 22-year-old UF philosophy junior said.
About five other students joined Fonseca and held the same printed signs. By about 11 a.m., the group had grown to nearly 15 students standing by the man, and about 50 gathered below.
“It was either stand up or punch a Nazi,” said Irene Moore, a 21-year-old UF business management senior. “This is the better option, legality-wise.”
As the crowd grew, University Police officers and UF officials watched from the sidelines. Jaime Gresley, an associate dean and the director of new student family programs, handed out U Matter, We Care cards for students who might be distressed.
The Lubavitch-Chabad Jewish Student and Community Center set up a table nearby as a resource for Jewish students.
“We chose to come out here, to be a resource of comfort and stability to the Jewish students at this university,” Rabbi Aaron Notik said.
Dewitz, who said he supported Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, said his presence was a social experiment meant to prompt discussion.
“I am upset that (the protesters) are upset,” he said. “Because they don’t understand my intentions.”
The self-proclaimed anthropologist handcrafted the armband a few months ago using a pin, yarn and black marker.
On Tuesday, when Dewitz was first seen on campus wearing the swastika, a woman in a car screamed at him and tried to run him over, and a man told him he wanted to kill him, he said.
“I don’t wish to hurt anyone,” Dewitz said.
But Rabbi Berl Goldman, of Chabad, said Dewitz went to the religious center at 8 a.m. Thursday to look for him.
On his way, Dewitz passed a student wearing a kippah, a religious head covering, and gave the student a Nazi salute, Goldman said.
Jacob Zieper, a 21-year-old UF Jewish studies senior, was on his way to minyan, morning prayers, when Dewitz yelled at him from across the street at the corner of Northwest Fifth Avenue and Northwest 20th Street.
“I know he meant it to intimidate me,” Zieper said. “So I went to shul and prayed with my friends. You can’t fight hate with hate. Hate is irrational. You just have got to drown it out with pride and love.”
Dewitz said he lost his job Wednesday after his employers told him they didn’t want to be associated with someone who wore a swastika.
Dewitz said he understands the swastika is a hate symbol, but he sympathizes with the Nazi party because, he argued, they helped fight communism. In an interview with WCJB TV-20 published Wednesday, Dewitz questioned whether the Holocaust ever happened.
A protestor, who refused to give her name, told an Alligator reporter that Dewitz should not be given a voice.
Another, Aimee Carter, who has Jewish family members, confronted Dewitz about his apparent beliefs.
“I was telling him that back then and still today, people are hurt by the Nazis,” the 20-year-old UF sociology junior said.
Goldman said although the man has a right to express his free speech, his speech incites hatred. Goldman worries other people could be inspired to act with hatred toward Jewish people based on Dewitz’s display.
“He’s antagonistic,” Goldman said. “He’s wearing a symbol of hate and intolerance. There should be thousands of people shouting him down.”
Michal Katz, an administrative worker at the UF Dean’s Office, came out to protest Wednesday. She stood beside Dewitz and showed him a tattoo of the star of David on her wrist.
Katz, who is Jewish, said she works in Turlington Hall and was distressed to see Dewitz in front of the building.
“My family could not be here, so I’m here,” she said. “They were tattooed with the numbers, and I have this spiritual tattoo.”
Sid Dobrin, the chair of the UF Department of English, said he doesn’t believe the freedom of speech encompasses hate rhetoric.
“I don’t tolerate s--- like this,” said Dobrin, who is Jewish. “After I saw this crap on Facebook, I realized I had to do something about it since (UF President Kent Fuchs) is just sending out cards.”
Dobrin, wearing a kippah, shouted from the statue's ledge, emphasizing that UF has the fifth largest Jewish student population among U.S. universities. He said Dewitz’s display is unacceptable.
He mentioned that administration responded when a noose was found in a Weimer Hall classroom Jan. 12, but has yet to remove Dewitz, who he said is also spouting hate.
“By putting that symbol on, he is inherently choosing to rile people like me up,” Dobrin said. “By walking outside with that symbol, he is an aggression.”