People ran away in horror when a man with a swastika print T-shirt approached the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
One year ago, instead of fleeing, Omar Syed put his hand on the man’s shoulder to escort him out of white supremacist Richard Spencer’s speech.
“I told him, ‘You’re not welcome here,’ and he just smiled,” Syed, a 25-year-old UF psychology senior, said.
Syed was one of the thousands of protestors who spent more than nine hours shouting and waving signs Oct. 19, 2017, at the UF venue, at 3201 Hull Road, protesting white supremacist Richard Spencer’s speech. For many like Syed, this marked the date they lost faith in the university.
“There is a person that my university hosted who wants to take away my life,” Syed said.
From the outside, Syed witnessed people pushing and spitting at the Spencer supporter and eventually saw someone throw a punch at his face.
“He was punched rightfully,” he said.
Inside the entertainment center, Timothy Tia, a 22-year-old UF economics graduate, was one of the hundreds who grabbed a ticket to hear Spencer’s speech.
Protestors chanted “Black lives matter” and “Let’s go Gators.” Their words echoed in the center and drowned Spencer’s speech, Tia said.
“There was an electricity in the room among protestors,” Tia said.
Spencer and his supporters may not have gotten the reaction they had initially hoped for, UF President Kent Fuchs said, and because of that, groups like Spencer’s have largely stopped coming to campus.
The speech cost the university more than it cost Spencer, Fuchs said. He paid $10,564 to rent the space, but UF spent almost $600,000 on increased security.
The event caused people to talk about their values and the need to counter hate with words of support, Fuchs said.
“In some sense, the freedom of speech really isn’t free,” Fuchs said. “It comes at a price not necessarily to those expressing it but to those who have to listen to it and endure it.”
Since the speech, the university reviewed its policy that allows speakers to rent space on campus even if they, like Spencer, are not affiliated with a student group. Ultimately, UF decided not to change the policy because the facilities of the university are valuable to the larger Gainesville community, Fuchs said.
Tia said he thinks university administration should have fought to bar Spencer from speaking by bringing him to court, even if it is likely Spencer would have won. If the university had the funds to spend on the security, it could afford to take on a legal battle, Tia said.
“They decided to let it happen,” Tia said. “They thought that was the path of least resistance.”
Syed spent the duration of the day standing outside, shoulder-to-shoulder, with thousands of protestors and law enforcement officers.
Sometimes, he felt outnumbered by law enforcement by as much as two-to-one.
And for much of the time, he said he felt uncomfortable with the heavy police presence, with many officers dressed in riot gear while Syed only held a poster.
“It felt that the university was trying to contain us,” Syed said. “We cried for help, but for them, it wasn’t about who was being targeted.”
About a thousand officers traveled into Gainesville from all over the state, said University Police spokesperson Capt. Jeff Holcomb.
The majority of law enforcement was concentrated on campus and around the Phillips Center, Holcomb said.
“This is one of those things where you’d rather not have to deal with something like that, but in our profession, we don’t get to pick and choose what we get to deal with,” Holcomb said.
Officers arrested two men, one for possession of a firearm on school property and the other for resisting an officer, according to a press release. Fire rescue teams treated five injuries.
Two brothers and a friend drove from Texas to Gainesville to listen to Spencer speak. They were arrested later that day.
Colton Fears wore a Nazi-era pin. William Fears told journalists that whites should take control of their destiny.
An hour after the event, the Fears brothers and Tyler Tenbrink stopped their car at the corner of Southwest 34th Street and Southwest Archer Road to argue with protesters.
The brothers encouraged Tenbrink to shoot when he stepped out of the car, police said. He shot once. No one was injured.
Colton Fears pleaded guilty to three counts of accessory to attempted murder. He will be sentenced Nov. 21.
Tenbrink sits in the Alachua County Jail waiting for his trial date to be set. He was charged with attempted first-degree murder and possessing a weapon as a felon.
A year later, Syed still demands action from the university administration.
He wants UF to cater to its marginalized students. For “The Good Life” class to be replaced with a course on fascism and hate speech. For students to have the power to veto speakers like Spencer.
He no longer feels welcomed by his own university.
“I don’t feel like a Gator,” Seyd said. “I don’t.”