On Tuesday evening, a crowd of about 100 students, faculty and community members joined together in the Diag for the #StopSpencer Speak Out with one common message: Richard Spencer is not welcome at the University of Michigan.
The Speak Out was one of the 11 #StopSpencer Week of Action events taking place to protest the University’s decision to cooperate with Spencer — an American white supremacist — and his team’s request to speak on campus. The event was organized by a coalition of student groups including Stop Spencer at the University of Michigan, Students4Justice and more. The goal of the Speak Out was to offer individuals who feel they have been ignored by the administration a platform to voice their concerns.
Many speakers and audience members at the event expressed their frustration with the University’s willingness to put the safety and comfort of minority students at risk in order to work with Spencer’s request.
One of these individuals was LSA junior Alex Chow, who explained by choosing not to deny Spencer’s request, the University was leaving students of color to fend for themselves.
“The University and its administration has made it clear that they're not going to protect us so we have to protect ourselves,” Chow said. “The burden is now put on people of color, LGBT people, Muslim people and Jewish people. All of us have to protect ourselves because they refuse to say ‘no.’”
Chow also felt the issue involving Spencer was not one of free speech, but instead one involving hate speech.
“They’re claiming that they can’t say no to him because there is a risk of litigation, but they’ve said no to speakers in the past,” Chow said. “They have a world-renowned law school, but I don’t think that’s what the main issue is. The issue is that someone wants to come here and tell us that we shouldn’t exist, and that we should be killed, and that our lives aren’t important.”
Calls for continued action against Spencer were heard at the Speak Out, whether it be student laborers refusing to work for the Spencer event or students continuing to show up at events in protest.
Public Health student Dana Greene was one of the people who took the stage at the Speak Out. Greene reminded the audience that by refusing to be complicit, the power of the University does not lie with the administration, but instead with the student body.
“President Schlissel and the Regents don’t run this campus, the students and the faculty and staff do,” Greene said. “So if we take a stand collectively then we can prevent this from happening but if we are complicit and willing to stand by and let it happen, then that’s what we allow to happen.”
History lecturer Anne Berg also spoke, pointing out the lack of faculty members present, and called on them to come out and support the efforts of marginalized communities.
“I see my students in fear, I see that they’re not just terrified about what’s going to happen to them but they also feel terribly alone,” Berg said. “The leadership is really absent, and the people who are supposed to be experts and guiding the students are not guiding them.”
Greene also echoed Berg’s call for the involvement from more members of the University community, and emphasized the need to stand up for one another, even if the issues at hand may not be directly pertinent to everyone.
“I want to make a call to people who are here and those who are not, that we can’t be complicit and allow this to happen,” Greene said. “Even if white supremacy don’t affect you, which it should, it affects everybody, but if your identity isn’t directly targeted by that you should still feel compelled to come out because it’s not just about me, it’s not just about you, it’s about everybody.”
Moving forward, Berg hopes the University decides to reject Spencer’s request even if it means losing a legal battle.
“I hope that they go the legal route, that they deny the request, withdraw from negotiations and let this go to court,” Berg said. “Yes, we may lose, but then there is a record that we fought.”
“I don’t think that it’s fair that other institutions have taken that route, and that we are basically throwing them under the bus,” Berg said. “I don’t think this is an issue of free speech, I think this is an issue that is mobilized in ways that are really problematic.”
In terms of safety on campus, there was a large consensus that rejecting Spencer’s talk of white supremacy is the most certain way of ensuring that people, especially people of color, on campus will not be harmed.
“It doesn’t advance learning, it does not advance education — that doesn’t help anything,” Berg said. “All it does is inspire violence and hatred, and giving that a platform puts people’s lives at stake.”
Later Tuesday night, students gathered at Rackham Auditorium for a teach-in on free and hate speech, white supremacy, and anti-fascist organizing. Throughout the event, a group of panelists and students examined the distinction between these components in addition to emphasizing the importance of all students’ safety, especially those from marginalized communities.
Assistant history professor Amanda Armstrong from the Michigan Society of Fellows, a speaker at the event, discussed the issue behind increased police enforcement.
“The administration has decided the only way they can possibly deny Spencer the platform to speak is if the police department says that it’s not going to be safe,” she said. “I think even if the police decide they are not going to let him on campus, that sets as a norm this idea of intensifying policing in response to the events and protests on campus.”
Armstrong emphasized policing should not be prioritized when dealing with a controversial speaker — it should be the students.
“I think the grounds for denying Spencer a platform should have nothing to do with the police,” she said. “We should oppose the police being involved in this because it is making room for fascists, and we should not promote this type of work.”
Law student Lakshmi Gopal taught students the legal ramifications the University could have faced for denying Spencer the space to speak. While she was explaining the First Amendment structure to the crowd, Gopal also added she was not defending the administration's rhetoric.
“Richard Spencer chose to rent a space from the University of Michigan. As a result, this puts the University at a completely different space. If there was an invitation to him, then the University of Michigan could have re-sent the invitation,” she explained. “The University of Michigan has to go through a fair process to deny his application.”
Gopal added the University had another option.
“If the content of his event is in conflict with the fundamental purpose of the University, then the situation would be different,” she said. “The reality is if Richard Spencer comes and speaks here, the University of Michigan would have to protect his ability to speak without disturbance.”
LSA junior Chanelle Davis she said she was interested in learning the difference between free speech and hate speech. She said she also wanted to learn from different groups within the social justice realm.
“I feel there are so many different views, and with me being a Black student, I sometimes feel like my own community isn’t on the same page,” Davis said. “I believe it is important for me to continue to learn about different things outside of the classroom, and trying to get educated before I can do more in terms of activism personally.”