Ann Arbor residents grapple with potential Spencer visit

“Black Lives Matter” banner hangs in the Wesley Foundation Campus Ministry.

“Black Lives Matter” banner hangs in the Wesley Foundation Campus Ministry. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Rev. Bob Roth

 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017 - 7:43pm

The prospect of white nationalist Richard Spencer visiting the University of Michigan has raised alarm not only on campus, but also among city residents and community leaders.

Just last week, Mayor Christopher Taylor (D) criticized Spencer in a Facebook post, noting Spencer’s white nationalist ideology runs counter to Ann Arbor’s commitment to diversity and inclusion for people of all backgrounds.

“Richard Spencer’s fearful vision of America is an affront to Ann Arbor’s values and we condemn him. He is not welcome here,” Taylor wrote.

Nevertheless, Taylor supported University President Mark Schlissel’s decision to consider allowing Spencer to speak on campus, noting that under the First Amendment the University cannot abandon its obligations to allow the free exchange of ideas, no matter how despicable the idea is. 

On Nov. 21, the University stated administators would proceed to consider Spencer’s request to speak on campus, which first entered into the University sphere at the end of October. However, the administration noted it would first have to ensure the safety of its students. In the emergency meeting of the University’s Board of Regents held last week, University President Mark Schlissel discussed “three components” to the decision: the safety of students, protecting free speech in a democratic society and that denying the request would give more attention to Spencer and his cause. 

Taylor noted the conflict the administration faces is a difficult one.

“Just as this prohibition protects the press and the protester, so too does it shield the bigot. So, if Richard Spencer comes, Ann Arbor will cooperate and coordinate with the University of Michigan and law enforcement agencies to ensure public safety and preserve public order,” Taylor wrote.


Ann Arbor resident Adam Mall agreed with the mayor. He saw parallels between the current situation and his high school days, when the KKK held a rally at the old City Hall and his classmates went to protest.

“I get that it’s a public campus and we’re trying to encourage free speech, but at the same time I’m really torn about individuals like (Spencer) coming to campus and stir up a lot of hate talk,” Mall said.

Longtime residents were also torn on the issue between free speech and hate. Alan Haber, an activist who as a student led the Students for a Democratic Society on campus in the 1960s, also drew parallels to the past. For him, the current atmosphere reminds him of the time Roth Barnett, the segregationist governor of Mississippi, came to speak on campus.

Schlissel used the Barnett example as a reason why universities must allow controversial speakers on campus in his inaugural address in 2014.

“(Barnett) was booed here, in 1963, but he was allowed to speak. This is what great universities do: We encourage all voices, no matter how discomforting the message. It takes far more courage to hear and try to understand unfamiliar and unwelcome ideas than it does to shout down the speaker. You don’t have to agree, but you have to think,” Schlissel said.

Haber said students can use this as an opportunity to counter the hateful ideology of white supremacy through teach-ins and protests, in the process engaging students who usually would not have an interest in these issues.

“Take the occasion to create an educational shield to counteract fascism, expose what this menace is. I won’t say, ‘No free speech for fascists,’ but use the opportunity to overwhelm the opponents,” Haber said.

His partner, Odile Hugonot-Haber, added Spencer’s ideology encourages the kind of vile actions the Nazis conducted in her native France during World War II. She also strongly suggested students educate one another to foster true equality and democracy in the United States.

“(The students) need to do some strong action because that’s what makes history,” Hugonot-Haber said.

When asked about what it plans to do about safety for protesters and counterprotesters, the Ann Arbor Police Department said it has not been contacted regarding the event and redirected all requests to the University Police Department.

The religious community also showed concern for a white nationalist coming to Ann Arbor. The Rev. Bob Roth, chaplain-director of the Wesley Foundation, a campus ministry, said he and other campus ministry leaders will be protesting with their student congregation when Spencer arrives.

“What he brings, really, is hate speech, and at that point to advocate white supremacy … is very threatening particularly to our students of color. Most of us will involve ourselves with what the students and the student groups are doing,” Roth said.

Roth also said he was concerned about how Schlissel did not differentiate between free speech and hate speech in his justification of allowing Spencer on campus. Roth said Schlissel neglected to explain why Spencer has not crossed the line from free speech to hate speech in his statements.

“To not bring up hate speech or where that line is to avoid the issue,” Roth said.

Despite all these concerns, however, Ann Arbor resident Adam Russ said he is confident the city’s values will triumph over Spencer’s ideology. 

“I think he came at the wrong time. (Speakers like) Richard Spencer and Milo (Yiannopoulos), I feel like their time has come and gone. They’re not as relevant as they were three or four months ago,” Russ said.