Tom Aiello: Dear administration, Richard Spencer will bring violence to campus

Wednesday, November 29, 2017 - 12:08pm

On Aug. 12, a Nazi sympathizer ran a car over protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va., crushing her to death. She died amid a melee during the Unite the Right rally, a collection of white supremacists, Klansmen and neo-Nazis led in part by Richard Spencer. Spencer called the rally a “huge moral victory” and vowed he and his white nationalist friends would soon return to Charlottesville. 

Now, Richard Spencer has vowed to spew his brand of violent white supremacist hatred on our campus. University of Michigan administrators stated they will allow Spencer to speak, given they can “assure a reasonably safe setting.” Given Spencer’s obvious desire for conflict and connections to hyper-violent white extremists, the University cannot assure any sort of reasonably safe setting for this event. For the safety of this campus’s students and faculty, as well as city residents, I implore University President Mark Schlissel and the University to deny Spencer’s request.

Spencer’s entire raison d’être is to disguise the violent, bloody Nazism of the American white nationalist movement under a cloak of clean-cut charm and academic acceptability. He has founded an academic policy institute devoted to racial supremacy and claims he wishes to engage in academic debate on campus. He denies promoting violence and calls for a “peaceful” ethnic cleansing. Yet, anything more than a cursory glance at his past reveals Spencer is anything but peaceful.

First, Spencer has consistently demonstrated a pervasive connection to violent white extremists. Alongside neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, Spencer was instrumental in planning the Unite the Right rally near the University of Virginia’s campus, which resulted in three deaths and 34 injuries. Outside of Spencer’s speech in October at the University of Florida, police arrested three of Spencer's supporters who threatened to kill and fired a gun at campus protesters. At Auburn University, police arrested a Spencer supporter for beating up an antifa protester.

For every Spencer supporter that commits acts of violence, many more threaten to. For example, commenters on a video he posted after the Charlottesville rally advocated to “gas the Jews,” start a “racial holy war,” “physically attack liberals” and start “killing n------ left and right.” Wherever Spencer goes, violent white nationalists follow.

A police presence cannot guarantee safety from committed racial extremists. Heavy police presence at Charlottesville did not stop deaths or severe injury. In fact, two Virginia State Police troopers lost their lives in a helicopter crash while patrolling the chaos in Charlottesville. This policing is also expensive: The University of Florida spent $500,000 on security when Spencer spoke on its campus. 

Far from condemning his violent followers, Spencer consistently shows them support. He called the man who killed Heather Heyers a “scapegoat” in a “very ambiguous situation.” Additionally, Spencer has joked about the “alt-right” troll who purposefully elicited epileptic seizures in Jewish journalist Kurt Eichenwald, an “alt-right” critic. He has endorsed a legal defense fund for the person who triggered the seizures and retweeted anti-Semitic slurs targeting Eichenwald. Spencer obviously has little problem with violence that contributes to the white nationalist cause.

Furthermore, Ann Arbor has the distinct displeasure of being less than an hour-long car ride away from at least 11 racial hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. One of these groups, the National Socialist Movement, is one of the largest neo-Nazi organizations in the country. It has a history of anti-Latino, anti-immigrant and anti-Black sentiment. The Ku Klux Klan, anti-Muslim groups and more neo-Nazis round out the other hate groups.

Spencer’s visit to campus presents these violent organizations with the perfect opportunity to unite in a display of racism. Their proximity to campus significantly endangers marginalized students and faculty. If the Charlottesville rally taught us one thing, it’s that large groups of white nationalists engender violence.

Moreover, Spencer fully understands the controversy his views breed and no doubt intends to stoke conflict by appearing on campus. He views college campuses as centers of “cultural Marxism” — which he describes in coded anti-Semitism as blindly promoting diversity for the sake of multicultural globalism. Spencer also maintains close ties to Identity Evropa, the group responsible for distributing racist flyers at Eastern Michigan University this year and that exists to stoke racial tensions on college campuses.

Organizers for Spencer’s college campus tour described the events as explicitly “anti-liberal,” and Spencer consistently mentions his anticipation of violence between antifa and his supporters at his speeches. Additionally, Spencer doesn’t care about free speech — he has repeatedly demonstrated disdain for government-protected freedoms and the principles of the founding fathers in his writings. Rather than sparking meaningful debate, his appearances aim for the national media attention a violent clash between students and his supporters would bring. No fewer than five other prominent public universities understood this when denying him from their campuses.

The University administration understands Spencer’s quest for attention, yet wrongly concluded that “denying the request would provide even more attention to the speaker and his cause.” The “alt-right” already views college campuses as intolerant suppressors of free speech. Allowing Spencer on campus will neither enlighten his neo-Nazi followers to the liberalism of higher education just as denying his request would not convince more reasonable Americans to join his cause.

Furthermore, the media firestorm over potential violence dramatically outweighs any attention denying his request would bring. Take the case of the riots that erupted at University of California at Berkeley earlier this year in response to the campus hosting controversial speaker Milo Yiannopoulos. A group of extreme antifa protesters threw Molotov cocktails and even beat far-right supporters, despite a heavy police presence. The violence has served as endless ammunition for conservative critics building a view of colleges as enemies of free speech. And given Spencer’s connections to violent extremists and inflammatory style, the University can’t reasonably guarantee violence won’t occur. An analogous violent outburst at our similarly liberal campus would likely do irreparable harm to the reputation of the United States’s public universities. 

I respect the legal bind the University finds itself in and realize the courts have compelled universities to host Richard Spencer before. I also revere universities’ role in protecting controversial speech and promoting heated yet productive dialogue.

However, Richard Spencer speaking on campus presents a threat of violence far too high for the University to ignore. Schools such as Michigan State University, Penn State University and Louisiana State University have all denied Spencer out of concern for campus safety. I implore the administration to similarly throw all its legal weight behind barring Spencer’s presence on campus. You might not win the court battle, but the marginalized members of this campus community at least deserve a try.

Tom Aiello can be reached at thomaiel@umich.edu.

Correction: This article, originally published on Nov. 30, incorrectly stated that a member of the National Socialist Movement solicited the murder of a federal judge. Matt Hale, the leader of the neo-Nazi group, the World Church of the Creator solicited the murder of the judge. We have redacted that portion of the article to rectify this error. We have also modified the article to clarify that discrimination and anti-Latino sentiment are both rife throughout the party but no specific incidents of physical violence against members of the Latino immigrant population have been reported.