New coalition, #StopSpencer, aims to protest white nationalist's possible visit
Handmade posters littered the floor of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization office on East Liberty Street while a half-open laptop played music on Monday night. On the whiteboard, someone had written several guiding slogans in blue Expo marker; “Hail Not Heil” and “#SchlisselWYA” provided go-to options should inspiration otherwise fail. Stop Spencer at the University of Michigan, a coalition of student organizations protesting the University’s decision to proceed with negotiations with Richard Spencer, began their Week of Action with a sign-making party.
It was a calm start to what has been a week packed with teach-ins, student walkouts and rallies, all aiming to dissuade the University from giving Spencer, a white supremacist and Nazi sympathizer, a platform to speak.
Nearly a dozen left-leaning groups on campus have banded together to organize in opposition to Spencer’s request, including radfun and the University’s chapter of College Democrats.
Lauren Schandevel, communications director for the University’s chapter of College Democrats, said in the past they have been cautious in attaching their name to certain causes to avoid politicization, “opting instead to show up as allies rather than political affiliates.”
“In this instance, however, we believe that Spencer and his movement are enough of a political threat to justify our direct involvement,” Schandevel said. “Our goal — which I think is the main goal of many of the other student groups involved — is to protect marginalized students from violence. Spencer's presence on university campuses — and frankly anywhere — brings heightened tensions with it. Not to mention if his supporters show up to see him speak, we could be hosting a Nazi rally on campus in the name of free speech. That isn't a safe environment for anyone, let alone the students targeted by his rhetoric.”
In an email to students, University President Mark Schlissel emphasized student safety is his utmost priority, and a deciding factor in whether Spencer’s event will take place.
“If we cannot assure a reasonably safe setting for the event, we will not allow it to go forward,” Schlissel wrote.
Students4Justice, one of the primary organizers of #StopSpencer, issued a statement responding to Schlissel’s email, claiming it will be impossible for safety to be ensured if Spencer speaks. They cited previous racist incidents on campus and noted the University boasts one of the country’s largest state militias, a KKK base in Howell, 30 minutes away from Ann Arbor, members of which tend to support white supremacy.
“There is no ‘safe’ setting possible when white supremacists and neo-Nazis are given permission to come to college campuses,” the statement read.
In his email, Schlissel also mentioned the potential legal complications the University could face if they bar Spencer from speaking. Spencer’s lawyer previously threatened to sue the University if they did not reach a decision by Nov. 24; now, however, the University has until Dec. 8 to make a decision.
“We are legally prohibited from blocking such requests based solely on the content of that speech, however sickening it is,” Schlissel said.
History professor Katherine French doesn’t believe these legal problems are enough grounds for allowing Spencer to speak.
“I’d rather that the money we’re going to have to spend on security be spent on actually arguing that this isn’t about education and about free speech, this is about safety,” French said.
Spencer has requested to speak at various other universities, including Michigan State University and Ohio State University.
“It seems like the rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State should maybe be invoked,” French said. “They’ve turned him down. I’m not fully convinced on President Schlissel’s stand. With one of the top-ranked law schools in the country I’m sure we have faculty who could articulate this point in a court of law.”
Amanda Delekta, vice president of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, said while she disagrees with Spencer and the “alt-right” movement, he should be allowed to speak if student safety can be ensured.
“I don’t think anyone wants Spencer to be able to speak on campus, but he has the same First Amendment rights that every other American citizen has,” Delekta said. “If the proper safety procedures and precautions are put into place, I don’t see how the University can justify preventing his speech.”
Schandevel agreed student safety was of paramount importance.
“It is our biggest priority,” Schandevel said. “That, and making sure Nazis don't have a platform anywhere.”
Students4Justice and other organizers also called on faculty and staff to walk out of classes Wednesday and to cancel classes on Thursday to show support for students “who have been affected by our oppressive campus environment.”
French said she plans on walking out of class.
“I’m glad the students are protesting,” French said. “I don’t think Spencer belongs on our campus. And I don’t think it’s a free speech issue.”
French currently teaches a class titled “The Rise and Fall of the Middle Ages.” She said the “alt-right”’ attempts to “co-opt medieval history” in order to legitimize white supremacy worry her.
“I’m pretty concerned about the level of legitimacy that white supremacy is being given,” French said. “I don’t want my class to be construed in any way as supporting that agenda. It’s a wrong reading of medieval history. I’m pretty anxious about what all this means.”
Philip Christman, co-chair of the Lectures’ Employee Organization, which has issued a statement against Spencer, said he appreciates students are taking action. He especially admires the statement takes note of the fact not everyone is able to participate in all the events.
“They seemed to kind of acknowledge that canceling classes doesn’t really mean the same thing for every teacher,” Christman said. “For a person with tenure or a grad student or a lecturer like me, we might face different kinds of sanctions. They left some room in their statement. They talked about, whether you cancel classes or not, think about how you can offer extra support to your students of color and your Jewish students who are really bearing the brunt of all this.”
Christman believes the faculty’s main role should be providing support and educating students on the larger picture behind Spencer speaking.
“We have to give context and help our students understand why this is happening,” Christman said. “I think some acknowledgement of the larger context and finding whatever gestures you can make to help your students is important.”
In emails sent to LSA and School of Education list servs, Dean Andrew Martin and Elizabeth Birr Moje, dean of the School of Education, informed faculty members classes would not be canceled Thursday in response to Spencer’s visit or the protests.
“The most important thing we do as educators is to teach, and for that reason, we do not support calls by students and faculty to cancel classes,” Martin wrote.
“My personal hope is that my colleagues teaching on Thursday will use this as an opportunity to teach hard and teach well, and that they'll consider turning over some valuable class time for discussions and debates about democratic engagement, anti-racist education and the unique role that college campuses have played in debates about free speech and the right to protest,” Dillard said.
The Semester in Detroit Program recently released a statement in support of the Stop Spencer Protests. Program Director Dr. Stephen Ward said the University should have no role in helping Spencer propagate his views.
“I don’t think we should describe him as provocative and radical, because those give him more legitimacy than he deserves,” Ward said. “He’s a purveyor of hateful and potentially harmful, violent and deadly language. That’s beyond controversial or provocative. It’s incendiary, it’s hateful.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated the Lectures’ Employee Organization helped organize the protests rather than issuing statements against Spencer.