Hundreds of protesters turn out to support ‘Aggie Values’ during white nationalist event on campus
White nationalist Richard Spencer faced a volatile audience, at least 1,000 protesters and a university-sanctioned “unity” event during his speech at Texas A&M University on Tuesday evening.
“We conquered this continent,” Spencer said to nearly 400 attendees at the Memorial Student Center. “Whether it’s nice to say that or not, we won and we got to define what America means; we got to define what this continent means. America, at the end of the day, belongs to white men.”
One of the most prominent figures in the white nationalist movement, Spencer coined the term “alt-right” in 2008. Spencer is from the Dallas area and attended the elite St. Mark’s School. At A&M, he lectured about white identity politics, cheered Donald Trump’s election and explained his belief that white nationalists “are going to displace the old guard.”
His appearance was disavowed by university officials and prompted approximately 1,000 students and others to demonstrate outside the event. Because Spencer was invited to the university by a private citizen, a former student named Preston Wiginton, school officials said they had no choice but to let the event go forward.
But Aggies also took the opportunity to respond with their own messages of love and acceptance.
Cameron Finley, a senior and chief officer of the (now-defunct) Aggies for Bernie Sanders group, helped organize the silent protest in Rudder Plaza a few hours before Spencer’s event. The gathering included numerous student groups, campus faith leaders and citizens standing stoically with signs proclaiming “Hate is not an Aggie value” and “Resist racism.”
“I believe that as Americans, we have a right and an obligation to stand up for everybody,” Finley said. “I may be a white dude, but I care about all of my peers, my friends, my family who Richard Spencer and his ilk present a threat to. White nationalism holds no place in a country that’s open and free and democratic.”
Around the corner, a decidedly more boisterous group of protestors from the Houston Socialist Movement and other campus groups played music, chanted “no Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA!” and created a makeshift “safe space” in the street outside the student center.
In an email to the student body, University President Michael K. Young said he was “truly heartened by the clear message that the Aggie community is sending in reaction to this intrusion,” adding that Spencer’s views “do not represent the Aggie values we espouse and to which we aspire.”
The university sponsored its own Aggies United event at Kyle Field, just across the street from Spencer’s speech. Meant as a tactful distraction from the circus unfolding inside the student center, the event included a concert by Ben Rector and a brief speech by Holocaust survivor Max Glauben.
“If you’re a purveyor of hate and divisiveness and you want to spew that kind of racism, this is the last campus on earth that you want to come to,” A&M Chancellor John Sharp said in his keynote speech to a crowd of nearly 2,000 students. “There is no place, and there is no university where love and respect for each other and loyalty and commitment to each other is stronger than Texas A&M University.”
But outside Kyle Field, some protesters were not swayed by the university’s efforts.
“They’ve dealt with it very predictably — they’re an institution,” said Emilio Bernal, a senior sociology major. Rather than attending Aggies United, he stayed in the street to keep his fellow protesters fired up. “Originally this university was established as an all-white male university. People of color, women, Jews, Muslims, we’ve all had to make our home here.”
Bernal said that he no longer feels protected by his university.
Once Spencer’s speech was underway, Bernal and other demonstrators were re-energized. Demonstrators flowed into the hallway outside Spencer’s speech, and music blared in the streets outside. Police in riot gear were brought in after a handful of demonstrators charged into Spencer’s speech, but otherwise the protests went off without incident. According to campus police, two arrests were made for assault on a public servant and interfering with police duties. Both of the offenders were non-students.
Despite the university’s best efforts, Spencer drummed up just the kind of hysteria that made him infamous in the first place. Last month, a video of him using the Nazi salute and leading a “hail Trump!” chant at a white supremacist conference in Washington, D.C., went viral.
In College Station, he openly mocked adversarial audience members and occasionally paused his speech to acknowledge a protester dressed as a clown who danced around the room with a sign reading, “He’s the real bozo.”
“Let’s just sit down and talk,” Spencer said repeatedly.
Spencer’s outspoken support for white nationalism once qualified him as a fringe figure, but Trump’s election has emboldened the movement.
“Trump was the first step toward white identity politics in the United States,” he said. “He is not going to be the last. The alt-right is a new beginning.”