How will Cincinnati respond to Richard Spencer?

After a turbulent speech at the University of Florida, activists consider options for a prominent white nationalist's planned appearance at the University of Cincinnati.

click to enlarge Rev. Damon Lynch III speaks to attendees at a meeting about response to white nationalist Richard Spencer's pending visit to Cincinnati. - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Rev. Damon Lynch III speaks to attendees at a meeting about response to white nationalist Richard Spencer's pending visit to Cincinnati.

Just hours after protesters shouted down high-profile white nationalist Richard Spencer during a speaking engagement at the University of Florida, roughly 300 people filled the sanctuary of New Prospect Baptist Church in Roselawn to mull a response should he come to Cincinnati.

A diverse array of organizers including New Prospect’s Rev. Damon Lynch III, Clifton Mosque Imam Ismaeel Chartier, representatives from faith coalition the Amos Project, Black Lives Matter Cincinnati, anti-Trump group United We Stand, Cincinnati Socialist Alternative and others stressed it would be the first of several gatherings designed to rally a response to Spencer — and to racism more broadly.

Lynch asked the crowd how it would like to respond to Spencer. Should efforts be aimed at shutting him down, as groups in Florida attempted? At providing an alternative event elsewhere to draw crowds away from him? Or at engaging the crowd who comes to see him in an attempt to provide a counter-message of love and reconciliation?

“How do you win hearts and minds and souls? That takes a little more strategy on our part," Lynch said.

Spencer calls himself an "identitarian" and says that the United States belongs to white men. He was an organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. this summer, where anti-racism protester Heather Heyer died after Ohio native James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car through a group of demonstrators.

The University of Cincinnati announced last week that it would grant a request from Georgia State University student Cameron Padgett to host Spencer here. Prior to that decision, Spencer threatened a lawsuit on 1st Amendment grounds if he were denied the opportunity to rent a venue for a speech. Padgett has filed similar requests at state universities across the country.

"As a state institution, we must adhere to the foundational rights embedded in the First Amendment," UC President Neville Pinto wrote in a statement announcing the school's decision. "That includes protecting speech of all types at all times — even, perhaps especially, words that are blatantly hateful or offensive."

Spencer’s potential visit here comes at an especially fraught time in a region that has seen plenty of racial tension. The traumatic trial of former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing ended without much resolution earlier this year — juries hung twice before charges against Tensing were dismissed. And besides Fields, who spent some of his formative years in nearby Florence, Kentucky, a number of other high-profile white supremacists involved in the Charlottesville incident or movements connected to it have Ohio ties.

Lynch and other speakers stressed that those interested in protesting Spencer should also turn their attention to deeply ingrained racial inequities Cincinnati and other cities face. He pointed out that just last year, two Cincinnati banks settled a lawsuit brought by the federal government around racial discrimination in loan practices. U.S. attorneys charged that between 2010 and 2014, Union Savings Bank and Guardian Savings Bank vastly underserved black communities, training and even encouraging loan officers to focus on white neighborhoods and locating few of their branches in black neighborhoods.

“He will come, and he will go,” Lynch said of Spencer. “But we will still be here dealing with the same issues. The real strength of this gathering is not just what we do because Richard Spencer is coming to town. It’s what we birth out of this so we can change the entire climate of this city, this county and eventually the nation.”

Beside UC, Spencer also threatened the University of Florida, Ohio State University and other schools with similar lawsuits. OSU is mulling how to respond. University of Florida eventually complied with his request.

Spencer and other speakers from far-right, white nationalist groups like Identity Europa rented a venue on the Florida campus. Though Spencer paid for the rental of the space and security inside the event, the university paid more than $500,000 for security measures outside.

Prior to the event, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Alachua County, where UF is located, in case more law enforcement personnel were needed there. About 2,500 protesters showed up to oppose Spencer. There were a few minor injuries during the event. Several people were arrested, including a security guard who brought a gun to the event and three men from Texas who identified as Spencer supporters and gave Nazi salutes. According to police reports, one of the men fired a gun toward a crowd of protesters following Spencer's speech. No one was injured in that incident.

During Spencer’s speech, a music professor climbed into the university’s bell tower and played “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sometimes called the Black National Anthem, to show solidarity with students of color at the school.

Spencer and others spent about 90 minutes speaking about their vision for a “new white America.” Supporters of Spencer sat near the front of the auditorium, but they were outnumbered by his critics. Speakers were heckled, mocked and chanted over for much of that time. Though 700 tickets were provided for the event, seats remained empty, media reports say. The neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, run for many years from Ohio by white nationalist Andrew Anglin, issued a call for supporters who didn't get into the event to hold "flash mobs" outside Jewish and African-American cultural centers among other locations in Gainesville. Those mobs didn't seem to materialize, however. 

“You think that you shut me down? Well, you didn’t,” Spencer said to protesters before exiting the stage. “You actually even failed at your own game."

He and his supporters left campus quickly afterward.

Spencer has yet to set a date for his appearance at UC. The university declined to host him this month, and Spencer can’t do the first two weeks in November. In the meantime, student groups and activists say they’re getting ready.

UC Student Body President Bashir Emlemdi says student government stands resolutely against Spencer’s message, and that he hopes many turn out to show that.

"We want to show the world there are people who choose love, not hate" if Spencer comes to campus, he said.

Chandler Rankin of the United Black Student Association said that his group is planning an alternative event — a concert called “Choose Love” for the day Spencer decides to speak at UC.

"This decision directly affects us,” Rankin said of UC’s choice to let Spencer speak. “We know Richard Spencer's messages of hate."

But Rankin also clarified that UBSA is supporting and calling for direct protest against Spencer’s speaking engagement as well.

“Some students like to be on the front lines, some like to be in a safe space," Rankin said of the group’s plans to provide “multiple mediums” to respond to Spencer.

Cincinnati Black Lives Matter is focused on the front-line efforts, organizers with the group said. They called for volunteers who can be legal observers, medics and marshals for protests and marches should Spencer come to UC.

“Our main goal is counteracting,” Mona Jenkins of Black Lives Matter said. “We're going to be meeting to gather our action plan."

The next of those meetings — which will delve into specific strategies — hasn’t been set yet, but will take place at New Prospect, most likely on a coming Thursday evening.

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