White Supremacist Richard Spencer Rejected by Hundreds of Protesters at Michigan State University

Hundreds of demonstrators convened near the Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education at Michigan State University’s campus in East Lansing, Michigan to protest a speech being given by white supremacist Richard Spencer.

Protesters began assembling in a parking lot across the street as early as noon, though Spencer was not scheduled to speak until 4:00 in the afternoon. They soon headed across the street to another parking area in front of the pavilion, which was fenced off. Hundreds of police officers from Lansing, the University, and the state were on scene – many clad in riot gear, with some carrying large clubs, pepper spray, and other “less than lethal” weapons. The wind and cloud cover sent chills across the lot but demonstrators kept their spirits warm with a sound system, chanting, and dancing long before the handful of attendees planning to attend Spencer’s speech began to arrive.

“A lot of people say stay away and it won’t be an event if everyone ignores it,” said Michael Hurwitz, a Lansing resident, who came to protest Spencer. “I don’t think so – that’s just letting them organize and do their thing and who knows what the next thing they’re gonna do after that’s going to be. We have to stand up and face them.”

Hurwitc was at the demonstration with Spike Tyson, a 68 year-old veteran who served during the Vietnam war. Tyson, wearing a Purple Heart veteran’s baseball cap and a Dr. Seuss themed anti-Trump t-shirt under his coat, said that he thought Spencer chose to come to Michigan because of the state’s long history of ties to the radical right wing, including it being the home of the Michigan Militia, which once claimed 10,000 members, and Terry Nichols, an accomplice in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

“We don’t need a wall around the country, we need a wall around Michigan to protect everyone else from us,” said Tyson. “Why did he come here? Because we’re radical.”

Demonstrators – many wearing all black and some obscuring their faces with scarves, masks, or other items – formed a large line across the parking lot to confront white supremacists, fascists, and those sympathetic to their cause, loudly chanting “Nazi’s go home.” As attendees, usually small groups of two or three younger white men attempted to cross the lot to the pavilion, demonstrators used their bodies to block them from entering. A few turned around and walked away.

“We’re out here today against the fascists and against the state…what we’ve got to understand is that Spencer is here because the MSU administration allows him to be here,” a man who identified himself as Bob from a group called Solidarity and Defense, told the crowd. “Spencer is here because the state of Michigan pays all these cops to come out and protect the fascists. The same MSU administration, the same government that’s allowed Spencer to come in here, that’s allowed fascists to come and attack our communities, and is protecting those fascists – that’s the same administration, the same government, that protected Larry Nassar for 20 years.”

Close to 4:00pm, when Spencer was originally scheduled to speak, some of those that walked away came back in a line with the Neo-Nazi group the Traditionalist Workers Party, lead by Matthew Heimbach. Chaos shortly erupted as the Nazis and their sympathizers clashed with protesters. Fights broke out in several places along the road leading to the pavilion, and bottles and other objects were thrown.

Police initially held back during some of the brawls before they moved in to break things up and make arrests. Michigan State University police say some two dozen individuals were arrested, with varying charges pending. At least three of the protesters were arrested in an act of civil disobedience, after lying down behind an armored personnel carrier police had on scene in an attempt to block the vehicle from moving.

Once the initial fights quelled, protesters went back to confronting attendees as they tried to trickle in. Police had to rush several individuals to a fenced in area behind their lines in front of the building’s entrance. In total, only a scant handful of people – 30 or so of the 150 tickets Spencer claimed he handed out, according to the Huffington Post – allegedly made it inside Spencer’s speech, which he delayed until 5:00pm. The Southern Poverty Law Center says he had been issued 360 tickets.

Monday’s action capped a weekend of bad times for Spencer and other fascists in Michigan. The group came to town for a planned conference by the Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas, a right-wing extremist “think tank,” but multiple venues in the Detroit area canceled or rejected the group. It’s executive director, Kyle Bristow (who is also the lawyer who advocated for Spencer to speak at MSU), resigned from his role over the weekend, saying that the media was “vilifying” him, despite a history of racism in addition to his association with Spencer. One Spencer supporter was also arrested on Sunday for allegedly pointing a firearm at protesters in Pittsfield Township, Michigan.

Protesters, even some who were injured or arrested during the melee, said that opposing Spencer and other fascists in their community was paramount.

“I never expected I’d need to come out to something like this,” said one masked woman who identified herself as a “concerned mom” from the area. “It seemed like when you’re a kid in history class – Nazism got taken care of. That’s clearly not the case…I don’t want my kids to live in a world where Nazis feel it’s acceptable to assemble in public and preach genocide…I think this is an issue that anyone in the community should be concerned about. It doesn’t matter what your politics are, you should not want Nazis congregating in your schools, your communities, anywhere.”

Reporting by Aaron Cynic and Elizabeth King. Photos by Aaron Cynic, Rick Majewski, and David Keeling. 

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