OSU has to be ready to confront Spencer

October 18, 2017

Ethan Ackelsberg and Coco Smyth write from Columbus, Ohio, where the OSU community may have to confront an appearance by arch-racist Richard Spencer.

RICHARD SPENCER, a leading figure of the "alt-right," is trying to take his reactionary agenda on the college lecture circuit.

Spencer has requested to speak at numerous universities across the country, including the University of Florida, Michigan State and the University of Cincinnati, among others. According to the Ohio State University (OSU) newspaper, The Lantern, OSU joined the list of campuses on Spencer's docket, but the request was swiftly denied by the university administration in early September.

After Spencer's lawyer, the white nationalist Kyle Bristow, threatened a lawsuit, the administration again denied the speaking request, but a spokesperson for the university said OSU is "currently considering other alternatives."

Spencer's requests were granted at the University of Florida and Cincinnati. Spencer's Florida speech is scheduled to take place this Thursday, and Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency to provide "additional resources" to county and local law enforcement. The executive order is clearly directed at quelling counterprotest against Spencer's hate.

White supremacist leader Richard Spencer speaks in Washington, D.C.
White supremacist leader Richard Spencer speaks in Washington, D.C. ([email protected] | Wikimedia Commons)

At OSU, the campus community, along with people throughout Columbus, can't forget about Spencer given the effectiveness of his lawsuit threats at getting university administrations to knuckle under. We must be prepared to face this alt-reich figurehead without administrative assistance.

AS PRESIDENT of the white supremacist National Policy Institute, Spencer has gained prominence as one of the leading advocates of a "white ethno-state" in the U.S. He gained more fame when a video emerged of a National Policy Institute meeting last November where some 200 attendees responded to his words "Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!" by giving the Nazi salute.

Spencer was also a co-organizer of the militaristic "Unite the Right" rally this August in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended with the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer after a fascist plowed his car into a group of anti-racists.

After the murder in Charlottesville, the far right has been under increasing scrutiny. Bigots like Spencer have attempted for some time to manipulate the concept of free speech to position themselves as victims of unprovoked anti-fascist attacks and censorship.

For a period, this strategy was effective in convincing most conservatives and significant sections of liberals that anti-fascist protesters were a greater threat to "freedom" than literal white supremacists.

Because of the public outcry from people across the political spectrum after the white supremacist murder in Charlottesville, the far right has been on the defensive. When alt-right individuals or organizations have tried to mobilize, they have been vastly outnumbered, and their forces are more dispersed.

But many of those who stuck around the reactionaries have "radicalized" further.

In Columbus, the far right has a definite presence, though it is underground. Since Trump's election, there have been numerous flyerings on the OSU campus by the white-supremacist group Identity Europa. The neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement also distributed flyers in the city of Columbus over the summer.

These far-right provocateurs have even become bold enough to attempt to infiltrate left-wing meetings and harass progressive protests and tables on campus.

MANY STUDENTS and staff at OSU have looked to the university administration to protect the campus from these far-right provocateurs. Given the generally liberal face of the administration, it has not seemed far-fetched to view it as a force with the power and the will to defend students.

Unfortunately, however, university administrations, including OSU's, are not reliable as allies against the right.

The aim of officials who preside over universities is not to fight oppression or advocate for justice, but to ensure stability for the functioning of the school. The language of OSU's initial rejection of Richard Spencer reflects this. Instead of denying him on the basis of his hate speech or white supremacist politics, the administration claimed its decision was based on cost concerns and "risks to public safety."

And after Spencer threatened to sue the university for the right to speak, the administration said it was contemplating "other alternatives" to Spencer's demand that he speak at the Ohio Union Performance Hall space.

Thus, opponents of the far right should not advocate an alliance or the empowerment of administrators on this score. We should fear that bans or other administrative actions directed against the far right will be used instead against the left.

Just last week, we were reminded that administrations will actively silence dissent from leftist professors like George Ciccariello-Maher at Drexel University and Bill Mullen at Purdue University.

Here at OSU, we know that the administration has come down hard against left-wing protest. Administrators have threatened to arrest and expel students for protesting the university and its complicity in human rights abuses, ranging from investments in the occupation of Palestine, the university's connections with the use of sweatshop labor, and a continued contract with Wendy's in spite of the company's horrible record of labor abuses.

At OSU, the left has suffered far more than the right from restrictions on speech and the right to organize.

TO BE skeptical of the administration's motives regarding far-right speakers does not mean taking a passive approach to the threat posed by Spencer and other reactionaries.

Instead, we believe it is necessary for students and workers to build united fronts and mass protests against the far right, which can prove in practice that the alt-reich is a tiny and despised minority.

Since Charlottesville, more people understand the need to stand up to the alt-right menace--rather than follow the advice of liberal politicians to stay home and ignore the reactionaries. In Boston, some 25,000 people mobilized to confront a tiny number of far-right individuals rallying for "free speech."

We have also seen this trend in Columbus, where 500 people gathered for a vigil for Heather Heyer and some 200 stood in solidarity with Berkeley for the national weekend of solidarity against hate in late August.

When we are organized in resistance, the far right can be forced to retreat. But when we are complacent and allow the white supremacists to gain confidence, the consequences are dire.

At OSU, we can learn from the recent struggle of students, staff and faculty at the University of California at Berkeley against Milo Yiannopoulos's planned "free speech week," which fell apart on the eve of its scheduled start under pressure from public expressions of mass opposition.

The lesson is this: When we, the many, stand up to the hateful few, we can win.

At the University of Cincinnati, a coalition of groups--the NAACP, the faith-based justice group the Amos Project, and left-wing political organizations like Socialist Alternative--came together quickly after the administration announcement that Spencer would be given space to speak on campus. The coalition's ability to mobilize those threatened by Spencer's hatemongering, which is nearly everyone, will be key to successfully defending Cincinnati's vulnerable communities.

For all Ohioans who oppose Spencer's racism and reactionary hate, drowning out his bigotry with a broad base of solidarity--both within and between Cincinnati and Columbus--is the only way to show that the far right's hate is not welcome here.

And if the OSU administration surrenders or is forced by a judge to give Spencer a platform, we will organize the largest possible numbers to show that his racist ideas represent a tiny, rejected minority.

Further Reading

From the archives