(CN) – Hundreds of protesters converged on the University of Florida campus Thursday ahead of a planned speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer, and the school is bracing itself for an outbreak of violence.
Spencer, president of the “alt-right” group National Policy Institute, was among those who participated in the deadly August rally in Charlottesville, Va., and Thursday’s event at the university’s Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is his first public appearance since that day.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in the Alachua County, where the university is located, ahead of Spencer’s event, saying his speeches in the past have “sparked protests and counter-protests resulting in episodes of violence, civil unrest and multiple arrests.”
“I find that the threat of a potential emergency is imminent,” Scott said in a seven-page executive order issued October 16.
The school administration has denounced Spencer and urged people to stay away from the event, but it said it couldn’t block the event because of free speech concerns.
The university is reportedly spending $600,000 on security for the event, and about 500 law enforcement officers have been deployed at the campus.
On Thursday afternoon, Spencer and his supporters mostly stayed inside the fenced-off performing arts center, where he is slated to speak about the creation of a “white ethno-state.” Meanwhile, waves of protesters marched a half-mile to the center, chanting and carrying anti-Nazi and anti-white supremacist signs.
Authorities said as of mid-afternoon there had been no injuries and only one arrest.
The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office has described the arrested man as an armed security guard hired by a media outlet. He had a loaded firearm under his shirt on campus, which is against Florida law.
The University of Florida administration originally declined to host the event for Spencer after student outcry and fears of violence. But after Spencer threatened legal action, the university relented.
“No one at our university invited Mr. Spencer, nor is anyone at UF sponsoring this event,” University of Florida president Richard Fuchs said at the time. “UF has been clear and consistent in its denunciation of all hate speech and racism, and in particular the racist speech and white-nationalist values of Mr. Spencer.”
Spencer’s group spent just over $10,000 to rent the event space.
That heightened state of alert was evident on the campus Thursday morning, as law enforcement cordoned off several blocks of the campus. Hundreds of officers wearing tan clothes marched around buildings and most dormitories had university police guarding entrances. Huge tractor-trailers with concrete slabs blocked the main streets leading to the performing arts center.
At the southwest edge of the campus, protesters gathered at a staging area by a strip mall.
Under a large canopy with a “free hugs” sign, Carol Barron handed out bottles of water and “Love is stronger” signs.
A member of a local Women’s March chapter, Barron pointed to her group as “the peace-makers.”
“We came out to fight this negative energy,” said the 68-year-old. “Gainesville is all about love.”
As protesters from a host of leftist groups came to her tent, Barron talked about the coalition built around this one event.
“It really does boil down to fighting for a living wage and racial justice,” she said.
The protesters readied themselves to march en masse to the performing arts center and a group of university students chatted about why they were not attending another student-led “virtual event” that urged people to ignore Spencer and his allies.
“They came to bother us,” said Lindy Campbell, a 21-year-old biology major. “When you ignore Nazis, what do you think happens? World War II, I guess.”
Jalyn Stallworth, an African-American studies and art major, agreed.
The protesters began marching down the empty streets leading to the performing arts center with chants.
“No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!”
“Say it loud! Say it clear! Nazis are not welcome here!”
Followed by law enforcement checking for prohibited items, the marchers arrived in front of the performing arts center and a horde of media from around the state. A few Spencer acolytes jeered the protesters, but were largely ignored and stayed to the side of the crowd.
Jordan Bahring, 22, stood nearby watching the raucous demonstration.
“The university wanted us to ignore [Spencer],” he said. “But for people like me and a lot of citizens, we don’t have a choice to ignore it.”
Bahring lives nearby the center and wondered aloud how he would get to work.
“I think a lot of people are annoyed that it was allowed to happen,” he said. “I think it was pretty embarrassing to the university. A lot of the blame is on President Fuchs. Some people want him to resign.”
As a light rain started pelting protesters, the crowd milled about waiting in front of the center for Spencer’s speech to begin inside.
Bahring, a political science major who just transferred to University of Florida from New Mexico, let out a sigh: “So far, it’s been a year of hurricanes and Nazis.”