Protesters outside Richard Spencer speech decry 'Nazi hate'

1K local, state, federal officers watched over crowd; 5 minor injuries reported

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Thousands of people carried signs and yelled anti-Nazi chants outside a University of Florida auditorium where white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke Thursday.

Officials said in a joint press release that more than 2,500 demonstrators began arriving about noon near the UF Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

Hundreds of police officers stood outside the Phillips Center to prevent violence as anti-Spencer protesters shouted, "Not in our town! Not in our state! We don't want your Nazi hate!"

READ: Joint command press release on Richard Spencer event at UF

“Screaming their heads off and nearly drowning Mr. Spencer out," one supporter said. "Fortunately, I was able to hear him through the speaker system. They showed their colors on national TV. They want to drown everybody else out.”

Three or four skirmishes occurred during the long afternoon after single Spencer supporters confronted the counter demonstrators, trying to speak and rile the crowds up.

One man, wearing a white shirt with swastikas drawn on, was punched and chased out of the area.

At least three others were quickly surrounded by crowds that shouted them down, chanting "Whose streets? Our streets!" and pushed them until they left the area or were chased behind police lines.

"I never would have guessed we would be living in a time when people would be comfortable coming out and speaking values of hate and white supremacy," protester Shravana Ogle said.

Even those involved in the protest, many of whom were UF students, were not fully prepared for the tense atmosphere.

"It's definitely scary seeing all the helicopters and drones, and the overcast is giving a feel like impending doom," student Haley Hammond said. "I think everyone is a bit scared and on edge, but we also want to stand together and support each other."

There was passion on both sides. While they were outnumbered by the protesters, there were people who came to Gainesville to see and support Spencer.

"I think the diversity agenda, I think the censorship of right-wing ideas, I think the villainization of European culture, of white society -- I think that’s all part of cultural Marxism. It’s destructive to our society," another supporter said.

In the hours leading up to the speech, protesters made their voices heard in the streets.

“I feel like it’s my job to use my voice for the people who can’t be here out of fear," Hammond said.

People sharing some of Spencer's beliefs were also outside the Phillips Center and, at times, debated with those who disagreed with them.

"I think diversity harms everybody involved," said Brian Jacobson, who supports Spencer. "So in other words, I'm not only coming at this from the point of view that I think diversity hurts white people, I think it hurts everybody. I grew up in Chicago. I saw that damage that diversity did to the black community."

Randy Furniss, who described himself as a white nationalist, was unapologetic about his views.

"They want what we have. And we just want them to shut up and get on with life," Furniss said. "They’re being raised up and it’s getting to the point where they want to push us down. That’s not right."

Immediately after he gave the interview to News4Jax, police stopped and searched him. He was then allowed to go on his way.

The Alachua County Sheriff's Office said two people were arrested Thursday. Sean Brijmohan, 28, was charged with possession of a firearm on school property. The office said in a tweet that he had brought a gun onto the campus after being hired by a media organization as security. David Notte, 34, was charged with resisting an officer without violence.

Five people had minor injuries and were immediately treated by fire rescue teams, authorities said.

More than an hour after the crowd dispersed, the Gainesville Police Department reported one shot was fired about 5:30 p.m. by a man who stopped in a possibly silver Jeep at the intersection of Southwest 34th Street and Southwest Archer Road, a few blocks south from where the speech and demonstrations took place.

"We heard this loud 'bop,' like a .38 or something, going off," witness Wesley Durrance said.

Police said the incident started as a verbal confrontation between two groups outside a CVS store at a corner of the intersection and then escalated.

"The person in the car followed the group down to the bus stop here," GPD Public Information Officer Ben Tobias said. "The person got out of the vehicle, fired a shot, got back in the vehicle and fled."

No one was hit. Police located a shell casing and a bullet hole in a nearby wall.

Investigators said it's unknown at this time whether the firing of the shot was related to Spencer's speech and the protests on campus. 

But Durrance, who was also protesting, said he thinks, "It's definitely, 100-percent related to it."

The school estimated it would spend $600,000 on security to ensure no repeat of violent clashes connected to a white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one person dead in August.

IMAGES: Richard Spencer and the protesters

UF cited the Charlottesville violence in rejecting an initial request from Spencer to speak at the university, but later relented on free speech grounds.

"I could have never imagined this happening ... We don’t want Gainesville becoming another Charlottesville," said Chris King, an Orlando Democrat running for governor of Florida. "I’m here because we have to stand strong with energy against bigotry and all its forms."

Florida's governor declared a state of emergency to make state resources available for the event. 

"It kind of makes me feel safer, but at the same time it really doesn't," UF student Nathalie Perez said. "I feel like this should not have even occurred. This should not have even happened. This should not have even been allowed to be here."

UF President Kent Fuchs expressed his appreciation for law enforcement officers in a tweet Thursday night.

"We are so GRATEFUL for all the 1,000+ officers who have been on our campus and in our community the past 48 hours. THANK YOU," Fuchs tweeted.

About the Authors:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.

Award-winning broadcast and multimedia journalist with 20 years experience.