TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Citing a need to protect “the health, safety and welfare” of the public, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Alachua County in advance of a white-nationalist leader's appearance Thursday at the University of Florida.
University officials agreed to allow Richard Spencer, the leader of the National Policy Institute, to speak on campus, after university President Kent Fuchs initially balked at a proposed speaking date last month.
The university relented after a lawyer for the controversial Spencer threatened to sue. On Monday, Scott issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency in Alachua County to allow state and local law enforcement officials to coordinate and share resources.
“We live in a country where everyone has the right to voice their opinion, however, we have zero tolerance for violence, and public safety is always our number one priority,” Scott said in a prepared statement accompanying the seven-page order. “This executive order is an additional step to ensure that the University of Florida and the entire community is prepared so everyone can stay safe.”
Scott's order came at the request of Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, who said she sought the emergency declaration “more so of being able to get the resources needed to prepare, rather than a sense of alarm regarding the protest.”
Still, Darnell added, “There is an element of being conscious that there has been violence and property damage in other areas where this speaker has spoken,” even if Spencer wasn't directly involved in the behavior.
“We have to be prepared for any eventuality,” she said in a telephone interview Monday.
The declaration establishes a “cooperative and coordinated security plan” among state and local law enforcement agencies to ensure that they are “sufficiently prepared to deal with any security and safety issues related to the speaking engagement,” which is slated for the university's Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
Spencer's prior appearances at universities in Alabama, California, Texas and Virginia “have sparked protests and counter-protests resulting in episodes of violence, civil unrest, and multiple arrests,” the governor noted in his emergency declaration.
Clashes between Spencer's white nationalist supporters -- some of whom carried tiki torches -- and antifascist, or antifa, supporters turned deadly in Charlottesville, Va., in August after a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters, killing 31-year-old Heather Heyer. Dozens of others were injured, and two Virginia state troopers died in a helicopter crash while monitoring the situation.
Gainesville authorities are concerned about the possibility of a similar mob, prompting Darnell to request the additional support.
Scott's order directs the activation of the Florida National Guard, if necessary, and makes the Florida Department of Law Enforcement the lead agency in charge of “crisis management.”
Also, the governor's order puts the state's Division of Emergency Management --- the agency that oversees responses to disasters like hurricanes --- in charge of any fallout if confrontations in Gainesville become violent, a move that appeared to appeal to the firebrand Spencer.
“BREAKING: Hurricane Ricardo expected to hit Gainsville this Thursday,” Spencer said in a Twitter post accompanied by an image of his face in the center of a massive storm off Florida's coast.
The university appeared to downplay the significance of Scott's emergency order Monday, saying it allowed for “enhanced coordination” between various agencies and “is not in response to any specific heightened threat.”
“It is a process that enables various law enforcement agencies to work together more efficiently. For example, agencies from multiple jurisdictions can be mobilized, if necessary, without bureaucratic delays. We appreciate Gov. Scott's support and commitment to UF's campus safety,” the university said in a statement released late Monday afternoon.
Spencer, who has been an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, earned notoriety following a press conference where followers broke out in Nazi-like salutes in response to Spencer saying, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”
Fuchs and the university have made clear that they do not endorse Spencer's neo-Nazi ideology, but maintain the state school is required by law to allow him to appear.
"The values of our university are not shared by Mr. Spencer, the National Police Institute or his followers," Fuchs said in a Facebook video posted last week. "Our campuses are places where people of all races, origins and religions are welcomed and are treated with love."
Fuchs encouraged students and others to shun Spencer.
“Do not provide Mr. Spencer and his followers the spotlight they are seeking. I urge everyone to stay away from the Phillips Center on Oct. 19,” he said.
But a group calling itself “No Nazis at UF,” which was granted an impromptu meeting with university officials Monday in an attempt to call off Spencer's speech, plans to show up en masse to protest on Thursday.
“We will be there Thursday, thousands strong protesting against fascism and white nationalism. We hope you will join us,” the group said in a Twitter post Thursday afternoon.
Local authorities are facing the same dilemma other college towns confronted when Spencer came to campus.
“We're dealing with a lot of unknowns. We're hoping that this is going to be a non-event. It's going to go peacefully. It's going to be very low-attended. And it's just going to go fine, and we will have the experience of having this marvelous drill and training opportunity. But we don't know that, so we're taking it very seriously,” Darnell said.
U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, a Republican whose north central Florida district including Gainesville, released a statement calling for calm on both sides.
"Hate groups and groups that promote violence and anarchy have no place in our society. They simply have a self-serving agenda and feed off mob-like participation and divisiveness," Yoho said. "When Richard Spencer comes to Gainesville, I want to ask that all people of differing viewpoints take responsibility for themselves and the groups they have invited to attend the event."
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