Thousands of protesters chanted “we don’t want your Nazi hate” and “go home Nazis” as prominent white supremacist Richard Spencer delivered a speech in Florida on Thursday.
The white supremacist was speaking at the university in Gainesville, which prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency to prepare for possible conflict.
The event came just over two months after rallies by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, led to a deadly clash with counter-protesters and the death of Heather Heyer.
While violence did flare up in Florida, leaving five people with minor injuries, there were also heart felt displays of unity, with pictures emerging of a black man hugging a skinhead in a t-shirt branded with swastikas.
The neo-Nazi had been taunted, pushed and punched, as he waded into the crowd before finally being embraced by one protester who intervened.
“Give me a fucking hug”, the protester told the neo-Nazi, named in some reports as Randy Furniss from Idaho, before adding: “Why you don’t like me, bro? Huh? What is it? What is it?”
Furniss was initially taken aback, but embraced the man as crowds of people cheered. Furniss was said to have been removed from the event a short time later after being assaulted again.
White supremacists have been working to bring Spencer to various public universities, saying he has a constitutional right to free speech. The effort has forced college leaders to allow what they see as hate speech on campus and provide security to prevent violent clashes.
The event was mostly peaceful, the university said, but two people were arrested, including a man hired as security for media for illegally carrying a firearm on campus, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office said.
Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe was among many speaking out against the white supremacist.
“We need to live our lives as normal and not let this disrupt us,” Poe told HuffPost. “Because that’s what terrorists do ― they want to disrupt your life, they want to get into your psyche and make you afraid to live a normal, free life.”
When asked if he considers Spencer is a terrorist, the mayor said, “Absolutely, there’s no question.”
“He absolutely intends to create terror in people and that’s his tactic,” Poe said. “There’s no question that he is a terrorist leader and that his followers look to commit acts of terror to disrupt our community.”
Inside the venue, Spencer and protesters yelled at one another, and he criticised them for trying to suppress his speech.
“I’m not going home,” said Spencer, who heads the National Policy Institute, a nationalist think tank.
“We are stronger than you and you all know it!”
Spencer appeared to have few supporters in the crowd. About 15 white men, all dressed in white shirts and khaki pants, raised their hands when he asked who identified with the alt-right, a loose grouping characterised by a rejection of mainstream politics that includes neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites.
Spencer left the campus soon after the event ended. Police worked to separate those who attended the event as they left the venue from protesters gathered nearby.
Anais Edwards, 26, was inside the venue and supported those trying to disrupt Spencer.
“I’m really proud of how our community came together. Many of them were willing to stand up and not let him speak,” she said.
The university said it did not invite Spencer to speak but was obligated by law to allow the event. The school said it would spend more than $500,000 (£380,000) on security, and the National Policy Institute is paying more than $10,000 (£7,600) to rent the facility and for security within the venue.
“Despite our worst fears of violence, the University of Florida and the Gainesville community showed the world that love wins,” University of Florida President Kent Fuchs said in a statement after the event.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors US hate groups, said Spencer was “a radical white separatist whose goal is the establishment of a white ethno-state in North America.”
On Wednesday night, Spencer balked when HuffPost asserted he was a Nazi. “I’m not a Nazi,” he said. “How am I Nazi? At no point in my life have I ever been a Nazi. This is just a slur word.”
Spencer has been seen in multiple videos giving Nazi salutes. He and his supporters chanted Nazi slogans in Charlottesville.
An outspoken supporter of Trump during the 2016 campaign, Spencer rose from relative obscurity after widely circulated videos showed some Trump supporters giving Nazi-style salutes to Spencer during a gathering in Washington to celebrate the Republican candidate’s win. Trump condemned the meeting.