GAINESVILLE, Fla. (Reuters) - Protesters shouted “Go home Nazis” as a white nationalist gave a speech on Thursday at the University of Florida, where hundreds of police set up barricades and separated supporters and demonstrators to guard against violence.
Richard Spencer’s event at the university in Gainesville, which prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency to prepare for possible conflict, came about two months after rallies by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, led to a deadly clash with counter-protesters.
The violence on Aug. 12 added fuel to a national debate on race, and Republican President Donald Trump came under fire for blaming both sides for the melee.
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.
On Thursday, several hundred protesters shouting: “We don’t want your Nazi hate” marched outside a campus performing arts centre where Spencer spoke.
The protests were mostly peaceful but there were a few scuffles that left five people with minor injuries, the university said in a statement.
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. Another man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with swastikas emerged from a crowd of protesters with a bloody lip.
Inside the venue, Spencer and protesters yelled at one another, and he criticized them for trying to suppress his speech.
“I’m not going home,” said Spencer, who heads the National Policy Institute, a nationalist think tank, and promoted the Charlottesville rally. “We are stronger than you and you all know it!”
He appeared to have few supporters in the crowd. About 15 white men, all dressed in white shirts and khaki pants, raised their hands when Spencer asked who identified with the alt-right, a loose grouping characterized by a rejection of mainstream politics that includes neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites.
Spencer left the campus soon after the event ended, university public safety officials said on Twitter. Police worked to separate those who attended the event as they left the venue from protesters gathered nearby.
One Spencer supporter appeared to have been sprayed in the face with an irritant. Police were not immediately available to speak about the incident.
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,” Edwards 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 on security, and the National Policy Institute is paying more than $10,000 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 U.S. hate groups, said Spencer was “a radical white separatist whose goal is the establishment of a white ethno-state in North America.”
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.
The death in Charlottesville, home to the flagship campus of the University of Virginia, occurred as counter-protesters were dispersing. A 20-year-old man who is said by law enforcement to have harboured Nazi sympathies drove his car into the crowd, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Reporting by Zachary Fagenson; Writing by Jon Herskovitz and Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney