When white nationalist Richard Spencer took the stage at Texas A&M University on Tuesday, about two dozen of the 400 people in the room stood and applauded. Many others hissed.
“That means you love me,” he said to the hecklers. “Hisssss back to all of y’all.”
That was how the evening went. For half a day, the area around A&M’s Memorial Student Center was consumed by the presence of Spencer, who has become famous as a leader of the racially tinged political movement known as the “alt-right.” A handful of people came to show their support. Hundreds of others protested his message. Tension was high, and at times it seemed like it might spiral into violence.
Spencer spoke for more than an hour, calling for white people to embrace an identity and retake control of America. Twice, skirmishes broke out as audience members shoved each other and jostled for position near the stage. Meanwhile, protestors outside the event surrounded some of the entrances to the student center. Police in riot gear eventually blocked off the doors and cleared out the rest of the building.
“This is our goddamn country,” Spencer shouted at one point, raising his fist in the air.
He spoke calmly, often with a smirk. But the hecklers did grab his attention and he responded to many of their taunts. Throughout the speech, a woman dressed a clown suit wandered through the room holding signs with messages like “He’s the Bozo.”
When she passed in front of the stage, Spencer said, “She’s dancing. Perhaps she will lose some weight.”
Later he addressed a man wearing a shirt that said “BTHO Hate.” The shirt was a reference to a football cheer that A&M fans commonly yell — hoping to “beat the hell outta” the team they are playing. Spencer said the shirt incited violence, and asked why the man wasn’t attacking him.
“You are white coward,” he said. “You are not even willing to do that. That t-shirt is total bullshit. You are not even willing to go to the gym. Look at how fat you are.”
Mostly, though, he focused on his message, which was that white people were responsible for building America and should reclaim it as their own.
“We conquered this continent,” he said. “Whether it is nice to say that at all, we won and we got to define what America means. And we got to define what this continent means. America, at the end of the day, belongs to the white man.”
Meanwhile, protestors surrounded the building outside, leading police officers in riot gear to form a wall in front of some entrances. And in the football stadium across the street, school leaders preached a message of inclusion and tolerance.
A school-sanctioned counter event at Kyle Field featured a string quartet made up of black faculty members. The quartet performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song often referred to as the Black American national anthem. Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp denounced Spencer.
“If you’re a purveyor of hate and divisiveness … this is the last campus on earth you want to come to,” Sharp said.
The tension surrounding the event could be felt for hours before Spencer spoke. Police blocked off a road and a large part of the Memorial Student Center around where Spencer was speaking. And protesters showed up in droves.
A&M officials made clear that they didn’t invite Spencer. A local white nationalist, Preston Wiginton, rented the room, and the school said it didn’t have the right to deny him due to his message. Spencer’s talk began at 7 p.m. and lasted for two hours. When the clock struck 9 p.m., the event was immediately shut down and attendees were asked to leave.
The protests varied in location and tone. On one side of the student center, there was a silent protest that included students and community members holding signs that denounced hate. About 100 yards away, there was a noisier rally. Protesters there tooted trumpets and hummed into kazoos. They chanted slogans like “Say it loud, say it clear, Spencer is not welcome here.”
Protesters said they wanted to make sure people knew that the vast majority of people on the A&M campus did not share Spencer’s views.
“He has a right to speak, but so do I — and I am going to speak louder,” said Kayclyn Hargrave, who said she didn’t attend A&M but lives near the campus. She was holding a sign that said, “Laundry is the only thing that should be separated by color.”
Spencer’s speech generated national attention. Dozens of media members from across the state and world attended the talk — including a television crew from France. Wiginton, the event organizer, capped the number of news cameras allowed to record the event. Those allowed included ABC, NBC, CNN and Al Jazeera.
But many students seemed to try to ignore the event. Before the student center was cleared, many students inside were studying or chatting with friends. Someone played a piano in a hotel lobby-like lounge until everyone had left.
“I think he feeds off the attention, which is partially why he’s here,” said one student, Garrett Reed, a sophomore. “Being out there doesn’t do anything.”