Texas A&M administrators were so outraged by the prospect of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer speaking on their campus that they worked quickly to organize a counter-event across the street at Kyle Field.
They booked popular entertainers and billed it as “Aggies United.” But little did they realize that A&M students and faculty would deliver a forceful rebuttal to Spencer in the very ballroom in which he hoped to recruit impressionable minds to a cause that promotes racist, anti-semitic, misogynistic and un-American views. Hundreds of Aggies attended the school’s official event and hundreds more protested Spencer’s presence in the street. The 400-seat ballroom inside the student center was also largely filled by protesters.
The overwhelming number of protesters suggested that Spencer’s “alt-right” movement that champions an “ethno-state” for European Americans remains a fringe element even as it gains a wider audience because of President-elect Donald Trump’s victory.
“I’ve seen [Spencer’s] things on the web, so I had a pretty negative opinion about him to start, but I’m a strong advocate of free speech,” said Alan Pepper, a biology professor at A&M for 21 years. “Really I wanted to be here because there’s always been stupidity and ignorance and people being offensive, but in the last year, and in particular the last three or four weeks, it seems like it’s become an OK thing to be stupid and offensive and ignorant. I really wanted to try to have a civil discourse about issues that are vital to everybody, to have an actual conversation, and I was fully prepared for that, but that wasn’t what was going to happen.”
Spencer, 38, spoke for 45 minutes, and students, many of minority backgrounds, challenged Spencer’s views throughout. In return, Spencer mostly mocked or insulted them rather than give thoughtful answers to their questions. For instance, Spencer, who was born in Boston and raised in Dallas, continually referred to himself as being European. A man seated in the front row said aloud that “European” is not a race. Then someone identified the man as a professor.
Spencer quickly shot back: “Oh, you’re a professor — that means you must be correct. Sure, Europe’s a place, it’s people, and it’s blood and it’s spirit. That’s much more important than some map. There’s Europeans all over the world. If we went into space we’d still be European.”
Later on, as Spencer, often snide and glib, tried to explain that race is deeper than genes and DNA, someone shouted, “It’s called a human race.” Again, Spencer was quick to retort: “That’s really original, man. I never heard that one before, that’s awesome.”
Speaking directly to the many people of color in the room, including a group of Hispanic students who stood along one wall with their fists raised, Spencer said: “People I don’t really have respect for, to be honest, are the kind of gutter-punks that spend their life protesting other people, that their life is so empty, so meaningless that they have to fill up that void with hatred of people who actually care about their identity. I’m referring to people like you.
“At the end of the day, do you see me protesting some Marxist gathering somewhere?”
That comment drew a hearty laugh from the crowd. It was unclear whether the makeup of the crowd surprised Spencer, who sprang to national attention thanks to a viral video from his Washington, D.C., rally shortly after Trump’s victory that showed Spencer’s supporters giving a Nazi salute.
“Personally, I wanted to come just to see what was being told or what ‘alt-right’ was all about,” said Kirbi Teague, a bio-environmental sciences major. “I’ve seen a couple of his speeches and disagree with a lot his views, and also if given the opportunity I wanted to voice my own opinion. I see a lot of their views are based on misinformation. It’s just not the right information, honestly, from a historical standpoint, a lot of the things they preach to one another has no factual basis.”
One long segment of Spencer’s speech appeared to particularly leave the audience confounded. Spencer was explaining that in his lifetime America had lost an essence, a people and a meaning, then said:
“America went from being a frontier to being a people. Then to being an economic platform for consumers from around the world. And let there be no doubt Americanization in this worst possible sense of the word, this is what Hillary Clinton was talking about when she said she wanted a hemispheric open market. This is what George Soros and Mark Zuckerberg want. They want an undifferentiated, global population, raceless, genderless, identityless, meaningless population, consuming sugar, consuming drugs while watching porn on VR goggles while they max out their credit card.”
The crowd burst out in laughter. And Spencer continued:
“Don’t deny that that is the kind of passive nihilism that so many in the elite class actually want. They want a world without roots, they want a world without meaning, they want a flat, gray-on-gray world, one economic market for them to manipulate. That’s what’s happening in the world. It isn’t just a great erasure of white people, it isn’t just an invasion of Europe, an invasion of the United States by the Third World, it is ultimately the destruction of all peoples and all cultures around the globe.”
Shortly after, Spencer wrapped things up before inviting questions. Pepper, wearing a maroon shirt that read in bold, white print “#BTHOHate” — BTHO is shorthand for the traditional Aggie yell “Beat The Hell Outta” followed by the name of A&M’s next opponent in college athletics — made his way near the front to ask Spencer his question. But before he could, Spencer verbally unleashed on Pepper.
“He told me that I was fat, that I should go to a gym,” Pepper said. “This is before I even spoke; I just walked up to the podium. I explained to him this shirt is a common thing at A&M, advocating a Texas A&M tradition. He saw the shirt and I think he made some assumptions about me based on what the shirt was and he decided I was good fodder for personal attacks rather than civil discourse.”
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan