Violent clashes accompany Spencer speech at MSU

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

East Lansing — Violence erupted Monday at Michigan State University as a group of white nationalists attempted to march through protesters outside a speech by Richard Spencer, who told supporters he sees “a war against the white race.”

Matthew Heimbach, top, leader of the white nationalist Traditional Workers Party, throws a protester to the ground.

“Inclusion, diversity, this is the new morality at the end of history,” Spencer said in his speech, according to a livestream that showed him pacing as he spoke. “It is a war against the white race, but it is a war nonetheless.”

MSU Police Capt. Doug Monette said a total of 24 people were arrested near the Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education, a remote area of campus where Spencer spoke. Some of the charges include hindering and obstructing as well as weapons violations, he said.

According to MSU Police, about 500 people gathered outside the venue to protest Spencer’s speech, leading chants against “Nazis” and the “KKK.” Some wore scarves covering their faces. Others  displayed colorful protest signs.

Spencer opened his remarks by acknowledging that the “chaos” outside — which he blamed on the protesters and anti-fascists — kept many supporters away and left him speaking to a sparse crowd.

“They are nasty, nasty people,” he said. “This is exactly what they want. And they want to blame violence and Nazis for whatever nonsense they want to talk about.”

Gregory Conte, a Spencer ally and director of operations at the National Policy Institute, was among those handcuffed and placed in an Ingham County Sheriff’s Office van after he sprinted between protesters gathered outside the venue.

A police officer had asked Conte to stop, saying his actions could cause violence, before tackling him to the ground.

Conte shouted at police officers minutes earlier, yelling “you have no plan” to control the crowd, “just like Charlottesville.” Protesters also berated police trying to keep the peace, accusing them of “defending Nazis,” and formed a human barricade to block an armored vehicle.

While activists on both sides appeared to throw punches, protester Meeko Williams accused white nationalists of starting the violence.

“They pushed one of the people, and then push come to shove and it just turned into a free for all,” Williams said.

“That’s what they do. This is what Richard Spencer entices, it’s what he likes, this is what makes him popular. They just want to disrupt everything, but we disrupted their whole conference.”

MSU initially refused to rent space to Spencer for the speech, citing public safety concerns in the wake of the violent Virginia rally. The university in January reached a court settlement with Spencer associate Cameron Padgett, who had sued for access and was required to pay a $1,600 rental fee and obtain a minimum of $1 million in liability insurance for the event.

Spencer pointed to a vote last week by South Africa’s parliament to seize land from white farmers without compensation as an example of how whites are being persecuted. Until the early 1990s, South Africa was ruled by a white minority government despite most of the population being black.

“I don’t know where this culture is going to end up. ... I’m not sure whether we won’t end up in a kind of hot war, an openly declared war that is currently begin waged on South African whites,” Spencer said.

According to Spencer, white people are under siege from forces promoting multiculturalism.

“It’s getting more difficult to be legally, proudly white,” he said. “It’s getting more difficult to be morally, proudly white.”

Later, Spencer said, even President Donald Trump’s proposed restrictions on immigration would not preserve a white majority in the U.S.

“You are going to have to come with us if you want to live. ... we are going to have to create a real movement in the real world,” Spencer said.

He added: “I have never gained anything in my life or my career by watering it down to be just a little bit more palatable. The meek shall never inherit the Earth. ... People who are bold and strong will always dominate.”

Earlier, with a marching band blaring, an electric crowd outside the venue vacillated between “no KKK” chants, “(expletive) Nazi” interjections and impromptu dance circles.

“They don’t want free speech; they want to create a genocidal movement,” organizer Pete Johnson said of Spencer and his white nationalist supporters. “What they’re trying to do today is organize, and what we’re doing is trying to make sure they don’t have a place to organize. If they don’t have a place to organize, they can’t build their movement.”

The afternoon rally that moved between parking lots near Mount Hope and Farm Lane was initially peaceful, but Johnson called it a form of “community self-defense” in opposition to white supremacists he said are known to use violence.

“We fully oppose the violence of the Nazis in addition to the structural violence of racism broadly, which pervades our society,” he said. Protesters include “people who support a diversity of tactics in opposing that violence.”

Katie Kuhn, a 48-year-old from Lansing who led protesters in anti-Nazi chants, said she thinks strength in numbers can drown out Spencer’s message.

“I’m very concerned by the amount of hate and fear that’s happening, that’s being spread by the government and white supremacist groups,” she said. “It’s our duty to stand up for justice and peace, to come together.”

The Detroit News and several other Michigan media outlets were denied credentials for Spencer’s speech. Organizers screened attendees and promised to distribute tickets at an undisclosed “secure location” ahead of the speech, Spencer said in a video posted to Twitter.

“In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to do this, you could show up five minutes ahead of time, but we’re dealing with serious security concerns,” Spencer said.

The legal agreement with MSU allowing the speech prohibited Padgett from planning or organizing any rally or demonstration at MSU in connection with Spencer’s appearance. Spencer associates are also trying to negotiate a date for him to appear at the University of Michigan.

The speech attracted a large law enforcement presence, including officers from the state police, Lansing, East Lansing, Ingham County and Eaton County agencies. They deployed armored vehicles and horses. Helicopters flew overhead and an electronic sign on Mount Hope reminded visitors that firearms are not allowed on campus.

Jacob Osojnak, an MSU graduate who lives in Naperville, Illinois, drove several hours with his 15-year-old daughter to join the protest in East Lansing.

“I just wanted to let everyone know that hate has no place at Michigan State,” Osojnak said. “I’m a proud alum of the university and wanted to show support by demonstrating for what I think is right.”

Erin Connolly, a recent MSU graduate, said she was concerned about potential violence but noted that organizers had their own security volunteers street medics in case of injuries.

“It sucks because nobody wanted (Spencer) to be here,” she said. “It feels a little bit like an attack because we have an outside person coming here who does preach like genocide and really, really hateful views, so we’re trying to protect ourselves from this outside threat.”

Connolly said she thought the university settled Padgett’s lawsuit too quickly in order to avoid legal costs or unwanted attention.

“MSU has a lot of problems that it needs to fix,” she said. “We’ve seen that with the recent (Larry) Nassar case, and for me, this is another example of the administration putting their own interests head of student safety.”

In an email Friday to the campus community, interim MSU President John Engler said the event’s timing, during the school’s spring break, and remote location should limit the risk of violence.

“Our staff found a way to keep safety as a top priority without abrogating First Amendment-protected speech, which in this case is plainly loathsome and in opposition to our values,” he said. “I want to assure everyone that MSU police are taking all appropriate security measures.”

Staff Writer Mark Hicks and freelance writer Jack Nissen contributed.