Administrators Didn’t Defeat Richard Spencer, Campus and Community Organizers Did

The white nationalist “alt-right” movement has suffered massive setbacks over the past few weeks. After his plans for a “Michigan Alt-Right Conference” in Detroit fell apart, followed by his total flop of a speech to a near-empty auditorium at Michigan State University on March 5, Richard Spencer claimed he’s going to have to rethink his college tour. Apparently it just isn’t “fun” anymore.

For top administrators at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan (which has yet to offer a definitive response to Spencer’s outstanding request to speak) this is pretty much the best outcome they could have hoped for. However, it has been worrisome, to say the least, to see university administrators, faculty and others celebrating — or even taking credit for — Spencer’s defeat without acknowledging the campus and community organizers who actually defeated him.

The retreat of the US’s most infamous white nationalist didn’t happen on its own. It didn’t happen because people just ignored the imminent threat of “alt-right” bile and fascist violence. And it didn’t happen because administrators at Michigan State University somehow outsmarted all the white supremacists who showed up to East Lansing on March 5. It happened because, on that day, and for months prior, campus and community organizers resisted.

It was scathingly cold outside in East Lansing when Spencer was preparing to speak. Hundreds of protestors huddled together for warmth, surrounded by countless police officers, when the neo-Nazis began marching toward us in lockstep, looking for a fight. Because protesters got in their way, because they identified the neo-Nazis and declared together that their visions of “ethnic cleansing” and apartheid were not welcome, many of Spencer’s white-supremacist and neo-fascist followers eventually disbursed and retreated. A few were arrested, too.

Many different groups and individuals, including antifa, were there protesting: young people, old people, students, parents, staff, non-university-affiliated members of the community and veteran activists, along with others who were doing this for the first time. But the demonstration by no means consisted of what Spencer has suggested was a homogeneous antifa “riot.” However, by showing up, by looking out for one another, by exercising their First Amendment rights to take a stand against Spencer’s hateful poison and his violent supporters, everyone participating was an antifascist.

News coverage naturally fixated on the violent scuffles that broke out, but by and large, the protests throughout the day were peaceful. The vast majority of activities involved music, dancing, marching, conversing with and checking in on each other, passing out food and water bottles, staying warm, etc. Some violent clashes did occur, not because protesters wanted violence, but because they put themselves on the line to confront people whose worldview — as repeatedly proven by their words and their actions — revolves around violence.

It should not be forgotten that university administrators at Michigan State and the University of Michigan, in determining how to field Spencer’s requests to speak on their campuses, were fully aware that he brings such violence with him. As University of Michigan Regent Denise Ilitch publicly noted to her colleagues, “Violence follows [Spencer] wherever he goes.” As opposed to Ohio State University, Penn State and Kent State — all of which refused Spencer’s requests to speak on their campuses and cited safety concerns — Michigan State University and the University of Michigan ultimately caved to Spencer’s legal threats and opted to play the sly card instead.

In the hopes of mitigating the damage they must have assumed would be coming, administrators at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan offered Spencer’s team less than desirably located facilities on dates overlapping with their spring or summer breaks, encouraging everyone else to stay away. For the community members, university employees and the many students who are simply unable to skip town when (with university permission) it’s invaded by fascists and white supremacists, administrators’ responses were plain: “ignore” it and hope for the best.

Looking at the results of Spencer’s dud of a speech at Michigan State University, reasonable people could surmise that, in fact, these cunning tactics from the university administration worked. But the failure of Spencer’s event — which capped off a bad day in the middle of what was, for him and his supporters, a very bad week — came in spite of the administration’s approach, not because of it.

Had the many groups involved not mobilized support from around the region, had they not collaborated to publicize information about Spencer’s associates and their plans for an “alt-right conference” and lavish cocktail party in Detroit, had they not risked their own safety to bar members of the Traditionalist Worker Party from getting into the venue, had they “just ignored” the threat, the headlines would be much different. The white supremacists and neo-fascists would have enjoyed their gatherings unimpeded, they would have successfully invaded and occupied campus space, and they would have continued to feel emboldened. Instead, the venues they booked cancelled on them, they were holed up in parking lots and hotel rooms cocktail-less, and they were unable to fill more than a row or two in the venue for Spencer’s speech. Prominent members of their groups, including Kyle Bristow, have resigned, and the Traditionalist Worker Party has imploded. All this occurred because anti-fascist activists resisted.

The success of these protest efforts is a victory for anti-fascism as well as for anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-xenophobia, anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia. But it is more than that. More than a purely reactive, anti-something politics, the tireless organizing and collective action from groups like the #StopSpencer coalitions at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan demonstrate the success of an affirmative vision for a community bound together by shared commitments to equality, justice and protecting thy neighbor. This is a victory, however localized, for the kind of just, principled society that is never a given, but has to be seized and fought for by regular citizens.

It is crucial to deny universities the chance to cynically claim and repurpose the results of these grassroots efforts to justify their own administrative inaction. Top administrators at universities like Michigan State University and the University of Michigan have made enormously consequential decisions regarding Spencer, which have endangered the communities they’re supposed to serve, while only paying lip service to the concerns expressed by the communities themselves.

At the same time, though, the refusal of administrators to protect their campus communities has catalyzed a response from many undergrad and grad students, faculty, staff and community members to take matters into their own hands. Instead of limiting their political options to filing grievances with universities’ paternalistic, unelected administrative bureaucracy, disparate groups across campus communities have begun working together to provide for themselves the care, support, safety, solidarity and mutual aid they need.

In the process, these diverse coalitions have, by necessity, started working out ways to overcome their wide ideological differences to collectively resist fascism and white supremacy while also supporting each other’s intersecting struggles against discrimination, exploitation, hunger, police brutality, etc. These anti-racist, anti-fascist coalitions are an undeniable silver lining of the current campus culture wars, and they paint a much different portrait of campus politics than the one that dominates the mainstream today concerning student flare-ups over safe spaces and trigger warnings.

These coalitions are coming together out of common commitments to resist fascism and white supremacy, but they are, in turn, building the infrastructure for autonomous, grassroots efforts by campus communities to provide for themselves what university and municipal authorities won’t. And perhaps it is because of the threat that these coalitions pose to the top-down administrative power structure at universities that many administrators are rushing to co-opt and pass off community organizing victories as their own.