A leader of the so-called alt-right movement delivered a fiery message of white nationalism at Texas A&M University on Tuesday evening, while a university-sponsored counter-protest taking place simultaneously at the football stadium pointed to diversity as one of America’s great strengths.
Richard Spencer, who has become something of a poster boy for the alternative right, a creed that critics say is leavened with elements of anti-Semitism and white supremacy, spoke for two hours to a frequently raucous crowd of about 400 people at the Memorial Student Center. On a couple of occasions, alt-right adherents and opponents nearly came to blows, with police officers stepping in and Spencer pleading for calm.
Spencer defended the Nazi-style salute, which some of his followers flashed last month, as mere irony, and he said the United States belongs to white people — “culturally, socially and politically.” He added, “America at the end of the day belongs to white men.”
Across the street at Kyle Field, A&M System Chancellor John Sharp and campus President Michael K. Young characterized diversity as a strength to be embraced at a rally dubbed “Aggies United.”
“I know of no God who sees in races,” Young said. “Our differences enrich us. Our differences make us much stronger.”
Sharp told how his father, wounded in World War II, was dragged to safety by another soldier who was probably Hispanic “because he was cussing in Spanish the whole way.”
“I would not be here if not for that man,” Sharp said.
As the two events took place, a third scene unfolded outside the student center, as several hundred people protested Spencer’s appearance. Some of them entered the student center, coming face to face with Texas Department of Public Safety troopers in full riot gear who pushed them back out.
Students who were studying and socializing in the building were also ushered out, and officers on horseback cleared most of the street between the student center and the stadium. There appeared to be no arrests, and no injuries were reported.
At a news conference earlier in the day, Spencer called white hipsters hypocrites, said Jews maintained their identity by excluding other groups and declared that feminism leads women to “wake up, they’re 45, and they live with cats.”
Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, who attended the news conference, said Jews historically were forced to live in ghettos. “It wasn’t by choice that Jews did not assimilate” in many countries, he said.
The Dallas-raised Spencer, who runs a think tank called the National Policy Institute, told the American-Statesman in an interview that he was “a little bit surprised” by A&M’s response, which he described as an overreaction and an effort to drown him out.
“It ultimately strengthens the alt-right and strengthens me,” Spencer said. “They are declaring that we are so powerful that they must have … diversity rituals at football stadiums. It’s a lot better than being ignored.”
In his speech, which was frequently interrupted by shouts of derision and occasionally by applause, Spencer said he likes President-elect Donald Trump because “he was the first step toward white identity politics in the United States.” And although “I was euphoric” on election night, Spencer said, he worries that Trump will become “just another Republican.”
The president-elect has disavowed and condemned the alt-right, although he seemed to embrace it during the campaign. He has named Steve Bannon, former CEO of the conservative news outlet Breitbart, as his chief strategist in the White House, further elevating the movement’s profile. Bannon has called Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right.”
Spencer seemed to delight in making fun of his critics during his speech and in a question-and-answer session that followed, calling one woman autistic and suggesting that another — who was dressed like a clown and carried a sign that said, “He’s the real Bozo” — needed to lose some weight.
Courtney Kiolbassa, an A&M junior majoring in English, was among those who quietly held signs on the sidewalk outside. Hers read, “Catholics against racism — John 15:12,” referring to a passage in the New Testament in which Jesus tells his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Kiolbassa said even people who think they aren’t prejudiced need to confront their implicit, or unconscious, bias. “We’re all raised with some form of prejudice,” she said.
Nearby, Houston resident Will Fears, an adherent of the alt-right, wore a black on black suit, shirt and tie and carried a sign with a drawing of Pepe, a cartoon frog that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, has been appropriated in some circles for anti-Semitic and racist themes. To onlookers who seemed curious, Fears asked cryptically if they were “Stormers” or “European.”
“We believe anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism — these are buzz words to silence the alt-right,” Fears said.
Amelia Hammond, a 21-year-old anthropology major, who showed up at Kyle Field, said, “We came to protest the rhetoric of white supremacists on campus. I don’t’ think it’s enough to dislike it (only) in this particular situation because I think it could be the beginning of a more serious movement if this rhetoric is tolerated here today.”