“Today Charlottesville, Tomorrow Texas A&M.”
That was the headline on a text message over the weekend from a right-wing activist announcing plans for a “White Lives Matter” event with white nationalist and white supremacist figures speaking at the College Station campus Sept. 11. That news sent ripples of concern through Aggie Nation, the Texas Legislature and the wider world, owing to the violence that erupted over the weekend in connection with a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
By Monday, some state lawmakers from both parties were calling on A&M to block the rally. Gov. Greg Abbott, who had tweeted over the weekend, “The racist & hateful violence in #Charlottesville is un-American & unacceptable,” also did not want the rally to go forward. And by early evening, A&M System Chancellor John Sharp had sent word to Rep. John Raney, R-College Station, that it was canceled because of safety concerns.
Raney announced the cancellation on the House floor, adding that university officials were alarmed by online hate messages, including some by people saying they would bring weapons to the rally, planned for Rudder Plaza in the heart of the College Station campus.
“Linking the tragedy of Charlottesville with the Texas A&M event creates a major security risk on our campus,” the university said in a news release. “Additionally, the daylong event would provide disruption to our class schedules and to student, faculty and staff movement (both bus system and pedestrian).”
A&M said its support of the First Amendment and freedom of speech “cannot be questioned,” noting that it allowed Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who had been scheduled to speak at the event, to deliver an address on campus in December.
“However, in this case, circumstances and information relating to the event have changed and the risks of threat to life and safety compel us to cancel the event,” A&M said.
Preston Wiginton, the activist who was organizing the “White Lives Matter” event and sent out the message announcing it, said the cancellation is “an embarrassment to free speech in America,” adding, “It states that white lives don’t matter.” He said he might sue the university.
Earlier Monday, Wiginton said he didn’t know of the upcoming Charlottesville event three months ago when he was planning the rally at A&M. He said the rally was intended to be peaceful, and he expressed confidence that law enforcement officials would prevent violent clashes.
“We’re not there to spew hate. We’re not there to spew violence,” he said.
Adam Key, a doctoral student in communication at A&M who had been planning a counterprotest for Sept. 11, applauded the cancellation but said would-be counterprotesters still plan to organize that day to celebrate “Aggie commitment to inclusion and diversity.” He added, “We plan to take a space that was intended for hate and hold an event dedicated to our love of our fellow human being.”
Calls on A&M to cancel the “White Lives Matter” event came from Republican and Democratic officials in Texas alike.
John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, said the state’s chief executive had been working with A&M “to prevent the type of hate-filled event that we saw in Charlottesville. Gov. Abbott’s top goal is to ensure the safety and security of Texans and Texas A&M students.”
Dallas Democratic Rep. Helen Giddings said during a House floor speech that A&M administrators should “unequivocally denounce and fight against” racist groups and that Texas should reject hate in all forms with one voice. Nearly every House member stood alongside her. Rep. Paul Workman, an Austin Republican, said a petition being circulated for A&M graduates in the House is attempting to “keep this from going on on our campus.”
A&M officials spent much of Monday planning their strategy. Until the announcement of the rally’s cancellation, they had offered no comment beyond that which Amy B. Smith, a university spokeswoman, made to The Battalion student newspaper early Saturday — that the views of Wiginton and those of the group he represents “are counter to the core values of Texas A&M.”
White supremacists are emboldened after the bloody weekend in Virginia that saw one woman killed and numerous other people injured when a man with neo-Nazi ties allegedly drove his car into a group countering the white nationalists. In addition, two state troopers died in a helicopter crash while monitoring developments. The white nationalists, who were protesting the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, contend that leftists precipitated the violence by throwing urine-filled balloons and otherwise engaging roughly.
“It was a huge moral victory in terms of the show of force,” Spencer told The New York Times.
The University of Florida said Spencer is seeking permission to speak there next month. A neo-Confederate group has asked the state of Virginia for permission to rally at a monument to Lee in Richmond on Sept. 16.
“We’re going to be more active than ever before,” said Matthew Heimbach, a white supremacist leader.
President Donald Trump on Monday condemned the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and white supremacists as “criminals and thugs.” He had been under growing pressure to more forcefully and explicitly denounce such groups after initially blaming “many sides” for the unrest in Charlottesville. White supremacists sided with Trump during his campaign and were also fond of him before then, when he falsely questioned whether former President Barack Obama was born in the United States.
Former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke, who, like Spencer, attended the demonstrations in Charlottesville, told reporters that the white supremacists were working to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”
Additional material from staff writer Chuck Lindell and The Associated Press.