This post was updated at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, March 6.
Two days of tension surrounding white supremacist Richard Spencer’s visit to Michigan erupted in violence ahead of his speech at Michigan State University Monday, marking another blow to the alt-right movement as it continues to struggle to come out of the shadows.
Punching and shoving broke out between Spencer’s supporters and a mass of protesters congregated outside the agricultural pavilion where the white supremacist was to take the floor. The confrontation began after police intervened in a way that forced a line of members of a neo-Nazi group to bypass the crowd of several hundred protesters in order to enter the event.
More than a dozen people were arrested, according Michigan State University Police, many of them members of Antifa, or the anti-fascist movement. Prominent alt-right leader Gregory Conte was also arrested. MSU campus police spokesman Doug Monett reported there were no injuries.
Each side blamed the other for inciting the violence, but ultimately, those gathered to protest Spencer saw their blockade as a success.
“We were pretty effective at putting people in front of the people trying to enter … and denying them,” said Huron Valley Democratic Socialists of America member Dan Michniewicz. “If the purpose is gonna be a symbolic thing, that we don’t want to have this in our communities, it seems like it’s been effective.”
Only about four dozen people, including members of the media, made it to see Spencer at MSU’s Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock. Inside, Spencer was gesticulating like a cut-rate magician as he described a perceived “war on the white race,” and the need for a white ethno state. Spencer has in the past said the U.S. could achieve this through a “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”
“We are being attacked and dispossessed on the level of race and therefore we have to fight this on the level of race,” Spencer told those gathered.
But much of Spencer’s commentary was focused on addressing the forces that kept him from talking to any significant number of people, when he said more than 300 tickets had been issued for the event (Metro Times’ tickets were numbered 349 and 350). The alt-right movement has so far lived mostly in the shadows of the internet, and efforts to go public have gone awry. Prior to the clashes at MSU, anti-fascist protesters all but shut Spencer down as he spoke at the University of Florida in October, heckling him to the point that he was unable to successfully give the talk. In August, the infamous tiki-torch rally hosted by Spencer in Charlottesville, Virginia was met with massive protests. The weekend ended when a 20-year-old who appeared aligned with a white supremacist group rammed a car into a crowd of demonstrators, killing one of them.
The latest marred speaking event comes on the heels of a failed attempt by the alt-right to hold a secret conference in metro Detroit, where Spencer was also due to speak. Within minutes of the Sunday release of a leaked itinerary for the conference for the Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas, word came that the two local establishments listed — the German-style Carpathia Club in Sterling Heights and the bar Tipsy McStaggers in Warren — were cancelling on the group. Conference coordinators were sent scrambling for new locations to host their gathering, and Sunday night, would-be attendees were spotted idling in the parking lots of big box stores in Ann Arbor waiting for a shuttle to take them to a new, secret destination outside metro Detroit.
When asked by Metro Times whether the string of defeats suggested his movement was in disarray, Spencer sought to put a sunny face on things, but ultimately conceded that the alt-right has been weakened since the attack in Charlottesville.
“There’s a difference between defeats and being defeated,” he said. “I’m here, I’m talking to everyone, people who got punched in the face made it in … but yes, we are in a really tough state.”
Spencer went on to explain that payment processing and social media platforms have barred members of the movement from doing business. Securing public venues for speaking engagements has also been a challenge, as evidenced by the legal back and forth that surrounded his talk at MSU. At first, the university refused to grant him permission to rent space to speak, but eventually caved as part of a settlement of a subsequent lawsuit. That suit was brought by alt-right Macomb County attorney Kyle Bristow, who cut ties with the movement over the weekend, two days after his racist rantings were publicized in a report by Metro Times.
Still, Spencer said he was steadfast in his mission to bring his inflammatory movement into the public realm.
“We need to get beyond being anonymous meme warriors and we need to understand this is serious,” he told his supporters. “We are going through the birth pangs of entering the real world. It hurts to enter the real world, when babies come out they are crying and screaming.”
Anti-fascist organizers are to thank for a large part of that difficulty, though there have been debates over the movement’s willingness to resort to violence in its larger mission to promote peace and inclusivity. The argument for violence however, is that it amounts to self-defense in the face of a movement that advocates for ethnic cleansing and counts neo-Nazis among its members.
“We’re here because we wanna look future generations in the eye and say we didn’t go down without a fucking fight,” said a female DSA member whose face was hidden behind a bandana.
Michael Horwitz, an older man from Lansing who had come out to protest, said he felt he had no choice but to “stand up and face” the white supremacists.
“A lot of people say stay away and it won’t be anything if everyone ignores it, but I don’t think so because that’s just letting them organize and do their thing.”
It’s not clear exactly who began the fighting on Monday. The antifa protesters, clad in face masks and helmets, closed in on the white supremacists as they approached, shouting “Nazis go home.” Video taken at the front line of the confrontation appears to show a protester throwing his body weight into a member of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party, who shoves him off as he continues to march. That exchange appeared to mark the opening salvo in the altercations.
Multiple white supremacists accused the police of failing to provide proper protection. The Detroit News reported that Conte, the alt-right leader who was arrested, shouted at police that they had “no plan” to control the crowd, “just like Charlottesville.” On the other side, protesters argued the police had afforded the white supremacists too much protection. After the fighting broke out, groups of cops were seen escorting Spencer supporters into the conference one by one.
As for why police allowed for the groups to confront one another in the first place, a Michigan State Police officer told Metro Times that the initial plan was to have the anti-fascist protesters in an area away from the agricultural pavilion, but the protesters, who had gathered hours before the talk, migrated toward the front of the building. Campus police spokesman Monett would not confirm or deny that, saying it was an “operational piece” he “could not get into.”
Charges against the more than dozen people arrested on both sides range from obstruction of justice to illegal weapons. On Sunday night, an attendee of the precursory alt-right conference was also allegedly found carrying an illegal weapon.