Under the newly installed solar cells of Lot 89 at Michigan State University, drums and brass instruments sounded in the afternoon’s cold air. As MSU police observed, men and women, racially mixed and dressed mostly in black, many with masks or bandanas covering their faces, danced, laughed and smoked.
They had come to protest a white nationalist speech.
About a mile and half northeast another group met with smiles and handshakes in the parking lot of Meridian Mall, as township police looked on. They were all white, with many dressed in black. They were white nationalists and those interested in hearing white nationalist leader Richard Spencer speak.
The jovial atmosphere at both soon gave way to clashes under a torrent of thrown bottles, rocks and horse manure as protesters, white nationalist and police converged.
Those clashes resulted in 25 arrests and bloodied faces.
This was Spencer’s visit to MSU Monday. It was a battle of wills among curiosity seekers attempting to see what the white nationalist speaker might say, his supporters, anti-fascists and officers from 10 local law enforce- ment agencies. All sides have claimed victory from the event.
Spencer is the leader of the National Policy Institute who has been on a tour of college campuses across the nation, spreading the gospel of his “truth”: White people need their own ethnostate and the world was better when whites made all the rules.
At each campus appearance, he and his supporters have been met with protests that have often turned violent. Spencer supporter Cameron Padgett requested to rent the Kellogg Center and Hotel in the wake of the Charlottesville confrontation in August, the Unite the Right rally. That rally turned violent as white nationalists and protesters fought in the streets. One protester died when she was hit by a car driven by a white nationalist supporter.
MSU denied the request, citing concerns about campus safety and security, but Padgett sued in federal court and won the March 5 date for the event, during MSU’s spring break. To attend, one needed a ticket printed by MSU but distributed by the National Policy Institute’s director of operations, Gregory Conte.
Conte met supporters at the Meridian Mall parking lot outside Macy’s. Mall General Manager Todd Huhn said the mall had not given the nationalists permission to use the lot and was unaware of the plan until contacted by Meridian Township Police. He refused to allow media to take photos or do interviews in the lot while tickets were being distributed under the watchful eye of four Meridian Township officers.
Meridian Township Police Chief Dave Hall said by email early Monday morning he was unaware of the ticket distribution plan either until City Pulse asked about it.
Back at MSU, violence seemed inevitable as police attempted to funnel ticket holders for the speech through the aggressive crowd of anti-fascists screaming “Nazis go home!” to anyone attempting to traverse the north parking lot of the Pavilion to the police security checkpoint.
Nick Lemmer, a Lansing area resident, and Quinten Mahoney, an Albion College student, agreed to attend Spencer’s speech for City Pulse. Members of the media were barred.
“It was weird, very kind of nerve wracking, because the first thing that happens as soon as I get to the protest is some Antifa just come up to me to make sure I was there for the protest and not with Spencer,” said Lemmer.”It was just a very aggressive start getting to the protest right off the bat.”
Mahoney echoed that experience, but he also noted that because he had been protesting against Spencer, he had concerns he would be identified in the Spencer speech. “All it took was one person that saw me protesting it to see me in the actual event and I was in a whole lot of trouble,” Mahoney said.
Before going in the event, both were in the area of the protests. Mahoney watched his brother, Aaron, be arrested by police. He also saw the mayhem that ensued when law enforcement allowed a group of about 35 white nationalists march in formation from Commuter Lot 89 down Farm Lane toward the Pavilion. The formation was led by Conte and the leader of the white nationalist Traditonalist Workers’ Party, Matthew Heimbach.
The group stopped beside a Michigan State Police vehicle to tighten its formation about 100 feet from protesters. They then began marching towards protesters, and the protesters came toward them. Police made no move to block the pathway of either group.
Officers moved in and separated the groups after a melee broke out. The white nationalists used that as an opportunity to re-form and attempt to advance through the protesters again. “You have a plan, and you aren’t following it, Just like in Charlottesville,” Conte screamed at police as the group tried to advance. Again it was met with violence.
Law enforcement finally moved in and cleared the street using batons and bikes. The nationalists retreated to the commuter lot, where they had parked. They were met there by protesters and another melee broke out.
“It was chaotic” said Theresa Rosado, a freelancer for City Pulse who witnessed and photographed the fight at the lot. “There were cars squealing out there and fighting.” As the clashes lessened, Lemmer said police searched those trying to attend the speech itself.
“They’re just like, ‘Unzip your jacket! Arms up! If you have anything in your pockets you wanna declare,’” Lemmer said of his contact with police. “They were very clearly ready for something to go down, but they were definitely kind of on-edge.”
That edge may have resulted from the earlier clashes among police, protesters and white nationalists on Farm Lane. With access to the checkpoint choked off from the east along an access drive to the building and from the parking lot full of protesters, officers were still confronted with how to get people into the Pavilion to hear Spencer speak.
That’s when officers began forming phalanxes to surrounding ticket holders and rush them through the hostile crowd of protesters. Some protesters hurled rocks and other projectiles, while others tried to stop the phalanx from moving.
Inside, Spencer held his 4:30 start time.
He started his speech about 5 p.m. and there were no issues inside, reported Mahoney and Lemmer.
“If I’m being very honest, especially with all the chaos outside, getting into the building, it was just kind of dead silent I think, just as people are trying to get in,” said Mahoney.
Lemmer compared it to the quiet of a church before service.
That speech was an eye opener for both of them. They’d never heard white nationalists speak about their beliefs.
“I guess the weirdest part was sitting down and listening to somebody say things that you always imagined, like when people are joking, or trolling, or their just trying to get a rise,” said Lemmer. “And this was somebody actually arguing for just ridiculous things that just obviously aren’t true.”
Asked what specifically, Lemmer responded, “Like that it’s OK that we had slaves because it made us a stronger nation and white people are the majority so it was okay to do those kinds of things.”
Entering the space where the speech would happen was somewhat intimidating both men said, with the chaos raging outside, a heavy police presence inside and silence combined with walking into a room with an avowed white nationalist. But that dissipated.
“The people there were pretty non-threatening. It was obvious that they weren’t the people that the alt-right were going to try to use in the charge,” Mahoney said. “They were people that couldn’t fight. So there wasn’t really anything to be afraid of because it was kind of just a bunch of pathetic old men and these angsty teenagers.”