White Supremacist Richard Spencer’s presence at Michigan State University was a tough situation for a lot of people and in a lot of different ways. Don’t protest, and you validate their ability to be there. Protest, and you give Spencer the attention he so desperately craves.
The police presence was immensely heavy, and vile arguments were spewed from both protestors and Spencer supporters at one another. Although several fights broke out, no one was killed. That may seem like an overstatement, but it is still worth remembering that one young woman in Virginia was not so fortunate just months ago.
Leading up to the protest, I had seen arguments against the protestors being there at all. “Ignore them, and they’ll go away,” they said. Really? When you ignore the flu, does it just go away too?
As someone who was onsite, I’ll tell you: That logic couldn’t have been further from the truth. Had those protestors not been there, a lot more people would’ve been able to get into the facility where Spencer spewed his vitriol against anyone who doesn’t look like or sound like him. To watch young men, and some women, come marching toward the speech location, at times doing a Nazi salute with smirks on their faces, wasn’t something to ignore. That there were predominately young people in that supporter group – young people whose impression is yet to be left on the world, whose jobs and careers still await them – is not something to ignore.
We can debate about the best way to not ignore them, or to be better than them, but for the several hundred protestors who were there, they stood there on behalf of the people who couldn’t. Because when asked why he was obsessed with race, Spencer said, according to reports, that whites conquered America and made it their own land. Asked what happens to biracial people in a white state, Spencer said that had yet to be figured out.
And to me, beyond the occasional physical altercations or swear-laced yelling, that was the biggest moment that I have yet to see documented in news stories: The impact of Spencer’s presence for people of color.
Well, I have one for you.
While the protestors were predominately white, there were some people of color. One young woman stood out to me though. Her face was mostly covered by a bandana, but I could see enough of it to identify her as a person of color. She would engage in chants with protestors, but she got most emotional when police, armored up in riot gear, held their lines and prevented protestors and Spencer supporters from getting too close to one another.
She yelled at the police, her voice full of agony and mourning, “Why? Those people want me dead. They want me dead!”
She broke down. She backed away from the police line by about 10 feet, curled inward, feeling defeated, perhaps feeling the full understanding of those words as they left her mouth. I considered talking to her, but this was her moment. This was a turning point for her as young woman, growing into an adult, and it didn’t feel right to interrupt.
As I looked around, the MSU flag waving in the distance, I thought, “How did we get here, and why would we ever let it fester? How was ‘free speech’ an argument when lives were at stake, and Spencer’s people denied that right to numerous, high-profile media outlets looking to cover his speech?”
While it will most certainly take more time to find the answers to these and other questions, I can only hope I’m not the only one asking them. Until then, that young woman is why some people can’t bear to “just ignore it.”