On Monday, 20 November, a “No Nazis at UNF” protest was held at the University of North Florida (UNF) in direct response to a neo-Nazi rally planned for the same day. Around 80 counterprotesters comprising of UNF students, faculty and community organization representatives gathered, sending a message to white supremacists and UNF administration that they would not tolerate racist and violent rhetoric at the university. The protest’s catalyst was 37-year-old UNF student Ken Parker, who on Monday was appealing the university’s decision to suspend him for publishing a threatening image on social media. A month before his suspension it was revealed to UNF students that Parker is a former Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) and a member of the National Socialist Movement (NSM). Many students demanded Parker’s removal from the school, and Parker retaliated by posting a picture of himself shirtless, holding a rifle, with a swastika tattoo visible on his chest to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Facebook page, accompanied by the message “Let SDS and the other clowns come at me, I will shut them down.” Parker was suspended on November 14, with UNF officials claiming that the combination of the gun and the caption constituted a threat. On the day of Parker’s appeal, only four of the predicted 40 neo-Nazis showed up to protest.
Prior to Monday’s protest UNF President John Delaney sent an email to students, faculty, staff and parents urging both sides to protest peaceably, stating that “Law enforcement practice is to request that there isn’t a counterprotest” citing a “possibility of friction between the opposing parties.” Monique Williamson, a junior at UNF and President of the SDS claimed that Delaney “refused to take a strong stance on racism.” On Monday, sociology professor David Jaffree, who took part in the counterprotest, reemphasised Williamson’s critique, stating that students should not depend on the academic administration and must continue to take matters into their own hands and confront racism non-violently. On November 22, UNF released a statement saying Parker’s suspension had been lifted but he remains banned from campus and will make alternative arrangements with professors to complete his coursework without attending classes. The UNF decision has been met with anger by many of the counterprotesters, with Ryan McClure, a senior at UNF and local activist, claiming Delaney’s decision shows “he’s willing to put students at risk.”
By discouraging students from counterprotesting and lifting Parker’s suspension, UNF administration have failed to prove themselves as strong and effective leaders against messages of white supremacy. In doing so, they have created a climate that emboldens neo-Nazis to continue to publicly expound racist beliefs without fear of serious consequence, and stokes feelings of insecurity and distrust amongst the UNF student body and wider community, prompting them to “take matters into their own hands,” which ultimately could result in violence from both sides.
The events at UNF come at a time of heightened visibility and activity of self-proclaimed neo-Nazis across the U.S., and in turn an increase in public condemnation of such activity, particularly across college campuses. This was triggered by the Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, where hundreds of white supremacists took the streets in an unprecedented show of force, and in which Heather Heyer, a counterprotester, was killed and 19 others injured by neo-Nazi James Alex Fields in an act of vehicular terrorism.
To effectively combat the rising tide of white supremacy on college campuses across the U.S., college administrations must support students to engage in non-violent protests denouncing the alt-right by taking appropriate security precautions, and must convey to neo-Nazis that any threats to the safety of their students will be dealt with swiftly and severely. Students will be more likely to resist temptations to retaliate violently if there are effective avenues open to them for peaceful resistance.