Musicians took to a makeshift stage at the head of the Green Space in an effort to foster unity on a day when many felt their safety threatened on campus because of the crowds white nationalist Richard Spencer would be bringing to campus Tuesday evening.
The Auburn Unites Concert, attended by students, faculty and community members, took place on the Green Space with increased law enforcement presence as a way to prevent Spencer from using it as a platform on which to speak.
Jakob Geiger, sophomore in political science, helped organize the event and brought together artists such as Alex Wilkerson, Dogwood Lung and Cherry Motel to perform.
"Hold up your picket signs, and let’s show Nazis what we think of them," Geiger said.
Before the concert began, students stood up on stage to read prayers from different religions including Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism.
Students with Black Auburn, a group of several on-campus organizations that banded together to host Auburn Unites and an associated march, congregated at the staircase outside the Student Center Starbucks dressed in black but with orange ribbons tied around their wrists or arms to distinguish themselves from other groups expressing their views on campus.
Shannon Arthur, one of the leaders of the group, emphasized nonviolence but encouraged participants to speak out. Many protesters hoisted signs — one of which said, “Hate speech is not free speech” — and others wore shirts with messages of solidarity.
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Bria Lewis, freshman in apparel design, held a sign that said, “You alt-NOT be here!! #NoPlaceForHate.” She said Auburn is not the place for hate speech.
“I believe that this is a campus where it should be inclusive and everyone is accepted and everybody is just loved. I feel like he’s just coming to hate, and I don’t really like hate,” she said, then gestured to her sign’s message.
The group of about 100 marched from the steps, led by Chanelle Leonard, and chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, facism has got to go,” as they made their way into the Green Space where they were met with cheers from the attendees of the Auburn Unites concert. They then shouted more chants together with the others on the Green Space.
The event promotes the idea that love conquers hate, Leonard said.
“The thing that Spencer is really against is he thinks that somehow America is great with nothing but white people and that they would [not] succeed without white people, but we want him to know that we love and support everyone at Auburn’s campus,” Leonard, sophomore in sociology and public administration, said.
On April 12, Spencer was announced to be coming to campus the following Tuesday, but after citing safety concerns, the University announced on Friday it was canceling his event. Arthur expressed her concerns about the University's lag in communication, particularly in regard to Spencer's campus visit.
"There definitely needs to be a better way for administrators and students to communicate because students found out about this via Twitter, even our elected student officials, which is crazy," Arthur said. "That means no one is on the same accord. It wasn't even on the campus calendar, which is mandatory. This should have been on there."
Had students found out from the University first, there might not have been such a panic, Arthur said.
"Finding out on Twitter on such a close-knit campus like this is like screaming fire in a crowded room," Arthur said. "It's probably the worst thing you could possibly do. We have a very big campus, but we find out information very quickly."
A white nationalist and supporter of Spencer filed a motion in court Tuesday seeking an injunction to force the University to allow him to speak. The court on Tuesday granted that motion, attorneys for the plaintiff and the University told The Plainsman, which allowed Spencer to speak at his original location in Foy Hall.
Arthur said she appreciated the peaceful nature of the concert in contrast to events transpiring in the area surrounding Foy. One fight outside of Foy resulted in the only three arrests of the night.
"I think the student population feels super blind-sighted, but the turnout here is amazing," Arthur said. "I wish it would stop being violent over there [Foy], but it's peaceful over here."
Before the event, some students were worried about safety to the extent of teaching safety techniques.
“We never expected this to happen on our campus, so we’re kind of weirded out by everything," one protester wearing a helmet and other protective gear said. "We’ve spent the past couple of days help spread information about this. We’ve been offering training for people about how to deal with getting pepper sprayed and Maced just in case there are any agitators on the other side who come and attack.”
Ryan Roland, freshman in computer science engineering, said he didn’t feel unsafe Tuesday, but constantly deals with stereotypes as a black man. On Tuesday evening, he marched for unity.
“This is a primarily white institution, and I thought it was important to unify with other people with like-minded views and things like that, so that’s why I came,” Roland said.
This event calls attention to Auburn's need to begin addressing the type of campus culture it's fostered over the years, Arthur said.
"We've had this issue before, and I think the fact that he [Spencer] felt comfortable coming to our campus says that we have a campus culture here that's conducive to how he feels," Arthur said. "We have buildings named after white supremacists and people who believe in segregation, like the Wallace Building."
Baffled, Arthur said, "You want everyone to go in there and feel okay?
"If you have buildings named after people who believe in segregation then you have a campus culture here already," Arthur said. "I know buildings seem minute to people, but it says to the black students on campus that you're not welcome here and this building is honoring a man that doesn't respect you."
In the week before Spencer's event, Auburn condemned a group that claimed to be a White Student Union affiliated with the University as a student organization. The group was handing out fliers on campus and asking people to view its website.
“I’m here because this is getting a little bit ridiculous," said Jessie Bridges, one attendee at the Auburn Unites Concert. "Like we’re starting to see stuff on campus that’s like white supremacy and the KEK, which is like a neo-KKK making reference to a demon god."
Bridges also pointed to provocation, police barricades and ordinary people dressed in safety gear.
"This, to me, says that this is a pivotal moment in history, and so it’s important that people our age are a part of that because if they’re not a part of that, it’ll skip by our generation and the same sins will continue to be committed.”
Moving forward, there are several things that need to be changed on campus, Arthur said.
"From policy to emission to student recruitment and retention to faculty recruitment and retention," she said. "We've got to make Auburn appealing for the masses and have an inclusive campus."
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