COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The room felt like a tinder box, ready to devolve any given moment into conflict, only to be calmed diffused by security.
Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who helped found the so-called alt-right movement, embraced the conflict as he spoke at Texas A&M Tuesday night.
For roughly two hours, Spencer delivered his message of white supremacy to a room of 400 people, the vast majority of whom were there in protest.
“At the end of the day, America belongs to white men,” Spencer said.
Outside the banquet hall, thousands of protesters made their presence known throughout campus. They, along with university officials, criticized Spencer for showing up.
The Texas A&M Police Department tweeted that two people attending the speech were arrested — but charges have not yet been revealed. The people arrested were not students, authorities said.
‘Why would I want to see America become less white?’
The town of College Station, Texas, had one of its residents, Aggie alum Preston Wiginton, to thank for extending Spencer an invitation to campus.
In a Monday interview on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” Wiginton said Spencer’s message contained some “valid points” that the election of Donald Trump has further validated.
“I think (the United States) was at one time (a white nation),” Wiginton told CNN. “I think the reaction to Trump being elected, and the reaction with the alt-right being popular, is a reaction to it declining as a white nation.”
Until Monday night, Wiginton had only known Spencer through online circles. But he wanted to bring Spencer to campus because he wanted to spread the message that white people face marginalization.
“Why would I want to see America become less white?” Wiginton said. “Why would I want to be displaced and marginalized?”
Spencer: I’m not a white supremacist
Ahead of the speech, Spencer sat down for a wide-ranging interview with CNN in which he claimed he is not a white supremacist, despite speaking of a Western civilization that, he said, “only white people can support.”
He told reporters the university’s reaction to his speaking “shows the power of the alt-right and the power of our ideas.”
Spencer addressed a controversial gathering of the alt-right movement last month in Washington when its members gathered to celebrate Donald Trump’s victory. Atlantic magazine, which is recording footage of Spencer for a documentary, published a video of the same event showing audience members apparently giving the Nazi salute.
“Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” Spencer declared.
Trump has said repeatedly that he disavows support from the alt-right and white supremacists.
A hate supreme
During his speech Tuesday, Spencer told the audience the viral video of his Washington speech happened as the result of “a desire by the media to slander us with one piece of 30-second footage.”
The appearance had no shortage of tense moments.
At one point, Quentin Boothman, a white freshman, stood up near the front facing Spencer as he silently held a sign with an image of a gun pointed toward Adolf Hitler’s face.
“Follow your leader,” it read.
After Spencer started heckling Boothman, freshman Jalen Brown, who is black, stood in solidarity with his peer. The two locked arms as they stared back at the white nationalist.
“White supremacy is a dangerous and insanely harmful concept,” Boothman later told CNN. “I hate it in all its forms.”
A man who supported Spencer stood between Spencer and the freshman, staring them down from a close distance. The standoff between Spencer’s supporters and the protesters grew to the point where security personnel needed to intervene to defuse the tiff.
As the speech continued, followed by a tense Q&A, Spencer continued to provoke the crowd as he called for white people to “have a goddamn identity.”
“Race is the foundation of identity,” he said. “The word racist is a fake word. No one identifies with the word racist.”
Officials: We don’t endorse Spencer’s rhetoric
Before the event, Texas A&M Senior Vice President Amy Smith said in a statement that the school “finds (Spencer’s) views as expressed to date in direct conflict with our core values.”
Smith noted that private citizens like Wiginton can reserve space given the university’s public status, but must cover rental expenses to avoid burdening taxpayers.
“I think these people represent something that is so antithetical to what I believe,” Texas A&M University President Michael K. Young told CNN. “I think their ideas are just simply reprehensible and abhorrent.”
At the same time, Young noted in a statement, the right of free speech must be acknowledged.
But to show solidarity, Smith participated in the university’s “Aggies United” event at Kyle Field whose billing featured actor Hill Harper, journalist Roland Martin and Holocaust survivor Max Glauben, among others. The event took place during Spencer’s speech.
‘We pledge to move forward’
Regarding the event’s backlash, Wiginton told CNN affiliate KBTX that Spencer’s appearance is “reminiscent of civil rights events of the 1960s era, which were often met with whiskey bottles and baseball bats.”
To him, the event had to go on, not only to exercise a right of free speech, but to further the cause of white supremacy.
“We pledge to move forward,” said Wiginton.
But Spencer’s movement — embraced by mere dozens Tuesday night — was largely drowned out from the outcry of thousands of protesters who denounced the hatred embedded within his message.
Images on social media showed a battalion of police moving protesters from the Memorial Student Center as Spencer spoke in the building. One person in the crowd held up a handwritten sign that said “RESPECT MINORITY LIVES.”
“The whole world is watching,” protesters chanted.
CNN’s Scott Zamost, Sara Ganim and Chris Welch reported from College Station. Darran Simon and Max Blau reported from Atlanta.