(Reuters) – On the morning of October 17, two days before Richard Spencer, an avowed white nationalist and spokesman for the so-called alt-right, was to speak at the University of Florida, my wife asked if I had heard anything about it.
I had just returned from assignments on Barbuda and Puerto Rico, which were wrecked by hurricanes.
In August, rallies by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, had led to a deadly clash with counter-protesters. I contacted my editors and asked for the Florida assignment.
The evening before the speech, I walked around the Gainesville campus. All seemed calm; there were no protests. The area was blanketed by police because Florida’s governor had declared a state of emergency to try to prevent violence.
Early the next day there was a light presence from both sides. I met a self-proclaimed white nationalist named Tyler Tenbrink from Texas and photographed him. Later, he and two others were arrested on charges of attempted homicide in an altercation with protesters after Spencer’s speech.
Over time, several hundred people protesting Spencer gathered in a “free speech zone” near where he was speaking.
Once his speech began, tensions ran high and a few skirmishes broke out, but overall it was peaceful. I sat to file my photos and suddenly people started running. I grabbed my cameras and followed them.
In the midst of an angry crowd stood a man in a shirt printed with swastikas. The atmosphere was vitriolic.
He had been punched in the face and was smirking as blood trickled down his chin. He had walked right into the free speech zone and this really physical crowd.
I got in there and took my photo as police were trying to escort him out of the zone. People called him pejorative names; some spit at him. It was almost surreal.
A black man stepped beside him and guided him out of the crowd and over the barricade, alternately speaking to him and shouting at him. I moved with them and watched as the man went off, seeming to disappear.
Related photo at reut.rs/2l5Aqh2
Reporting by Shannon Stapleton; Editing by Toni Reinhold