BY: MICHAEL T. BARRY, JR.
Michael T. Barry Jr. is an award-winning filmmaker and doctoral student in modern American history at American University. His films "The Universal Soldier: Vietnam" and "Sincerity: From X to El-Shabazz" have screened at film festivals across the country. He has also contributed writings to outlets like Black Perspectives, The Gainesville Sun, TruthOut, and The Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Follow him on Twitter @MTBarryJr.
As a former University of Florida student, a former Gainesville, Florida resident and a Polish-American, I was very disappointed when I heard that white supremacist Richard Spencer would be speaking at UF. I feared for the safety and peace of my friends and the community I love. Gainesville is truly a beautiful place and this terrorist intrusion is not something they, or any community, deserve to endure. Although upset by the announcement, I was encouraged by the students and the community's reaction to Spencer's event. Individuals of various backgrounds, interests, and values together protested Spencer and his hateful rhetoric, demonstrating the love and power of Gainesville's community.
Ultimately, Spencer's event was so consumed by protest and resistance that he could barely speak. Numerous protestors attended Spencer's talk and shouted over him. Clearly shaken, Spencer spent most of his talk arguing with, attacking and insulting protesters for interrupting, while simultaneously espousing empty rhetoric of "free speech," or more accurately in Spencer's case, hate speech.
While at UF, Spencer shared his ideas on "ethnostates," countries with singular, homogenous identities. He posited Poland and Israel as his quintessential examples. These examples are both highly problematic, but for different reasons.
As a Polish-American, I found Spencer's comments on Poland both offensive and ahistorical. Spencer argued Poland was an "ethnostate," and said it was among European countries that wanted to maintain their identities through "peaceful ethnic redistribution."
White supremacists like Spencer do not represent Poland or Polish people. Spencer argues nations like Poland are "ethnostates" because they have large, white, homogeneous populations. But he neglects to mention how Poland tragically became this way in the first place, with approximately 3,000,000 Polish Jews (90 percent of Poland's Jewish population) killed under Nazi German occupation. This is far from a "peaceful ethnic redistribution."
Spencer also fails to recognize historic examples of successful multi-ethnic support and cooperation between Polish Jews and Polish Catholics. Throughout and before WWII, the Catholic Church was critiqued by fascists for its anti-racist ideas and policies. Many Polish Catholics also faced persecution from Nazi Germany and, in many instances, supported, housed and stood with Polish Jews in the face of this persecution. Historian Christopher Garbowski argues, "the basis for national identity from this perspective (Polish) is not ethnicity, but culture, which is more inclusive."
This is not to say Poland is perfect. As scholars have demonstrated, some ethnic Poles were responsible for atrocities towards Jews during WWII, but there is also evidence of widespread resistance and dissatisfaction with the Nazis (only .1 percent of Poles supported the Nazis, about 7,000 of 20 million). Poles also sheltered and supported more Jews than any other nation or ethnic group during Nazi occupation, with some estimates ranging as high as 450,000 Jewish lives saved. Therefore, Spencer's argument is narrow, ahistorical and anti-Polish. It is not accurate or fair to deem Poland an "ethnostate." In reality, many Polish people have argued for and provided opportunities for tolerance over the course of centuries, including Poland's most famous figure, Pope John Paul II.
Spencer's Israel argument is also flawed, but for different reasons. Yes, Israel is a Jewish state guided by Jewish policies, but holding it as an ideal or symbol of perfection is both dangerous and negligible. Israel has been a sanctuary for persecuted Jews for decades, but it has also been responsible for the persecution and isolation of Arab Muslim Palestinians. In reality, Israel demonstrates how the type of singular, homogenous state Spencer envisions is at the detriment of humanity, not its advantage. The oppression of Arab Muslim Palestinians by Israel is one of the greatest human crises of our time. If Spencer had his way, non-white Americans would be subjected to the same type of injustice.
Although the community of Gainesville's resistance to these arguments was indeed encouraging, there is still work to be done. Unfortunately, people do believe the dangerous things Spencer says, there were white supremacists in attendance and Spencer has continuously been given platforms to espouse his hate speech. This must stop. A potential solution to this problem is calling Spencer and his organization's rhetoric what it truly is: hate speech, not free speech. His words hurt. His words insight terror and his words hold back humanity.
We must also depict Spencer as he truly is. His talk at the University of Florida was filled with insults, degradation and overt expressions of hate. Spencer is, and should be, depicted as the personification of hate in America. I suggest we use pictures like the one above when discussing or referencing Spencer. Spencer likes to be seen as a clean-cut, smiling example of white America, however he does not represent the majority of "white" Americans or this country. This picture shows the real him: An angry, historically misguided man, who should no longer be given the time of day by the intellectual community or any community.