Wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with swastikas, Randy Furniss, hands in his pockets, walked slowly through a crowd Thursday that had largely gathered to protest white nationalist Richard Spencer, who was delivering a speech at the University of Florida.
Days before Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) had warned in an executive order that a “threat of a potential emergency is imminent” in Alachua County, where the University of Florida is located, noting that prior speaking engagements involving Spencer have sparked protest and violence.
The event was Spencer’s first public speech on a college campus since he led hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists, white nationalists and others through the University of Virginia in a far-right rally in August that preceded a weekend of violent protests in Charlottesville. More than 500 law enforcement officers were deployed, with snipers positioned on the rooftops of nearby buildings.
“Go home, Nazi scum!” the crowd chanted, jeering at Furniss, of Idaho.
Suddenly, an individual in a green hoodie punched Furniss in the face, before quickly disappearing into the crowd. Furniss recoiled, but carried on walking. Blood trickled from his lip down his chin.
Then something unexpected happened.
A man went up to Furniss and gave him a hug, wrapping one arm around the Nazi’s shoulders, and another arm around his shaved head.
“Why don’t you like me, dog?” the man asked Furniss.
The man, identified by the New York Daily News as Aaron Courtney, is a 31-year-old high school football coach in Gainesville. He said he wanted to show Furniss some love.
“I could have hit him, I could have hurt him . . . but something in me said, ‘You know what? He just needs love,’ ” Courtney told the Daily News.
The hug may have been a small act, but Courtney thinks it can speak volumes.
“It’s a step in the right direction. One hug can really change the world. It’s really that simple,” he said.
Courtney did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Furniss, a self-described white nationalist, explained his views to News4Jax.
“They want what we have. And we just want them to shut up and get on with life,” Furniss said. “They’re being raised up and it’s getting to the point where they want to push us down. That’s not right.”
Furniss could not be immediately reached for comment.
Courtney hadn’t originally planned on attending the protest. But he was surprised when he received a state of emergency notification on Monday, ahead of Spencer’s planned appearance, the Daily News reported.
Courtney didn’t recognize Spencer’s name, and decided to do some research.
“I found out about what kind of person he was and that encouraged me, as an African-American, to come out and protest,” Courtney said. “Because this is what we’re trying to avoid. It’s people like him who are increasing the distance . . . between people.”
Courtney was about to leave the protest, having already spent almost four hours at the scene, when he saw Furniss causing a scene in the crowd, the Daily News reported.
“I had the opportunity to talk to someone who hates my guts and I wanted to know why. During our conversation, I asked him, ‘Why do you hate me? What is it about me? Is it my skin color? My history? My dreadlocks?’ ” he said.
Courtney repeatedly asked Furniss for an answer, only to be met with silence and a blank look.
Exasperated, Courtney asked Furniss for a hug. He was initially reluctant, but as Courtney reached over the third time, Furniss reciprocated, wrapping his arms around Courtney.
“And I heard God whisper in my ear, ‘You changed his life,’ ” Courtney said.
“Why do you hate me?” Courtney asked Furniss one last time.
“I don’t know,” Furniss finally answered, Courtney said.
For Courtney, that was a good enough answer.
“I believe that was his sincere answer. He really doesn’t know,” Courtney said.
Inside the school, Spencer’s speech was repeatedly disrupted and drowned out by people shouting at him.
After the speech, three men were arrested and charged with attempted homicide after arguing with protesters and firing a shot at them, police said.