When Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida on Thursday, tensions were high and police were prepared for a situation similar to the protest in Charlottesville, North Carolina, two months ago.
Julius Long and Randy Furniss both came to hear what Spencer had to say. Both men wanted to ask Spencer about his views and both men said what they really hoped for was an intelligent conversation with Spencer. They had similar intentions when going to the event, the differences being that Long is a black man and Furniss is white and Furniss wore a shirt with swastikas on it.
“I wanted to hear what Richard Spencer had to say,” Furniss told Knight News. “I wanted to see if he was the real deal. I didn’t go for conflict and I put faith in the fact that the people of the crowd didn’t either.”
Furniss never made it into the auditorium to see Spencer speak. As he was walking towards the entrance, a crowd of protesters swarmed him. They screamed at him, spit on him and one man punched him in the face hard enough to draw blood.
Through all of the hate that was being pushed on Furniss, one man saw another man who needed help.
“I literally saw people using anti-hate signs as weapons to hit Randy,” Long said.
His photograph was published by media outlets around the country, including Knight News. It was not until Long’s father tweeted a photo of the two together that either man’s identity was made known.
When police on the scene said that they would not escort Furniss to his car, Long realized it was not safe for him. Long offered to give him a ride and asked him if he wanted to talk.
“We need a dialogue,” Long said. “We need to sit down, have a conversation and not be instantly offended by what the other person has to say. The way we’re going about things now isn’t making any progress.”
Long believes that Furniss did not deserve to be treated the way he was. He believes that everyone is entitled to their own opinions and that judging someone for their outer appearance is no better than racism and only promotes ignorance.
Long does not believe in separatism, but can understand supporting ones own community first. He is an advocate for supporting black businesses and has even opened his own community center in Gainesville with the goal of promoting small business owners in the area.
By starting a dialogue, Long was able to learn about Furniss. He learned that they were around the same age — Long is 29-years-old and Furniss is 31 — both liked hip-hop music, both had things in their past that they were not proud of and that Furniss is not actually a Nazi.
Despite wearing a shirt with swastikas on it and a tattoo on his leg bearing the symbol, Furniss said he is not and has not been involved with organizations that are considered Nazi groups. He may share views that side with some of these organizations, but has never been a member.
“I’m a registered Republican, but that’s it,” Furniss said when asked if he has ever belonged to any political groups.
When Long and Furniss were able to get away from the craziness of the event, their conversation continued and both men said that a real friendship was made.
Furniss and Long met for dinner the next day at Celebrity’s Soul Food, a Gainesville restaurant, where Furniss met Long’s family.
“It was his first time eating soul food,” Long said. “We were able to express our views in a peaceful manner and Randy got to try chicken and waffles for the first time.”
That dinner and the conversation the two had over chicken and waffles may have changed Furniss’s views. “I’m a work in progress,” said Furniss. “Julius and I would never have met one another. As Julius’s father put it, it was meant to be that I wore that shirt and that a friendship was started.”
Both men talked about how conversations similar to this were the way real change can be made. They both stressed that an open dialogue leads to positives and that hate can not be fought with more hate.
“[We are] two different people from different sides of our great country and two different ways of thinking,” Furniss said. “Julius was there, sent by God, to help me overcome my old ways. Something has happened from Richard Spencer’s speech, a once in a lifetime friendship.”