After freshman orientation at the University of Florida, I cried the whole way home.
It seemed impossible that a place so big, with so many people, could ever be welcoming. I was wrong.
The University of Florida was my home for four years and I am immensely proud of that fact. Everywhere you go, you meet Gators because that sense of pride is a common thread that connects every Gator -- old and new. Gators have each other's backs from the tailgate to the tomb.
It was no surprise to me that thousands turned up to chant, hold signs and march to show that hate was not welcome in the city of Gainesville and certainly not welcome on the University of Florida campus.
White Supremacist Richard Spencer spoke at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday and Gainesville was not having it.
Full disclosure, I am white. Mostly. I am one-fourth Japanese, but I look very white. Spencer's messages of hate and the call for a 'peaceful ethnic cleansing' are not for me.
But the protesting crowd of thousands was freckled with different races, religions, all genders, backgrounds, and ages and they felt it was aimed at them and they wanted to be heard. They were angry.
They were angry that Richard Spencer was in their town, on their campus spreading his hateful rhetoric.
To be honest, I was angry too. I'm a Gator and even though I threw my cap in 2015, that's still my campus.
There was this sort of gut-wrenching feeling I got as we unloaded our equipment from the car and walked down Hull Road, past the dorms where I had lived for four years, the gym where I had gone to yoga twice a week (okay maybe once a week), and past the little hill where I tripped and made my roommates laugh until they couldn't breathe.
I wasn't here to laugh or take a stroll down beloved memory lane. I was there to be a member of the media and situate myself between two sides.
But there is only one side to hate -- it is wrong.
As I looked through my viewfinder at the students of the university and the people of Gainesville holding their signs and chanting in unison, I couldn't help but feel that same pride. Despite not having a bathroom in sight and not being able to bring in bags or water, thousands of people turned up to prove that hate does not belong in the Swamp.
The protests remained calm. Despite the passions running high, there seemed to be only a few instances of trouble. Every so often a white supremacist sympathizer would go into the crowd to attract attention.
Once, a black protester hugged a man who identified himself as a neo-nazi. The man didn't hug him back, but the crowd cheered anyway.
In another instance, the protesting crowd circled around a white supremacist who chanted, "I am the chosen one." The protesters sang to drown out his messages of hate. Someone from the crowd cheered, "It's working!" when the man began to sing along.
Though words were harsh (many f-bombs appeared on signs and were screamed), the tactics used by protesters were gentle. Many just wanted the hate to be extinguished.
Not only did the University say no to Richard Spencer and his ideology, but it said hell no and I am very proud of that indeed.
Destiny Johnson is a digital reporter at First Coast News who graduated from the University of Florida in 2015.
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