GAINESVILLE — Nazis and protestors came face-to-face at the University of Florida outside a speech by white supremacist Richard Spencer.
Spencer was mostly shouted down at the event, which boasted many more Nazi protestors than it did Nazi sympathizers. Predictably, there were some clashes.
The subject of one such clash was Randy Furniss, who showed up to the event clad in a T-shirt covered with swastikas. Protestors shouted and spat at Furniss, and at least one person punched him.
Aaron Courtney, a 31-year-old African-American, took a different tack.
“I could have hit him, I could have hurt him,” Courtney said later, “but something in me said, ‘You know what? He just needs love.’”
The high school football coach instead hugged Furniss, shouting, “Why don’t you like me, dog?”
Video of the hug soon went viral.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Courtney said. “One hug can really change the world. It’s really that simple.”
The event came to Courtney’s attention when Governor Rick Scott—concerned over the disastrous outcome of Spencer’s recent Charlottesville rally—declared a state of emergency in advance of the University of Florida speech. Courtney received the notification on his phone and proceeded to do some research on Spencer.
“I found out about what kind of person he was and that encouraged me, as an African-American, to come out and protest,” he explained. “Because this is what we’re trying to avoid.”
Courtney noticed the scuffle with Furniss at the center of it and moved to intervene.
“I had the opportunity to talk to someone who hates my guts and I wanted to know why,” he said. “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?’”
Furniss first looked away and would not engage, but Courtney continued to press for answers and grew increasingly emotional.
The protestor described his thought process: “Maybe he never met an African-American like this.”
It was then that Courtney insisted that Furniss give him a hug. Still the Nazi resisted, but Courtney wouldn’t relent.
“I reached over and the third time, he wrapped his arms around me, and I heard God whisper in my ear, ‘You changed his life.’”
Courtney then asked again, “Why do you hate me?” to which Furniss finally answered, “I don’t know.”
“I believe that was his sincere answer,” Courtney asserted. “He really doesn’t know.”
In a country all-too-divided by race, that concession alone carries great value.