Aaron Courtney, an African-American man and high school football coach probably didn’t plan on hugging a white supremacist last weekend – however, that’s exactly what happened.
Last week, hundreds of white nationalists and counter-protesters faced off in Gainesville, Florida during a speech by alt-right leader, Richard Spencer (Spencer’s speech was quickly drowned out by chants of “Go home!”). At one point during the protest, a white man wearing a shirt adorned with swastikas found himself surrounded by an angry group of anti white supremacist protesters.
The protesters demanded that the man, who was later identified as Randy Furniss by the Gainesville Sun, speak his mind and give a reason for his racist views. One of the protesters eventually decked Furniss with a punch that was captured in a photo that quickly gained traction on news and social media outlets. Courtney however adopted a different approach.
Rather than hit the man, Courtney asked him, “Why don’t you like me, dog?” before embracing the man for a hug. Furniss certainly appeared caught off-guard by the physical gesture, perhaps bracing for another swing, but then albeit reluctantly, hugged back. The cell phone video footage of the encounter quickly went viral.
“I had the opportunity to talk to someone who hates my guts and I wanted to know why,” Courtney told the NY Daily News. “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?’” The 31-year-old athletic coach said when Furniss ignored his questions at first it almost brought him to tears, but then decided to go in for a hug.
“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 added. Furniss eventually gave a simple reply of “I don’t know” when Courtney asked him again why he hated him. Courtney said that believes Furniss was sincere with his response.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott had declared a state of emergency ahead of Spencer’s speech at the University of Florida. Law enforcement was able to relatively keep the peace between the white nationalists and counter-protesters though, avoiding the total violent chaos that engulfed Charlottesville, Virginia two months ago.
Courtney said that prior to Spencer’s appearance he hadn’t heard of the alt-right figurehead, and after getting a notice on his phone decided to do a little research. It was after learning about Spencer’s views that he felt that as a person of color, he had a responsibility to go down to the protest. “This is what we’re trying to avoid,” said Courtney, adding, “It’s people like him who are increasing the distance between people.”
With our country going through very strange and turbulent times and white nationalists rallies happening seemingly every other week, bumper stickers like “Punch A Nazi” don’t seem so out of place. Perhaps a better approach would be to follow Courtney’s lead and a bumper sticker reading “Hug A Nazi” would have more effect at combating hate.