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Fights erupt, 12 arrested ahead of white nationalist's speech in Michigan

EAST LANSING, Mich. (Reuters) - A least a dozen people were arrested on Monday after supporters of Richard Spencer clashed with protesters outside a Michigan college campus where the white nationalist was scheduled to speak.

Among those arrested were Gregory Conte, director of operations for Spencer’s organization, the National Policy Institute, according to Evan McLaren, the group’s executive director.

Fistfights broke out on a road leading to Michigan State University in East Lansing as about 40 backers of Spencer walked up a road leading to the campus, where roughly 500 demonstrators had gathered, surrounding an armored police vehicle.

Police in riot gear quickly stepped in to break up the altercation, handcuffing six or seven people, then forming a skirmish line along the roadside to prevent further clashes.

But sporadic fisticuffs continued to erupt outside the campus as officers escorted attendees into the building in small groups.

Media representatives for the university could not immediately be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police said the department was assisting with crowd control but declined to say how many people had been detained or arrested.

“These people are scum. We chased them away. This is our free speech being exercised,” said David Sherman, 25, who drove to the campus from Indianapolis to protest Spencer’s event.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors U.S. hate groups, lists Spencer as “a radical white separatist whose goal is the establishment of a white ethno-state in North America.”

An outspoken supporter of Trump during the 2016 campaign, Spencer rose from relative obscurity after widely circulated videos showed some Trump supporters giving Nazi-style salutes to Spencer during a gathering in Washington to celebrate the Republican candidate’s win. Trump condemned the meeting.

In October, protests broke out as Spencer gave a speech at the University of Florida in Gainsville.

Two months earlier, a 20-year-old man said by law enforcement to harbor Nazi sympathies drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters after white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing a 32-year-old woman.

Reporting by Steve Friess in East Lansing, Mich.; writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Susan Thomas