A “superhighway of hate:” Extremism is flourishing in Florida

By: - June 13, 2019 7:00 am

PBS Frontline “Documenting Hate” screen shot of Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, Va. One post said all were paid actors.

From hate speech to hate groups to hate crimes, Florida faces a broad atmosphere of hatred that has been escalating for years, though residents and tourists may not have realized how much the extremist landscape has changed.

Nowadays, even elected state politicians who create laws and represent constituents spew hateful remarks, with a GOP Panhandle lawmaker laughing recently about killing gay people. Now he’s fundraising off the episode.

Hate groups ranging from the Ku Klux Klan and racist skinheads to anti-Muslims and anti-immigrants have proliferated across the state, doubling in Florida since 2000, according to the most recent hate-group data. Florida, at 75 hate groups in 2018, is only second to California, at 83.

And FBI statistics show hate crimes in Florida spiked in 2017, following a lower number of incidents in prior years.

Even so, experts say the number of hate crimes in Florida is likely larger, because of underreporting or no reporting at all. The lack of reporting presents a rosy picture of Florida that conflicts with reality.

“Unfortunately, a number of cities and municipalities in Florida have not reported hate crimes to the FBI or have actively reported zero incidents. And in some of those municipalities, we know that there have been incidents,” said Lonny Wilk, senior associate regional director of the Florida region of the Anti-Defamation League.

Among other initiatives, the Anti-Defamation League tracks figures in a “hate crime map,” with large cities such as St. Petersburg, Miami, and several other South Florida municipalities reporting zero hate crimes. Overall, the FBI reported 145 hate crimes in Florida in 2017, up from 96 the year before.

The Anti-Defamation League also created a nationwide “H.E.A.T. Map” to pinpoint incidents of hate, extremism, anti-Semitism, and terrorism. The interactive map shows, for example, that in Gainesville from 2018 to  2019, there were seven incidents of “White Supremacist Propaganda” and one anti-Semitic incident.

In Boca Raton, the map showed six anti-Semitic incidents and one incident of white supremacist propaganda.

Across Florida, the map showed 163 incidents in all: Three extremist murders; two terrorist plots and attacks; four white supremacist events; 81 incidents of white supremacist propaganda, and 76 anti-Semitic incidents.

And that’s just from 2018 to 2019.

How has the Sunshine State – and the nation as a whole — become so hateful?

There are myriad opinions, but it would be hard not to mention the worldwide Internet and the astronomical rise of social media.

Brian Levin is director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, and he wrote a Time magazine article earlier this year titled:Why White Supremacist Attacks Are on the Rise, Even in Surprising Places.”

“As the Internet has expanded and fragmented, so too has the array of often cross-linked, hate-filled sites and platforms.” Levin wrote. “The reach and evolving streaming capacities of such sites have transformed even unaffiliated lone hatemongers from merely being posters on traditional bulletin boards to global broadcasters, where they can livestream or tweet not only bigotry, but vandalism and now terrorism.”

In an interview with the Florida Phoenix, Levin stressed that free speech – even offensive and bigoted speech—is constitutionally protected in the United States because of First Amendment rights.

And hate speech doesn’t necessarily cause hate conduct or crime. Some hate crime offenders, for example, aren’t even in hate groups, Levin said.

Wilk, of the Florida Anti-Defamation League, says the advent of the Internet has spurred amazing interactions and discussions. But other conversations can become caustic and hateful. Wilk calls it the “superhighway of hate” that can lead to something more than Internet conversation.

“Hate speech must be met and countered with more speech, with better speech,” Wilk says. “We’ve seen individuals who affiliate with extremist groups, and they can take a lead from hate speech in the larger society in culture, and that can potentially give a sense of a green light to some individuals.”

The nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking hate groups since 1990. Some have fought back against being characterized as a hate group, but the center continues publishing the information and posts a map to allow the public to “see hate in your state.”

In 2018, the organization posted information about 1,020 active hate groups operating across the nation, “a record number and a 30 percent increase over the past four years,” according to a statement posted on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website.

According to the center’s data, Florida had 38 hate groups in 2000, compared to 75 in 2018. The hate groups in Florida –  based on ideology –  are: Anti-Immigrant, Anti-LGBT, Anti-Muslim, Black Nationalist, Christian Identity, General Hate, Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Confederate, Neo-Nazi, Racist Skinhead and White Nationalist.

At the Florida Family Association, a Tampa nonprofit labeled as an anti-Muslim hate group, president and founder David Caton disagreed about the designation.

“We’re a mainstream Christian organization,” said Caton.

He questioned why the Southern Poverty Law Center is the arbiter of hate group designations, both in Florida and across the nation.

“Who is calling what a hate group?” Caton said.

President Donald Trump narrowly won Florida in the 2016 presidential election. Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center criticized Trump, saying in an online statement that “Donald Trump has a hate group problem.”

The group was responding to a CNN interview with Trump, who “repeatedly dodged questions about the Ku Klux Klan and notorious white nationalist David Duke, who announced recently his support for Trump’s campaign.”

A Southern Poverty Law Center official commented in an online statement at the time that Trump’s statements “are just the latest in a string of incidents where he has used his massive media presence, especially his Twitter account with over 6 million followers, to elevate extremist ideas and individuals…Condemning David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan at every opportunity should be the easiest thing anyone can do. The hatefulness of their ideas and actions are well-established and should be denounced forcefully by all responsible political leaders.”

Closer to home, avid Trump supporter state Rep. Mike Hill, a Republican who represents the Pensacola area, has been condemned by GOP and Democrat leaders alike after he was caught on tape at a constituent meeting laughing about killing gay people.

Now, supporters of Hill have planned a June 15 rally outside the Pensacola News Journal to oppose what they are calling “fake news,” and the newspaper reports that Hill is fundraising off the spectacle.

“Rep. Hill’s actions were reprehensible and are in line with the coarsened, hateful rhetoric spreading across the country,” ACLU of Florida Legal Director Daniel Tilley said. “Although biased speech receives First Amendment protection, the First Amendment also protects (our) calls for Rep. Hill’s resignation and for his removal at the ballot box.”




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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.