INVERNESS, Fla. — As reported hate crimes and incidents rise, there is a need to shine a light on the growth of white supremacy in Florida and efforts to stop it.
“What we’re seeing is a normalization of extremist groups," Yael Hershfield, ADL's Southern Division Director of Incident Response told the I-Team.
State of Hate series
- The Growing State of Hate
- I-Team turns to experts for advice in our 'State of Hate' series
- Florida Holocaust Museum replaces hate with hope in battle against extremism
The I-Team met with the owners of a tattoo studio in Citrus County to talk about the steps they've taken to combat growing displays of hate in their community.
“We’re in a small town. Everybody knows each other," Twistid Ink Co-Owner Danny Belden said. "The motto is, ‘A small town done right.’ Never thought I was going to have to deal with this. Never ever. And then it came through the door and I was stuck. I didn’t know what to do.”
Belden grew up in Inverness, the county seat of Citrus County, with a population of about 7,500 people. According to the current census data, 87.5 percent of those people identify as "white alone," making Citrus the whitest county in the state.
"We were just baffled that it happened here," Belden said, describing an encounter that sticks with him from recent years.
In the "small town done right," he said something went wrong when a man came in requesting a specific tattoo.
“I had a consult with somebody and I didn't know better. And we had the consultation and we were ready to start drawing this piece out, and I had an appointment with my other client and he came in and seen what I was working on and he was like — don’t do that," Belden said.
The client who gave the warning is a retired law enforcement officer.
"He saved me from opening the door for something that was really bad," Belden said.
Whenever possible, ABC Action News is not naming specific groups or individuals, in an effort to deny hate groups a platform.
“The first time that we dealt with it, in all honesty, it really threw us off guard because we didn't know that it was in our backyard," Belden said. "The guy actually tried to sell it as a logo for his business. But that was not the case at all. It wasn't even close."
Belden said the man mentioned wanting to bring eight more clients in, who wanted the same tattoo.
Belden said knowing the intention behind a tattoo is important to him because he doesn't want to represent hate as part of his business. Crosses, numbers, Norse symbols, made popular in Viking shows, are also being used by hate groups.
“Now I have to decipher which people are doing it for pop culture and which people are doing it for a hate group," Belden said, adding that he feels pressure to protect his business, family and clients.
“My wife and I have worked very hard to create a business with a good reputation and I personally feel that this is a safe space for everybody," he said.
After the close call, Belden and his wife Elisha educated themselves by learning to recognize symbols of hate.
“My wife has a book. And there’s been times where I have to go to the book and just double check stuff," Belden said.
“I think there’s 63 or 64 pages in here," Elisha showed the I-Team, flipping through a printout of ADL's Hate Symbols Database. "That’s really terrifying to know that it’s in your community. It’s in your backyard. Your next-door neighbor. Your co-worker. Anybody could be involved in these groups."
ADL's hate symbols database includes hundreds of images, where you can search everything from general hate symbols to numeric hate symbols and racist hand signs, to educate yourself on the different meanings.
ADL's Hate Symbols Database states:
"This database provides an overview of many of the symbols most frequently used by a variety of white supremacist groups and movements, as well as some other types of hate groups."
Hershfield, with the ADL, said the database can be used as a tool for law enforcement when they respond to a crime scene.
“There might be symbols, whether it’s graffiti or certain elements, that would provide information to the police officers that in fact this crime was bias-motivated," she said.
Hershfield said the symbols are used to establish affiliation, share what hateful ideology they belong to, and recruit.
"It’s a way to engage with someone, to have a conversation with someone, to explain the symbols, they’re curious, and open a dialogue," she told the I-Team.
Hershfield said the ADL has seen not only an increase in the usage of hate symbols but an increase in the spreading of hateful messages.
"We have seen an increase, an accelerated increase, of hateful fliers being distributed throughout neighborhoods all over the state of Florida and one way of identifying the group is through that symbol," she said.
- 'Disturbing' anti-Semitic fliers circulating in St. Pete, local leaders warn
- Florida Holocaust Museum responds after antisemitic flyers found in Tampa
- Nazi flags and other racist imagery displayed outside Tampa Convention Center Saturday
- St Petersburg residents find anti-Semitic propaganda in yards
"It's getting more common to see the display of hate lately," Belden said. "And that's what we're trying to stop."
"We all have responsibility. For people that don’t behave that way, that don’t have those beliefs, to kind of sit back and let that continue to happen, I don’t think that that’s okay," Elisha said. “It’s really important that — those of us that don’t share those beliefs, stand up and protect the people that are kind of being trampled on.”
Organizations Fighting Hate Groups & Resources
- NAACP - Hillsborough County
- Southern Poverty Law Center
- Anti-Defamation League
- United States Department of Justice
- DOJ Civil Rights Groups Resources
If you have a story you think the I-Team should investigate, email email@example.com.