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The Growing State of Hate

State of Hate
Posted at 5:06 PM, Aug 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-06 17:00:08-04

LAKELAND, Fla. — White supremacy organizations are becoming more visible, and reported anti-Semitic and other hate incidents have risen to their highest levels in decades here in Florida.  

The ABC Action News I-Team has launched a new series called “State of Hate” to delve into why this is happening, what it means to our community and what we can do about it.  

RELATED: I-Team turns to experts for advice in our 'State of Hate' series

Many experts tie the rise in hate incidents to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, five years ago this month. Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia, a progressive community more than 800 miles from Tampa Bay.

Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally
The Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally

But a neo-Nazi organization headquartered in Lakeland was involved in that rally and several other incidents across the country in recent years.  

“You saw a lot of groups who saw that as ideally a coming out party,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.  

During the "rally," hundreds of neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other hate groups clashed with counter-protesters, drawing national attention when a young white supremacist from Ohio drove into the crowd, killing a woman and injuring dozens of others.  


Neo-Nazi group sparks incidents across the country  

The group in attendance in Charlottesville from Lakeland is now led by a 45-year-old “Commander” who is listed in a recent arrest report as unemployed.  

Months after Charlottesville, 14 of the group members showed up at a gay pride parade in Detroit carrying shields, flags, and guns. Police said five members of the group were armed.  

Last year, that Lakeland man was arrested again in Arizona.  

“I’m the leader of the largest neo-Nazi organization in America,” he yelled in a cell phone video collected as evidence by police.  

Police said the man pulled a gun in a parking lot and pointed it at a group of African-American guests staying at the same hotel.

“I’m so glad ya’ll pulled up, because he was ready to kill us,” a witness told police on body camera footage ABC Action News obtained.  

He got in trouble again in Orlando in January. Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies said the suspect pepper-sprayed a Jewish University of Central Florida student at a demonstration.

Neo-Nazi group leader attacks Jewish UCF student
Neo-Nazi group leader attacks a Jewish UCF student with pepper spray at a demonstration.

A second suspect was also arrested after allegedly punching the young man repeatedly. That man had a swastika tattooed on his neck and the word “skinhead” on his forehead.  

“I’ve never even dealt with Jews; I’ve been in prison most of my life,” the suspect told a detective during a recorded interrogation.


Reported incidents and hate groups are growing  

The Southern Poverty Law Center said the Lakeland neo-Nazi organization is among 53 hate groups identified last year in Florida.  

The Anti-Defamation League reported that anti-semitic incidents in Florida reached an all-time high last year with 190 reported incidents, a 50% increase over 2020.

Map of hate groups in Florida
A map of hate groups in Florida from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In Tampa Bay, recent events included the distribution of racist flyers, graffiti on a school bathroom wall, and a demonstration outside the Tampa Convention Center.  

“Their goal oftentimes is to mobilize to these events with the intent to commit violence or to coerce others to engage in violence on their behalf,” said Lewis.  

The Program on Extremism at George Washington University uncovered that two dozen Floridians charged in the attack on the Capitol were affiliated with white supremacy groups.  

“Of the 850 or so, about 90 defendants of January 6 were from Florida, including I think a bit over a dozen Proud Boys and Oath Keepers each,” Lewis said.  


“These groups are out there”  

“It’s an incredible spectacle to see how they train, how they talk to each other,” said Poynter Institute Vice President Kelly McBride.  

McBride started her career covering cross-burnings and goose-stepping skinheads in rural Idaho. She now believes media outlets shouldn’t name specific groups or individuals. She said media coverage gives fringe groups legitimacy and helps them recruit.

Poynter Institute Vice President Kelly McBride
Poynter Institute Vice President Kelly McBride started her career covering white supremacy groups.

RELATED: I-Team turns to experts for advice in our 'State of Hate' series

“What we need to know more is the abstract idea that these groups are out there. That they are everywhere. That they change strategies every so often,” McBride said.

The neo-Nazi commander from Lakeland agreed to do a Zoom interview only after I confirmed that I wasn’t Jewish.

As he sat in front of a background showing downtown Lakeland, he calmly discussed his hatred of Jewish, Black, and gay people, his admiration of Adolf Hitler, and his support of an all-white society.

ABC Action News decided not to share his name, the name of his organization, or direct quotes from his interview in order not to help his group recruit new members.

“While 98%, or 99, or 99.5 of those that are in the United States may totally despise that view, you wonder what’s happening with that half a percentage?” said Jonathan Ellis, who serves on the Tampa Jewish Community Relations Council.  

He continued, “I don’t think you can have a rise of Nazi activity or white supremacy activity without the news actually covering it and looking into it. However, as the coverage goes, the greater the coverage, generally there’s more people being attracted to it."

Jonathan Ellis
Jonathan Ellis is a member of the Tampa Jewish Community Relations Council


White supremacy ideas spark violent actions  

Ellis said people who go down the wrong path could end up committing violent acts like the mass shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue, an El Paso Walmart, and a Buffalo grocery store.  

Those were all racially-motivated hate crimes perpetrated by people with white supremacist views.

“There are numbers and statistics that don’t lie. You can very, very simply look at the rise in hate crimes. The rise in anti-Semitic, anti-Black, anti-Asian acts of hate,” Lewis said.

“You do have a group of people who believe in that poison,” said Hillsborough County NAACP President Yvette Lewis.

Hillsborough County NAACP President Yvette Lewis
Hillsborough County NAACP President Yvette Lewis talks with ABC Action News I-Team reporter Adam Walser about a hate-filled letter delivered to the organization.

She said her organization gets weekly hate mail, including a letter that arrived the day ABC Action News interviewed her. Inside the envelope was a rambling message of hate.

“It has a lot of the ‘N’ word and stuff,” Lewis said. “You want to ask this person ‘why?’ but we can’t find this person.”

She said it’s up to the community to fight back.

“Hate never prevails,” Lewis said. “We’re all in this world. When you cut me, I bleed. I have a heart just like you and everyone else.”  


“Who’s gonna get to that person’s ear first?”  

“I think we have to give the audience context, hope, and solutions,” McBride said.  

Florida Holocaust Museum chairman Mike Igel is at the forefront of that effort. He showed the I-Team a train car that carried thousands of Jews to their deaths during the Holocaust.

“Horrible, horrible things happened. People were murdered just for who they were. It was a systematic genocide,” Igel said.

Mike Igel
Mike Igel, Chairman of the Florida Holocaust Museum

He speaks at schools and community gatherings, fighting hate with education.  

“We’re running a race. Who’s gonna get to that person’s ear first?” he said.


"What to do if you are victimized or see a hate crime?"

If you are a victim of or witness a hate crime, you should reach out to your local law enforcement immediately.

You can also report the incident to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

FBI.jpg
FBI Logo

You can also report the incident to the Anti-Defamation League on the organization's website.

Organizations Fighting Hate Groups & Resources

 


If you have a story you think the I-Team should investigate, email us at adam@abcactionnews.com.