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New Report Finds Hate Groups Growing in Florida

The National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group that has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, held a rally in Newnan, Ga., in April 2018.
David Goldman
The National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group that has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, held a rally in Newnan, Ga., in April 2018.

Hate groups are on the rise nationwide and Florida has the third-most of any state in the country. These findings are part of the  new Intelligence Project report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which found a 30 percent increase in hate groups over the past four years. There were 75 hate groups listed across the state of Florida with at least 9 based in our region.  

The report attributes the growth in these groups to the rise of the alt-right movement under President Donald Trump and the ability of social media to organize and radicalize people towards an extremist ideology. Heidi Beirich leads the Intelligence Project for the Southern Poverty Law Center. She spoke with WLRN's Luis Hernandez about our state's troubled history with hate groups, the growth and evolution of white nationalist organizations and how the internet has changed their scope and ability to fundraise.

So we've seen this expansion (of hate groups) the report talks about nationwide. But what have you seen in Florida and specifically in South Florida?

Florida unfortunately has been a place where hate groups have for a long time found a home. The oldest hate site on the web is actually in West Palm Beach. It's an outfit called Stormfront, that we list as a hate group. And this is something that's been there since the mid-1990s. If you take Florida's population, which is one of the three largest states in the U.S. into account, Florida's still is sort of on the gradient to having more hate groups per capita than half of the states in the United States.

In terms of South Florida, you have a mix of all kinds of organizations. You have Neo-Nazi groups like Stormfront which I mentioned, you have the Proud Boys which is this sort of thuggish street fighting group that describes itself as homophobic. You also have anti-Muslim groups in that area and quite a few organizations that we consider to be hate groups that are Black Nationalist.

The KKK has a long history in South Florida. This past month for our book club, we’ve been reading The Jews of Key West and part of that history, they looked at how the KKK saw growth in the earlier part of the 20th century. And I'm wondering if we've seen a resurgence of that group with the alt-right movement?  

Actually, the number of Klan groups has been dropping really hard for the last three years. So as you mentioned in the opening, over four years we've seen a 30 percent increase in the number of hate groups. We've seen a massive decline in the number of Klan groups over that time. And the reason is this that the alt-right formation, these kind of younger millennial racists that have come about in recent years, they're really not attracted to the Klan. I don't know how to say this, (they're not attracted to) almost their look or fashion. They don't like the hoods. They don't like the kind of weird symbolism and titles.

Most of these younger racists are in groups where they dress and they act like someone, anybody you might see personally. (Someone) wearing khakis and a polo shirt. And so we've really seen a massive decline in what is the oldest hate group in America. It was established right after the Civil War and the Klan is the one that's been responsible for so much violence over the years. It seems to have finally lost an audience.

The case of Cesar Sayoc, this was the gentleman who was arrested for sending pipe bombs to numerous members of the media and to members of Congress. Do we know if he was connected to a specific hate group or was he acting as an individual? Are these groups becoming more violent or is it just the message that's I guess is influencing people to act out individually?

Well we haven't found any indication, as far as I know there isn't one, that Sayoc was connected to any particular group. But he clearly was keyed in on messaging about Trump's enemies. He knew particular anti-immigrant groups. He had targeted George Soros, the financier who funds liberal groups, who had been targeted by some in the conservative world as being sort of a menace to society. Most likely he was just reading online propaganda, which there's far too much of, that target these same individuals.

The Coast Guard person who was arrested last week, he had a hit list that he had drawn up of in that case of Donald Trump's enemies. We don't think he was connected to any groups, at least he's not in our files, even though he says he's been a white supremacist for 30 years. But reading this stuff online gives you all you need to know to come up with an enemies list like that and that's why we're so concerned about the online world. I mean a lot of the domestic terrorist acts that we've had, and there have been a lot by white supremacists, the individual involved was not a card-carrying member of a group. They were just somebody who sucked in the information online and then decided to act on their own.

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Chris Remington knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.
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