The fight against hate in Florida and the governor's criticism of Democrats
A small group of neo-Nazis march in Orlando. Anti-Semitic flyers appear in Miami Beach. And bomb threats close historically Black colleges and universities as Black History Month begins.
These are some of the incidents of hate happening in just the past two weeks in Florida.
More than a dozen people wearing Nazi symbols gathered Saturday and Sunday in Orlando. They shocked drivers when they unfurled Nazi flags at an overpass above I-4. It quickly became a political issue when Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary sent a t weet suggesting the group could be political opponents.
“Do we even know if they are Nazis?” was part of what she wrote. She then deleted the Tweet, but not before it attracted plenty of criticism, which continued throughout the week.
"For somebody related to the governor's office, to go out and publicly blame their political opponents because of these misguided and misdirected people, is so offensive," said Palm Beach County Commissioner Greg Weiss on Tuesday during a board of commissioners meeting.
Elected leaders like U.S. Senator Rick Scott denounced the Nazi salutes, anti-Jewish slurs, and Nazi regalia.
On Monday, the governor did not condemn the demonstrators. Instead, he criticized Democrats.
"These Democrats who were trying to use this as some type of political issue to try to smear me as if I had something to do that we're not playing their game."
Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando Keith Dvorchik called the weekend rallies "horrific" and he's been "heartened by the strong stances that our local officials have taken condemning it."
That includes Orange County Sheriff John Mina.
"It's inspiring, it's helpful to see that we've got people standing together saying this is not who we are. We do not accept this. We will not accept hatred like this towards any group. Right now, it's mainly targeted at the Jewish community," Dvorchik said.
Gov. DeSantis criticized Democrats on Monday, accusing them of trying to blame him.
"I'm not going to have people try to smear me that belong to a political party that has elevated anti-Semites to the halls of Congress like Ilhan Omar that have played footsie with the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement that even have people in their party that have cavorted with (Nation of Islam leader Louis) Farrakhan."
The governor went on to tout economic and cultural ties between Florida and Israel, and his administration's efforts to secure record funding for Jewish day schools.
"The leadership in the state of Florida, both Democrats and Republicans, are standing up and saying, 'We are going to take care of you. We are going to help protect you.' And to me, that's what's more important," said Dvorchik.
The Orlando neo-Nazi rallies came two weeks after anti-Semitic flyers were found in Surfside and Miami Beach. And several historically Black colleges and universities, including Edward Waters in Jacksonville and Bethune-Cookman in Daytona were the targets of bomb threats on Tuesday.
There were 92 hate, extremist and anti-Semitic incidents in Florida last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League. That is down from 229 it tracked the year before.
"There's increased polarization within our society. We need to move away from partisan politics with respect to issues of hate and intolerance. These are issues that we need to face together as a country. And unless and until we do that, we will continue to divide and splinter, said Lecia Brooks , Chief of Staff and Culture at Southern Poverty Law Center .
"Hate crimes are notoriously underreported," according to Brooks. "Law enforcement agencies across the country volunteer their information with respect to the number of hate crimes and hate incidents that take place in any given year, so it's never accurate data annually."
FBI data shows about 8,200 hate crimes in 2020 – most of those are racially motivated. The federal data show 109 hate crimes in Florida that year with a higher than the national proportion motivated by religion.
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