Experts: Hatred links Jacksonville shooting, antisemitic displays in Central Florida

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

ORLANDO, Fla. — When Ann Richter started the day last Sunday, her mind was on the college football game between Florida State and LSU.

She had won tickets near the 50 yard line for her family that evening at Camping World Stadium and they couldn’t wait to go.

But their day took a turn.

When Richter’s husband and 17-year-old daughter returned home from a trip to the mall, they found “vile” antisemitic flyers littering their lawn and a neighbor’s in their Gotha community.

The messages printed on the flyers disparaged Jewish public health officials, made bizarre and sexually explicit claims about Judaism and implored readers to “protect the purity of the white Aryan woman.”

The flyers also invited readers to learn more about Goyim Defense League, a loosely connected neo-Nazi group with thousands of online supporters that has been linked to multiple similar displays of hate across Central Florida.

Over Labor Day weekend, similar flyers were found across the region as far away as Volusia County. Neo-Nazi groups, including members of the Goyim Defense League, also gathered and waved swastikas during small demonstrations near Disney and at Cranes Roost Park in Altamonte Springs.

The demonstration came just one week after a gunman armed with a rifle also emblazoned with swastikas killed three Black people in a racist mass shooting at a Jacksonville Dollar General store. Police in Jacksonville later found hate-filled writings from the gunman that shared white supremacist views and a hatred for Black people.

And this is just the latest example.

In recent years, members of extremists groups across Central Florida and the state have scattered flyers, dropped banners from overpasses on Interstate 4, held neo-Nazi rallies near Disney and in parks and busy intersections across the region and altered digital signs to share hateful, antisemitic messages.

Whether targeting Black or Jewish people, experts say, for white supremacists, spreading hatred is the point: Demonstrations give their ideology a wider audience. And eventually, someone who adopts that worldview will decide to act on it.

Richter, who is not Jewish, said she believes whoever left the flyers must have been “cowards” who did so in the dark of night to avoid being seen.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I was trying to figure out why this was on my front lawn. I couldn’t figure out why they would do that to us in particular so I figured it was the whole neighborhood and that turned out to be the case. … I’d heard of these people going to Disney and making a scene and I figured they were the same people.”

Although no links have so far been made to suggest the Jacksonville shooter knew the neo-Nazis who rallied in Orange and Seminole counties, it would be a mistake to view the incidents as separate and unrelated, said Rachel Carroll Rivas, director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which collects data on extremist groups.

“I think it’s right to go beyond the moment and the individual actor,” Carroll Rivas said.

Encouraging individuals to take violent action in the name of white supremacy has long been part of a strategy written by radical right figure Louis Beam, who favored this approach over organized membership once hate group members started to face legal consequences for their actions.

“This was a plan that they’ve always had – not to be able to put the blame on one person that was a member of one group,” Carroll Rivas said. “They wanted to change all of society like this. It was written down and the idea of the Lone Wolf is a specific terminology used by a white supremacist leader who created it.”

Mike Igel, chairman of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, acknowledged that Black and Jewish people have faced historic and on-going horrors and, though those histories differ, he sees the groups as allies in the fight against hatred.

That is all the more evident when a gunman motivated by anti-Black racism chooses to place a swastika on his rifle, he said.

“These things do not exist in a vacuum,” Igel said. “Antisemitism, for example, is known as the canary in the coal mine. It is often the first thing but it doesn’t exist by itself. You don’t meet a bigot, a neo-Nazi who says, ‘I hate Jewish people but I sure do love the gay community or the Black community.’ They don’t do that. They tend to dislike and hate and do bad things to anyone they consider ‘the other.’”

But he said his hope lies in knowing the opposite is also true for those who have come to the Holocaust Museum to learn.

“They don’t come out of their experience and say, ‘Wow, I learned a lot and I’m going to be really nice to Jewish people but thankfully, I can still be mean to gay people.’ That’s not what happens. The lessons they learn have a ubiquitousness to them. That’s hope we win this battle.”

That’s why education has become part of the strategy for the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Mike Chitwood, who, in the face of death threats, has become one of the most vocal law enforcement voices in the state against neo-Nazi actions like those seen over Labor Day weekend.

“A lot of these folks that are being targeted, I see them in the supermarket. You see them in restaurants. You go to functions, fundraisers with them. … How dare somebody come into my community and try to sow these seeds of annihilation, of wanting to wipe out someone for their race, their religion, their ethnicity or their sexual orientation. How dare they come in and do that.”

Chitwood said he zeroed in on neo-Nazi “scumbags,” as he calls them, after antisemitic hate messages were displayed at the Daytona International Speedway in February. The Goyim Defense League was also blamed for this display.

Days later, a group of teenage boys were caught drawing swastikas in a bathroom at a Volusia County high school.

“When they were confronted by law enforcement, they said it was only meant as a joke,” Chitwood said. “Well, with all due respect, it’s not a joke.”

So Chitwood got creative and worked with a judge to require the students to go to the Florida Holocaust Museum and learn the significance of the swastika as a hate symbol as part of their probation requirements.

And to pay for the trip for these students – and any others who would need similar education in the future – the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office started to sell “Scumbag Eradication Team” T-shirts and mugs that show a sheriff’s deputy flushing a person dressed in neo-Nazi paraphernalia down a toilet.

Chitwood said if the hate is going to be kept at bay, more leaders will need to start to face it head-on.

“I’m not going to take the course that everybody else wants to take, which is, just ignore it, it will go away. It’s never going to go away. It’s 2,000 years old. It’s not going to go away. You’ve got to keep it in check. … That’s how these things rise. Everybody ignores it and then you turn around and it becomes part of the mainstream.”