Mapping Florida's hate: Tampa Bay home to hate groups like KKK

Charlottesville's white supremacist groups might be center stage after their protests turned violent and a woman was killed this weekend, but such hate groups are spread across the country. Florida comes in second for the highest number of such groups at 63, beat out only by California, which has about a dozen more.

Published August 15 2017
Updated August 16 2017

A New Port Richey man with a Swastika tattooed above his heart was arrested last week. He and four other self-proclaimed neo-Nazis were caught with illegal guns, drugs and Nazi propaganda, according to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

FROM 2015: Dan DeWitt: Time to mark Hernando's history of lynchings with a monument

In June, residents in Hudson and Spring Hill complained when fliers recruiting for the Ku Klux Klan were found in their neighborhoods — again. Go back a decade, and a neo-Nazi is serving a life sentence in prison for killing a gay teen just minutes from last week's neo-Nazi bust.

That area of west Pasco has long been known to harbor hate groups, and unfortunately it is hardly alone in Florida. Now people across the country are checking for hate groups in their backyards thanks to the Southern Poverty Law Center's online "hate map."

The map went viral after the death and violence from this weekend's white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that saw a 32-year-old woman and two police officers killed.

The latest map shows Florida had 63 of the nation's 917 hate groups in 2016. That means the third-largest state in the nation had the second most hate groups, behind California's 79.

"They're not very active or powerful now," said University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor Darryl Paulson, who specializes in southern politics. "Most are not well known ... but at the same time, you can't simply discard them."

The SPLC has been mapping such groups for three decades. Virginia has 42 hate groups. That's where Heather Heyer was killed Saturday when authorities said a Nazi sympathizer plowed his car into a crowd of protestors opposing a white supremacist rally. Virginia State troopers Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates also died in a helicopter crash while surveying the violence below.

SPLC says it defines a hate group as any group that has "beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics." It includes more than just white supremacists. The list has Islamaphobic groups and black separatist groups that SPLC said are anti-white and anti-Semitic. Some anti-Semitic groups engage in Holocaust denial, while others express hatred for the LGBT community.

The 2016 total falls short of the peak in 2011, when the SPLC reported 1,019 hate groups in the nation, the most recorded in 30 years.

Tampa Bay, like much of the South, has a long history with hate groups. The SPLC map, for example, identified Hudson as home of the Knights of the White Disciples, an offshoot of the KKK.

The group did not return a request for comment. Its website shows the members, but their faces are obscured. They're wearing white cloaks and hoods and black fatigues and are seen with crosses, including one set afire. The photos include the "white pride" fliers Pasco residents recently found.

The Sheriff's Office said it has not identified who passed out the fliers. It also said the Hudson group has not been linked to any hate crimes.

"I think that there's definitely people in the community that either sympathize with those beliefs or that have those types of beliefs," said Pasco sheriff's Maj. Jeff Peake. While the agency has classified incidents as hate crimes, it does not believe they are significant in number.

Back during what historians call the "third wave" of the Klan during the Civil Rights movement, there was a Klan presence in Brooksville and Palm Harbor, said USFSP professor Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Hernando County also had one of the highest rates of lynching in the early 20th century. The historian said those old ties could be why pockets of white supremacy persist in Pasco County.

"These different groups to needed to find allies where they could get them," Arsenault said. So it was natural for them to merge with Neo-Nazis and other white or European nationalist groups.

In Brandon, the map shows a pinpoint for the The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that GoDaddy recently kicked off its servers for hate-based rhetoric following the Charlottesville violence.

The website's founder, Andrew Anglin, told the Tampa Bay Times in an email Tuesday that he lived in Brandon with his girlfriend for up to eight months or so. But the SPLC also found that Brandon is home to a Daily Stormer "book club," which also appear across the country.

In St. Petersburg, the headquarters of Bill Keller Ministries shows up on the map. The televangelist's program shifted from broadcast TV to the web about a decade ago. He's expressed Islamophobic views and once called the Prophet Mohammed a "murdering pedophile.")

Outside the bay area, the map shows Venice as home to the Straight Way of Grace Ministry, an anti-Muslim group, and Lakewood Ranch has the white nationalist American Freedom Party.

Paulson noted that both ends of the political spectrum have extremists, and that the state and bay has a high number of black separatist groups. The SPLC lists those groups because it says they're opposed to integration and interracial marriages. Though the SPLC notes these groups were created as "a response to centuries of white racism" they are "clearly racist."

"The same criterion should be applied to all groups regardless of their color," the SPLC said.

The SPLC said it identifies these groups via online sleuthing and sifting through police reports, news reports, on-site interviews and the groups' own websites and promotional materials.

"So much of it is hidden," Arsenault said. "But they track them all down."

While there are many such groups, Paulson doubts any single one has a large following. There may be about 500 due-paying members of the KKK in all of Florida, he estimated, though the Internet has made it easier for them to connect.

But a small hate group is no less dangerous, he said. A splinter group of the KKK, the "Cahaba Boys," was responsible for one of the worst terrorist attacks of the Civil Rights era: The 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four African-American girls. Said Paulson:

"It doesn't take that many people to build a bomb, blow up a church and kill four girls."

Times senior news researcher John Martin and staff writer Christopher Spata contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

 
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