Racist slurs on Tampa truck shock, confuse and mislead onlookers

This sign is posted on the back of a pickup truck and trailer being towed around Tampa by Tony Daniel, a longtime activist.
This sign is posted on the back of a pickup truck and trailer being towed around Tampa by Tony Daniel, a longtime activist.
Published March 6, 2017

TAMPA — It's hard to miss Tony Daniel when he heads out for a drive.

His pickup truck cruises through Tampa with a large sign showing a Confederate flag, a Nazi flag, a photo of a lynching, Mayor Bob Buckhorn's photo, references to Home Depot and multiple uses of the word "n-----."

Vote Buckhorn for Florida governor, it says, adding, "Every n----- vote counts." At the top of the sign, the word appears in letters a foot tall.

People often call City Hall to complain, one nearly in tears. Many suppose a white supremacist is behind the racial slurs and swastikas.

"Maybe a KKK kind of thing," downtown worker Matt Reinstetle said after seeing the truck.

But Daniel, 59, is black. He won't say what he's trying to accomplish. He claims, in fact, that he has "never liked controversy."

His truck and track record suggest otherwise.

• • •

"So vile," says Buckhorn, who is considering running for governor in 2018 but lately appears to be doing little to actually prepare for a run.

"We tell (callers) that ignorant racists come in all colors and in all ethnicities and that free speech is protected — sadly, in this case," he said, and that Daniel "has a beef" with the city.

For several years, Daniel has been in a dispute with City Hall over an east Tampa house that has been hugely expanded, largely without permits, officials say. The unpermitted construction has run up fines of nearly $1.7 million, one of the largest code enforcement fines officials can remember, and is growing at $1,000 a day until the violations are corrected.

The house on E Ida Street was owned by Fulani Daniel, who city officials say is Daniel's daughter, in 2011 when the city issued a permit for a second-floor addition of 1,274 square feet. By then, officials say, construction had begun.

Since then, construction has far exceeded what the city permitted, city attorneys said. Trees were cut down and the entire lot was paved. The city has issued stop-work orders. It has not issued a certificate of occupancy. Inspectors have not been able to check plumbing, electrical or structural work on the home.

Although Tony Daniel is not listed as the property owner, city officials say he's contacted them many times to talk about the project. In January, Fulani Daniel deeded the property to Rosanna Bass, who city officials say has come to City Hall to deliver handwritten letters from Daniel and has put Daniel on a speaker phone to discuss the house with a city attorney.

Along with displaying the truck and its sign, Daniel also pickets, lately with a sign using a racial slur to demand the firing of a former city building official. The man recently retired after 37 years with the city, but Daniel continues to picket.

In his debate with the city, Daniel doesn't talk about the trailer.

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"It's political speech, which is very protected by the courts," City Attorney Salvatore Territo said, just like the antigay demonstrations of Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas-based group that pickets military funerals.

Territo said the city has been careful to keep the code enforcement case separate from the protest. "We're not piling on,'' he said. "We're not trying to retaliate."

Home Depot spokesman Stephen Holmes said Daniel's complaint with the company appears to be related to a product but declined to go into detail. Daniel has been trespassed from Home Depot's Tampa-area stores.

"We've tried reasoning with him to understand what his concern is with the company, but to no avail," Holmes said. Whatever the issue, "his tactics are completely inappropriate, and we're appalled."

At City Hall, officials say the code enforcement case will be resolved when the city gets proper paperwork and determines that the work meets minimum standards.

"If he thinks it's going to make the city back down, it's not," Buckhorn said of Daniel's unusual protest.

One thing the city can do is write Daniel a ticket for $30 or $36 when his truck and trailer take up two spaces or overstay the meter.

Daniel has gotten more than a dozen tickets. He says they're illegal and a form of retaliation.

"That gives you a good example of how racism and city government work," he told the Tampa Bay Times. He said city officials recently converted two spaces next to City Hall into handicap spaces, where parking fines could be up to $250, "to prevent us from parking there."

The city converted the spaces because it has a shortage of handicap parking, city spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said.

• • •

The Times has known about Daniel's demonstrations for a year or more, but did not decide to write about him until recently, when he took the truck to at least three schools, upsetting students, parents and administrators.

Daniel himself has generally declined to discuss what his goals are or why he uses the n-word on his signs. He told a Times reporter he wouldn't challenge anything the city or Home Depot said about him.

In court, however, Daniel has said more about what he does.

In 2015, a Tampa insurance company sued to stop Daniel from picketing outside its office with signs — some showing Nazi and Confederate flags — and using the company's name and racial slurs, including, "We support tradition. N------ get nothing."

Daniel told the judge the insurance company had issued a policy to a roofer who left his roof uncovered during a storm.

Computers, music recording equipment, T-shirts and other merchandise he uses to make money were ruined, he said. (Daniel has been well-known as an organizer of alcohol- and drug-free talent shows, car shows and dance parties since the 1990s.) When Daniel couldn't get a satisfactory response from a claims adjustor — he said an employee involved in the claim told him the damaged goods were stolen merchandise — he took his protest to the company.

The Tampa company was "the closest representative of a network" that was treating "a simple insurance claim in a racist manner," Daniel said at a hearing.

"Why are you out there with these signs?" County Judge Jennifer Gabbard asked.

"It's a strategy," Daniel told her. "It's a peaceful response to that offense."

Daniel described himself as a "professional protester" associated with the African People's Socialist Party, or Uhuru movement. And he said he would not try to resolve his insurance problem by, for instance, complaining to the Florida Department of Financial Services.

"There are no instances in which I would appeal to any person, white, to resolve any matter for me — no ifs, no ands, no buts," he said in court.

He told Gabbard he's been protesting for 45 years.

About 30 years ago, Daniel worked at a Sears service center on Spruce Street, recalled a former co-worker, criminal defense attorney Bryant Camareno. On the job, Camareno said, Daniel was punctual and hardworking, with a great attendance record. But on breaks and after work, Camareno said, he would go outside and picket with signs saying Sears was a racist corporation.

Camareno, a Republican and former state and federal prosecutor, said he doesn't know what's going on with the truck and agrees with "maybe only 1 percent" of what Daniel says. But he said he respects Daniel for exposing him to the teachings of Malcolm X and Steve Biko — "stuff I never learned in college or law school" — and said he's been consistent in his activism.

In the 1990s, Daniel was arrested and banned from Tampa City Council meetings after calling then-Mayor Sandy Freedman a "Jew dog" and City Council member Perry Harvey an "Uncle Tom n------." Daniel chained himself to a row of seats at one meeting and tried to walk into another carrying a dead possum.

In 1995, he was convicted of spray painting antipolice graffiti on buildings, including a church.

In the insurance company case, Gabbard granted an injunction ordering Daniel to stop displaying the signs about the company for 24 months or face jail. She ruled the signs falsely accused the company of being racist and associated it with "symbols of hatred."

That's not constitutionally protected speech, she said, but stalking. Daniel has appealed.

And he's done one other thing. He picketed near the courthouse with signs that referred to "Judge Garbage," along with displaying Nazi and Confederate flags and "n-----."

Times senior news researcher John Martin and columnist Sue Carlton contributed to this report.