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Florida among top states for hate groups, violent extremists, report says

The Southern Poverty Law Center warns that these groups are more threatening than ever, despite a slight decline in numbers from 2019 to 2020. In Florida, the numbers went up.
A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center says Florida is near the top in the U.S. in the number of hate groups. Though the number of groups dropped nationwide, leaders and researchers from the SPLC said these groups are no less dangerous, especially in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center says Florida is near the top in the U.S. in the number of hate groups. Though the number of groups dropped nationwide, leaders and researchers from the SPLC said these groups are no less dangerous, especially in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. [ J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE | AP ]
Published Feb. 1
Updated Feb. 1

The number of hate groups operating in Florida increased slightly from 2019 to 2020 and topped all but one other state, according to an annual count released Monday by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The nonprofit organization tracked 68 hate groups in Florida last year, it said, one more than in 2019. It tracked 72 in California, 54 in Texas and 37 in New York. Among the most populous states, Florida also had the highest per-capita number of hate groups (less-populated states including Montana, Nebraska and Arkansas led per-capita rankings on the whole).

Florida’s standing in this accounting increased even as the SPLC noted decreases elsewhere: The overall number of hate groups working in the U.S. dropped from 940 in 2019 to 838 in 2020, it said. It found fewer active hate groups in other large southern states — Texas, Georgia, North Carolina — compared to the previous year.

The Center also found a slight decrease in the number of active extreme anti-government groups, which includes militias and is counted separately from hate groups. It listed 566 of those groups, including 27 in Florida.

Despite those decreases, leaders and researchers from the SPLC said in a news conference Monday morning that these groups are no less dangerous, especially in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and the transition to a Democrat-led federal government, both of which could galvanize hate groups and extremists.

Related: After Capitol riots, Trump’s Florida supporters huddle online, plan and wait

“The numbers of both groups we’re tracking may be fewer than last year, but the threat is as high or probably higher,” said Susan Corke, the director of the Center’s Intelligence Project. “Technology has changed how hate groups operate. They now have the tools to disseminate info beyond their members, beyond geography.”

Hate and extremist movements have also become more diffuse as they’ve moved online, added senior research analyst Cassie Miller. Some groups have moved away from traditional leadership structures, which have opened some up to infiltration by law enforcement, journalists and antifascists, she said. Meanwhile, mainstream websites like Facebook and Twitter have allowed them to radicalize and organize in plain sight. Until recently, they’ve also allowed users to advance ideas like the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, which relies on many of the same anti-government and hate-based ideologies as the groups the SPLC tracks.

“Online spaces have really helped facilitate a more diffuse structure within the far right,” Miller said. “Extremists can join a number of Facebook groups or Telegram channels and get the same sense that they’re part of an in-group or movement.”

According to the SPLC’s Hate Map, which marks hate groups based on their headquarters or chapter locations, groups that were geographically based operated in nearly every region of Florida last year, from chapters of the Proud Boys and the Nation of Islam in the western reaches of the Panhandle to Stormfront, one of the internet’s most prominent white nationalist sites, based in West Palm Beach.

A handful of those groups were clustered in the Tampa Bay area: chapters of the Black separatist groups New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, in Tampa, and Nation of Islam, in Tampa and St. Petersburg; Bill Keller Ministries, led by an anti-Muslim televangelist, in St. Petersburg; the “general hate” A2Z Publications, in Parrish; and a chapter of the white nationalist American Freedom Party, in Bradenton. Neither Bill Keller Ministries nor A2Z Publications, the two Tampa Bay-area groups that aren’t chapters of larger organizations, responded to questions from the Tampa Bay Times about whether they dispute the designation.

The Proud Boys, the violent, male-only nationalist group that’s risen sharply in prominence over the past four years and has several members charged in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, has two chapters in the area, in Tampa and Sarasota. The group’s chairman, Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, lives in Miami and was arrested in early January after he admitted to burning a Black Lives Matter banner that was ripped from a historic Black church during a December pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C.

Related: Florida Proud Boys leader arrested in D.C. for burning Black Lives Matter flag

In Monday’s news conference, Miller singled out the group, which despite its penchant for violent street fights has made inroads with mainstream politicians, being name-checked by Trump during a debate last fall and appearing at an event with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz (Gaetz has said that the Proud Boys were providing security).

“My concern is that their form of politics where they use violence and intimidation to silence their adversaries is going to continue to become more normalized,” Miller said. “These dangerous ideas have really moved more and more into the mainstream.”

A number of high-profile attacks in recent years have been linked to Florida extremists and residents with hate-based ideologies. In 2017, a Tampa double-murder shed light on the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division; in 2018, a South Florida man mailed bombs to people he perceived to be enemies of Trump; and that same year, a far-right misogynist shot and killed two women at a yoga studio in Tallahassee.