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Why Words Matter
The Rising Tide of Hate Crimes
The state of Florida, along with other red states like Iowa, has enacted restrictive laws about teaching tolerance for LGBTQ/trans people, and the history of America’s racist and colonial past. These ideas and words have consequences.
Among the restrictions are rules that teachers cannot teach any lesson that makes white people feel bad about being white. The rule is so vague and comprehensive that teachers will avoid any truthful and honest lesson that might get them in trouble and instead feed white-washed, bland information to students about the goodness and exceptionalism of white people. Losing one’s teaching license and livelihood is too risky when the law is so vague.
In Florida, DeSantis’ appointed board of education has adopted social studies standards that require Florida teachers to instruct that people who were enslaved developed skills that could be applied for their “personal benefit.” Also included in the lessons are how horrible events like the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, during which white supremacists looted and burned to the ground one of the wealthiest Black communities in the U.S. and killed at least 300 Black residents, were somehow instigated by African Americans. This contortion of U.S. history is a slap in the face to every African American in the country. These ideas have consequences.
Over this Labor Day weekend in Florida, two Neo-Nazi hate groups held a public parade through the Orlando area. With swastika flags flying proudly, these white supremacists chanted the slogan, “We Are Everywhere.” They distributed fliers that described the work of these two groups as the “March of the Red Shirts.”
One of the groups calling itself, Blood Tribe, was founded by Christopher Polhaus, a former US Marine linked to the January 6 insurrection. The group regards Hitler as a deity. Blood Tribe members emphasize hyper-masculinity and the group does not allow female members They see themselves as the last remaining obstacle against the enemies of a white ethno-state. How ironic this group feels emboldened to march through the streets of Orlando knowing they will receive no pushback from Republican lawmakers who control the state.
The other group was called the Goyim Defense League which is a loose network of individuals connected by their extreme antisemitism. The group includes five or six primary organizers or public figures, dozens of supporters, and thousands of online followers. “Goyim” is a disparaging Yiddish and Hebrew word for non-Jews. They engage in anti-Jewish conspiracies and tropes about Jewish world domination. They respond well to DeSantis’ “anti-woke” diatribes and conspiracy accusations against George Soros. It is tailor-made for the Goyim Defense League.
This march happened on the same day Order of the Black Sun, a separate group of far-right supporters claiming to be affiliated with the 'Aryan Freedom Network,’ were flying Nazi flags at the gates of Disney World alongside flags claiming to support Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
The appearance of these hate groups on the streets of Florida just a few days after the hate crime committed in Jacksonville, Florida illustrates the type of environment that DeSantis and his right-wing Republican extremists in the state have created. Words have consequences. Leaders who greenlight and give comfort to hate groups such as this can only expect people to act on those dog whistles.
Enduring yet another racist attack in America, this one killed three Black people at the hands of a white, 21-year-old man who authorities say left behind white supremacist ramblings that read like “the diary of a madman.” In response to this shooting Ron DeSantis, a Republican candidate for President, had the audacity to say, “What he did is totally unacceptable in the state of Florida, and we are not going to let people be targeted based on their race.” Really Governor?
Florida state representative, Angie Nixon, said in response to DeSantis’ hypocritical comments,
“We must be clear, it was not just racially motivated, it was racist violence that has been perpetuated by rhetoric and policies designed to attack Black people, period. We cannot sit idly by as our history is being erased, as our lives are being devalued, as wokeness is being attacked, because let’s be clear, that is red meat to a base of voters.”
Rudolph McKissick, a national board member of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Baptist bishop, and senior pastor of the Bethel Church in Jacksonville, was in Jacksonville on Saturday after the shooting occurred in the historically Black New Town neighborhood. “Nobody is having honest, candid conversations about the presence of racism,” McKissick said. Indeed, honest and candid conversations have been deliberately and legally shut down in Florida.
In the larger picture, Florida can also claim the prize for the 2nd largest number of hate groups of any state except California which has twice the population. In 2018, there were 68 hate groups according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, but since 2022, that number has risen to 89. This interestingly coincides with DeSantis’ increasingly extremist “anti-woke” rhetoric.
Lori Hall is a professor specializing in race-based hate groups at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus. She says the number of groups in Florida is growing slightly, and existing groups are gaining members.
"It's not that it's not occurring in other places," Hall said. "It's that we're not seeing it in other places as much as we're seeing it here. And there's a lot more movement in Florida for various reasons whether that be tourism, whether that be Southern culture, whether that be because we're a Republican state."
Scott Ernst, a former member of a Florida-based hate group now works to try and help people de-radicalize. He left the hate groups due to his own sexual orientation which didn’t match well with the ideology of right-wing extremism. Ernst noted,
"Just like Trump lashing out, it was a very similar situation, whereas Trump's ideology is a dying ideology. So he lashes out. And because he lashes out, his cultists lash out also. And that's just what's been happening in Florida, that's what's happening all over the place."
Is it only time before this type of racist extremism comes to Iowa? Or is it already here? The same policies pursued by DeSantis in Florida are being mirrored by the Reynolds administration and the Republicans in the Iowa Statehouse.
According to the FBI, hate crimes in Iowa spiked in 2020 to 21 with 16 being against blacks and the other 3 being against LGBTQ people. And the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that there are currently 15 hate groups functioning in Iowa according to 2022 statistics. This pales in comparison to Florida, but the population of Iowa is much smaller, and the state is less diverse. But this does represent a rising tide of hate in the Hawkeye state according to the FBI.
It is only a matter of time. Iowa’s new gay-bullying laws go into effect in Iowa schools this fall, and books are being removed from shelves that coincidentally contain LGBTQ and black race references or authors. Look for incidents of student bullying to rise this year. The state leadership has given their permission to students to do so.
Now, I’m not blaming DeSantis or Reynolds for the actions of other people. If someone gets bullied or worse, killed in Iowa because of a hate crime the only guilty person is the one who committed the act. Same in Florida. However, the general environmental conditions that encourage anti-LGBTQ and anti-black sentiment help to create the conditions for right-wing extremists to commit the acts. It is a permission slip that they feel they need to act. Leaders who promote un-woke policies will be responsible for tacit approval of hate crimes.
The words from DeSantis about it being unacceptable to kill black people based on the color of their skin rings hollow and shallow. Words have consequences and people in leadership must take responsibility for their irresponsible speech.