Florida Is Home To Second-Most Hate Groups In The U.S. — A Former Member Explains Why
The Southern Poverty Law Center says there are 68 known hate groups active in Florida. That's only four less than California, which has twice the population. Of them, 47 are white supremacy groups, like those involved in the insurrection at the U.S Capitol in January.
Extremism in Florida, however, isn't confined to one ideology. The center says 21 of the hate groups involve Black separatists.
Most of the White supremacist groups existed deep in the shadows until January's insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Scott Ernest was intimately familiar with these white supremacy groups now in the national spotlight.
He was a student at the University of South Florida when he moved to Montana 10 years ago, lured by a group that wanted to create a whites-only community. There, he was a moderator for Stormfront, a discussion board for white nationalists and the alt-right.
At one point, the West Palm Beach group had more than 300,000 members.
"As someone who actually recruited for it and ran a hate group that was on that map — that was just taken off this year — because it's dead," he said.
Ernest left the movement several years ago because he identifies as LGBT, something that didn't exactly mesh with the beliefs of most people in that group. He says the final straw was when one of the white nationalists he was working with was arrested for threatening to shoot local school children.
"That was my own personal Capitol insurrection," Ernest said. "That was where I kind of realized I'm not on the right path here. And I do see other people having that very same thing."
Today, Ernest splits his time between Montana and Florida, trying to lead people out of the wilderness of hate.
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 are growing slightly, and existing groups are gaining members.
"It's not that it's not occurring other places," Hall said. "It's that we're not seeing it 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."
She says the Sunshine State is home to White supremacist groups such as the KKK, Proud Boys and Neo-Nazis, racist skinhead groups and neo-Confederates. It's also home to Black separatist movements such as the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party.
Sicarii 1715 is a San Diego-based anti-Semitic and racist fringe religious group whose followers believe that Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are the true descendants of the 12 Tribes of Israel.
Of Florida's 68 hate groups identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 14 are statewide. The rest are groups with chapters, nestled in urban, suburban and rural communities.
Hall says the members come from all walks of life.
"They're lawyers and they're construction workers and they're all of these different people that hold power within society, and they're making decisions about other people based on their bigoted beliefs," she said.
"That is the invisible harm that occurs," Hall said. "The things that we see visibly we can understand and we can quantify. But the things that we don't see are where the real harm and the perpetuation of inequality occurs."
One of those people, Kelly Meggs of Dunnellon, heads the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers. It's a militia composed of current and former military, police, and first responders and are considered white supremacists. Meggs, his wife and another man from Englewood were charged with domestic terrorism in February for storming the U.S. Capitol.
There's also Sharkhunters International, a southwest Florida group that organizes tours to sites that were historically important to the Third Reich. And the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division came to light in 2017 when one of their former members was accused in a double murder in Tampa.
Because of our First Amendment rights of freedom of expression, the U.S. is one of the few developed countries that doesn't outlaw hate groups.
Radicalization, she says, occurs in different ways for different people.
"Some people hold these beliefs, and they go out looking for solace — and they find it," Hall said. "Then, there are some people who lack education on topics, and they go out looking for education, and they find it in the wrong places. And then, they get kind of what we call infiltrated. Their mind starts to get all of the same imagery and the same messages and they buy into this, and they become radicalized."
While Hall says the numbers of groups in Florida is growing, Scott Ernest believes acts like the Capitol insurrection are a lashing out from what he describes as a "last gasp."
"I don't see the movement as growing," Ernest said. "A lot of what I'm seeing right now — like the Capitol breach — it's the last gasp of a dying movement. They know that people are moving on from hate. People are becoming more tolerant."
But when people think they're backed into a corner, they lash out. Ernest says we can expect more outbursts like the Capitol insurrection as they perceive their movement to be weakening.
"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," he said. "And that's just what's been happening in Florida, that's what's happening all over the place."
But Ernest believes there will be a time when these hate groups will become so marginalized that we'll see fewer organized marches like in Charlottesville, for instance, and more acts of violence.
He says hearing a lot lately from people want to escape the cauldron of never-ending hate, They're reaching out to his group called . It's named after a Norse goddess who heals people.
"You know, sometimes they're not necessarily trying to have big changes in their lives. Sometimes, they just want to do things better," Ernest said.
"A lot of them are probably ones that they may be racist themselves, but they prefer the dog whistles, rather than the outright racism. I think that there have also been people that have woken up after the insurrection and have basically decided, hey, I need to change," he said.
"Yeah, we've been getting quite a few. It's been crazy."
Ernest says he's helping people turn their lives around, one person at a time.
Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.