Hate groups have been proliferating in FL during Trump administration; DeSantis says FL will be prepared

Thousands of President Donald Trump's supporters storm the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. The protesters broke windows and clashed with police. The FBI has warned of the potential for similar disturbances in state capitals as Joe Biden's inauguration approaches. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Florida is home to dozens of Southern Poverty Law Center-designated “hate groups,” some with histories of violence and involvement in last week’s assault on the U.S. Capitol.

The civil rights organization’s data show that hate groups have been proliferating in Florida during the Trump administration to the point that, as of 2019, they numbered 67 — second only to California, which was home to 88.

However, Florida ranks higher than California, based on the number of hate groups compared to overall population.

In Florida, they include the Ku Klux Klan, Proud Boys, and neo-Nazi groups, according to SPLC.

Those facts gain pungency in light of a warning from the FBI that armed Donald Trump supporters could attempt to breach the Florida Capitol between now and Joe Biden’s inauguration next Wednesday. Whether any of these groups plans trouble in Tallahassee, we don’t know at this point.

In the presidential election, Trump won Florida, gathering the state’s 29 electoral votes. But Biden won more electoral and popular votes overall. Like Trump, himself, many of his supporters have refused to accept their loss, and that’s what drove the hordes to invade the U.S. Capitol.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of Trump’s closest political allies, said Tuesday that state authorities will be prepared.

“I don’t want to see that, but if anything is disorderly, we are going to act very quickly. Don’t worry about that,” he told reporters during a news conference at a COVID vaccine distribution site in The Villages.

“When I came out with our legislation in September, I said, look, Florida handled this summer well. We didn’t tolerate it.”

He referred to an anti-mob bill he proposed following Black Lives Matter protests that the Legislature will take up during its regular session early next year.

“But there’s something happening in our country. We just have to understand it. I don’t care why you’re doing it — you’re not doing it here. So, if there’s any type of disorder, we will have the reinforcements there,” DeSantis said.

ABC News reported Monday the FBI has received intelligence warning that armed protests planned at all 50 state capitals and in Washington through Inauguration Day — even those, like Florida, that Trump won. One group called upon Trump followers to storm state, local, and federal facilities in case of the president’s impeachment or removal via the 25th Amendment, the network said.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which oversees Florida’s own Capitol Police, has not shared details of their preparations for that eventuality.

Legislative leaders also were preparing in cooperation with the Florida Capitol Police, said Jenna Box Sarkissian, communications director for Speaker Chris Sprowls.

“The sergeant at arms has been in contact with Capitol Police regarding graphics being circulated online that call for storming all state capitol buildings ‪at noon on Sunday, Jan. 17, and together, they will be prepared to maintain safety and order at the Florida Capitol Complex. If deemed necessary, local and state enforcement may be called in to ensure security,” she told the Phoenix via email.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, meanwhile, told his members that officials had upped security in that chamber but didn’t discuss details.

He added: “I understand that this time of year many members of our professional staff are working on the weekends. Out of an abundance of caution, I am requesting that staff work remotely this Sunday, rather than traveling to the Capitol Complex.”

The SCLC’s 67 “hate groups” organized in the state include Nazis, neo-confederates, and five chapters of the white nationalist Proud Boys, members of which participated in a pro-Trump rally on Wednesday, the same day as the U.S. Capital attack, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

It was unclear how many individual extremists belong to these groups, which include organizations singled out not for any history of violence but rather for stands inimical to LGBT or immigrant rights, such as the American College of Pediatricians, Liberty Counsel, and the American Family Association.

The center also has identified three statewide chapters of the Ku Klux Klan; neo-Nazi groups including the Atomwaffen Division and the National Socialist Movement; and white nationalists including the American Identity Movement, the Patriot Front, and Storm Front.

The SPLC data show that Florida hosted 38 hate groups in 2000. The groups numbered in the 40s and 50s through 2015.

But in 2016, the figures moved to 63 groups, then 66 in 2017, then 75 in 2018 and then back down to 67 in 2019. That period generally encompassed President Donald Trump’s term in office.

Five of the people arrested based on photographic evidence following the Capitol riot live in Florida or recently move out of state, according to published reports. They include Eric Gavelek Munchel, who carried zip ties into the Senate chamber, and Adam Johnson, who walked off with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lecturn.

The Palm Beach Post has reported that Proud Boys members from South Florida attended a pro-Trump event in Washington in December brawled with so-called antifa activists, a loose conglomeration of self-proclaimed antifascists.

As for the potential for violence in Florida’s state capital, DeSantis was vague Tuesday about the details of the state’s preparations.

“I don’t know that I’ve gotten anything specific for it, but that would not be advisable for people to want to do that in the state of Florida,” he said.

“Understand — our legislation is going to pass this legislative session. So, if you riot, you are going to jail, and you’re going to have to spend time in jail. If you assault law enforcement in a violent assembly, you are going to definitely go to jail. If you burn down someone’s business — you do all this, the penalties are going to very swift and immediate.

“I think once people see that — well, I think they already know Florida means business,” he said.

The governor welcomed news of arrests following the Washington attack, which sought to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s election. Participants assaulted police defending the Capitol, ransacked offices, and attempted to track down Vice President Mike Pence and congressional leaders. Five people died, including one Capital Police officer of injuries and a second officer who reportedly committed suicide later.

“I actually am glad to see some of these people getting arrested from the D.C. thing, because I think that the prosecutions will really make a difference,” DeSantis said.

The governor did not mention Donald Trump’s role in the attack, which followed a “Stop the Steal” rally in which he repeated baseless claims of electoral fraud and urged the crowd to march on the Capitol.

Neither did he mention his apparent call following the elections upon voters in GOP-controlled states to urge their legislators to adjust the vote counts. A press aide later clarified to News Channel 8 in Tampa: “The governor pointed out that in the event of a flagrant violation of law, the framers placed a legislative remedy in the Constitution.”

“I think a lot of people who probably went to that speech were just going to do what they normally do. But those folks who took it to the violent level, they need to be held accountable. It’s just not acceptable to do that, and it was really, really a sad thing to see,” the governor said Tuesday.

DeSantis, who served three terms in Congress, suggested that the bigger problem with the police response to the insurrection lay less with rank-and-file officers than with higher-ups.

“The Capitol Police on the ground, that was a very difficult situation, and they could have done it in a way that you would have had a huge number of people die as a result of that,” he said.

“I know there were injuries and there were, unfortunately, fatalities. But I think those guys deserve a lot of credit, in a situation like that, to be able to steer a huge mob of people away from doing a lot of other people harm, so good on them.”

He added: “That’s one of the reasons I did the anti-rioting legislation, because I thought it was a way to stand by our law enforcement. When they’re in those situations, you’ve got to have their backs.”

DeSantis noted that he was on the congressional baseball team practicing in Alexandria, Va., in 2017 when a gunman opened fire and gravely wounded U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and also wounded two Capital Police officers.

“They saved Steve’s life and they saved a lot of other lives. They have my gratitude for that.”

Phoenix editor Diane Rado contributed to this report.