The sky was threatening to open up any minute as a group assembled on the steps of Jacksonville City Hall. Other than some car and foot traffic slowly dribbling past, there was little activity in the heart of this metropolis of nearly 1 million people. Jacksonville, Florida has long struggled to create a vibrant downtown and it has yet to recover from the pandemic that shuttered businesses across the nation.
Most of the faces gathered beneath the overhang of the century-old building were familiar to the media assembled before them, as was their purpose this wet November day.
Gazing upon a park that bore the name and a statue of a Confederate soldier until just a few years ago, speaker after speaker demanded the city remove its biggest monument to that war over slavery. The subject of their ire stood silently in a park less than a mile away in a majority-Black neighborhood. The statue dedicated to the women of the Confederacy was erected in 1915, just a few years after the building that’s now City Hall was built.
To the activists from several different groups who spoke that day, the “Women of the Southland” isn’t simply a statue, it’s a thumb in the eyes of people who believe in racial equality—a monument to white supremacy.
“The romanticizing of the South must stop. These statues celebrate the return of white supremacy to the South after the violent vicious overthrow of Reconstruction,” activist Wells Todd said, pausing to let each sentence sink in. “I have said this time and time and time again.”
“They said we want to destroy history, we want to change history. When those statues started to go up, that was changing history. Those statues celebrate not only white supremacy. They celebrate the enslavement of Africans for almost 300 years,” he added.
When he’s speaking to a crowd, which the civil rights activist has often done over the decades, Todd has an intense gaze that’s scarcely diminished by the glasses you rarely see him without. His delivery is crisp and thoughtful, peppered with historical facts and astute observations.
Activists like Todd, a leader of Take Em Down Jax, have been clamoring for Jacksonville, Florida to take down all its Confederate monuments for years.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Jacksonville finally began heeding their demands by removing the Confederate monument in the park across from City Hall. Both the sheriff and then-Mayor Lenny Curry (R), who’d ordered the statue’s removal, joined a march to mark the occasion.
The city later changed the name of the park from Hemming, which was the name of the Confederate veteran who donated the statue, to James Weldon Johnson Park after the civil rights activist from Jacksonville who wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The song is known as the Black national anthem.
As I reported for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange at the time, on that sweltering day in June 2020, Todd gazed upon the empty pedestal where the statue once stood with a look of near disbelief. “I have to tell you, I’m happy as hell,” he said.
Now a local member of the Florida legislature wants to turn back the clock.
Rep. Dean Black (R) has legislation pending that would prohibit removing “historical monuments and markers.” Any elected official who voted to remove such monuments could be removed from office and fined $5,000 or the costs of removal, repair, and replacement—whichever is greater.
The bill doesn’t specifically mention the Confederacy, but does detail how the state should care for the statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith. The statue was removed from the state Capitol in 2021 and replaced with one of civil rights activist Mary McCleod Bethune.
In the arguably unlikely event that it passes, the law would be retroactive to 2017.
The Florida Times-Union reports that when his similar bill failed to pass last year, Black said, “We should not destroy our history. Neither should we prohibit anyone from telling their story. So don’t tear down my history. Tell yours.”
Black, who is white, is also chair of the local Republican Party. He did not respond to requests for comment.
After the press conference in November, Todd told the Daily Dot that Black’s proposed legislation sends a message to the many hate groups that call Florida home.
“I think it’s a shot in the arm for them. I think they love this stuff. It gives them a green light in their minds, justifies their attacks on the Black community. And those attacks are going to continue,” he said.
The wave of ideological migration that gained momentum during the pandemic crashed on Florida’s shores. The longtime swing state has morphed from purple to red in recent years, in part due to an influx of right-wing extremists who view the state as welcoming to the far-right. From 2020 to 2022, the number of active hate groups in Florida increased 30%, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Hate crimes and the distribution of bigoted propaganda increased too.
This story is part of a series examining the impact of right-wing radicals who’ve migrated to places around the country. The Daily Dot spent the last several months reporting from communities in Idaho, West Virginia, Maine, and Florida that are experiencing an influx of extremists to explore how each is being affected and what, if anything, they’re doing about it. Locals say that Jacksonville’s response has been uneven and slow at times, either because leaders don’t want or don’t care to openly address right-wing extremism. There have also been efforts to take on white nationalism on the state and local levels, though some believe it’s been insufficient and overdue.
After Floyd’s death in 2020, Jacksonville began taking down Confederate monuments. (Some questioned why it took a police officer murdering a Black man 1,500 miles away to finally spur it to action.) Last year, the city passed legislation intended to curb radicals spreading hateful messages by projecting them onto buildings and other landmarks a few months after they started doing so.
Many believe that Florida conservatives generally send mixed messages to the extremists who inhabit the state. Last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed legislation targeting the distribution of antisemitic hate speech. Also last year, DeSantis defended the state’s controversial new public school curriculum that claims some people benefited from slavery because they supposedly learned useful skills.
Todd draws a direct line from the actions and statements of powerful Florida Republicans like DeSantis and former President Donald Trump and the explosion of hate in the Sunshine State.
“They do have blood on their hands. And they will have more because they refuse to deal with truth and reconciliation in this country when it comes to the history of African Americans,” he said. “They refuse. They benefit from it.”
A sunny mecca for extremists
There was a lot going on in downtown Jacksonville on Halloween weekend in 2022. The historic Florida Theatre drew hundreds of costumed revelers to do the “Time Warp” at the The Rocky Horror Picture Show; nearby, tens of thousands gathered for a football game between the Universities of Florida and Georgia, an event that’s equal parts sporting event and bacchanalia. The game is colloquially known as the “world’s largest outdoor cocktail party.”
White nationalists seized the opportunity of having so many eyes trained on the city by projecting an antisemitic message onto the stadium.
On Telegram, the National Socialists Florida, a neo-Nazi group based in Jacksonville, shared a message from the “Lazer Nazi” taking credit for the display. The group describes itself as “a race first, legal Florida group doing everything we can to awaken our people and develop safe White Communities.” Its website also says, “A fascist Florida is inevitable.”
The same weekend, the Goyim Defense League (GDL) posted a message thanking National Socialists Florida “for showing us a Good Time Today!” and included photos of an antisemitic banner hung elsewhere in the city. The day before, GDL posted a video of a “test run” of the laser projecting antisemitic statements such as “end Jewish supremacy in America.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) describes GDL as a network of antisemitic provocateurs led by Jon Minadeo II. Minadeo is one of the most popular antisemitic influencers in America, something he’s boasted about. Minadeo, his group, and his video platform, GoyimTV, have thousands of followers online.
GoyimTV promoted a recent episode of Minadeo’s live stream as “the most antisemitic show in the world.” In 2022, he was arrested for hate speech while protesting against Jewish people outside the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where nearly 1 million Jews were executed in the Holocaust. Last February, Minadeo confronted people leaving a synagogue in Orlando. Video shows him shouting things like “filthy Jew” and “heil Hitler.” That April, he called on people to do “IRL work,” such as flier drops, to honor Hitler on what would’ve been the genocidal dictator’s birthday.
Minadeo did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Minadeo, who calls himself Handsome Truth, moved from California to Florida a few months after his arrest in Poland. His antics had made him increasingly recognizable and loathed by many in California.
According to a Jewish news outlet in northern California, Minadeo thought Florida would be more welcoming.
ADL investigative researcher Ben Popp said that Minadeo isn’t the only extremist who’s been lured to Florida in recent years. The state is a haven for far-right radicals. Both the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers had strongholds there. Leaders of both far-right groups were convicted of seditious conspiracy over the Capitol riot.
Popp believes that the state attracts extremists because it has a relatively large white nationalist network, a favorable climate, and a growing population that’s increasingly diverse.
“Their content and tactics rely on confrontation. So if they’re going into communities where more people that live there are people they’re targeting with their propaganda […] they’re going to get more backlash and they’re looking for that,” he said.
While some radicals hide behind masks and pseudonyms, Minadeo has built his career and reputation on camera. A 2022 profile in the California-based Press Democrat described him as “more of an insatiable attention seeker than an angry brawler.”
In September, Minadeo and other groups, including the Blood Tribe, held antisemitic protests in various Florida locations, including outside Disney World. Far-right influencer Laura Loomer, who is Jewish, recorded them shouting “heil Hitler” and antisemitic and homophobic slurs at her.
During the protest, Minadeo called the Holocaust the Holo-haux and claimed that Jews are going to be “expelled again,” per the Jerusalem Post.
The protest made national news.
Popp said that getting splashed across headlines nationwide gives people the perception that extremists have momentum in Florida. But he doesn’t necessarily think that the government itself welcomes them. He said some groups ironically associate themselves with politicians like DeSantis as a form of trolling, which whips up a media frenzy—serving twin purposes of creating propaganda they can use and giving them fodder for mocking the press.
“What we see behind the scenes is that a lot of these groups think DeSantis is a zionist,” Popp said, referring to people who support Israel being a Jewish state.
Yoking themselves to a political candidate to troll them isn’t a novel strategy for white nationalists. During the 2016 presidential campaign, a Jacksonville-based grand dragon of a branch of the Ku Klux Klan told me he supported Hillary Clinton, a claim that seemed disingenuous in light of him disrupting a speech by former President Bill Clinton that fall.
In April, Minadeo’s Goyim TV wrote on Telegram, “Jew d**k sucking f****t DeSatanist, race traitor Caruso and Jew blimp … communist [Florida state Rep. Randy] Fine [(R)] take Floridians 1st amendment in Israel!!!”
The governor had just signed legislation cracking down on antisemitism. Florida has seen a significant increase in antisemitic incidents in recent years, which extremism experts view as strategic.
“The more they normalize antisemitism and bigotry by distributing propaganda and having demonstrations, the more they think their views will become a legitimate political view, which unfortunately does make sense,” Popp explained.
For example, the first time you see a huge swastika projected on the side of a skyscraper, it’s shocking. But if it happens every day, it just becomes part of the skyline. The same can be true of ideas.
White nationalists often speak of shifting the Overton window and making things that were once taboo acceptable fodder for political discourse. White nationalist Nick Fuentes, who held his CPAC alternative conference in Orlando in 2022, has advocated this strategy.
Patrick Riccards is the chief executive officer of Life After Hate, a nonprofit that helps people de-radicalize and leave hate groups, including some of the most dangerous and notorious groups in the country. Riccards seems more like a college professor than a man who works side-by-side with people who’ve done prison time for hate crimes.
He believes that the culture of white supremacy and division in America have grown stronger than ever.
“I don’t think we’ve seen a growth of hate in the United States. We’ve seen a growth in the acceptance of hate,” he told the Daily Dot in December. He said the nation has “never been more divided since the Civil War.”
There are many forces trying to drag Florida to the far-right.
Peter Montgomery, research director of Right Wing Watch, noted that Mike Flynn lives in the state. Flynn, who briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser, is a hero among QAnon conspiracy theorists.
In recent years, Flynn has endeavored to be influential on the local level, including an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get a candidate he backed elected to head the Republican Party in Sarasota County. In 2022, the Herald-Tribune reported that Flynn had gotten involved in local issues there, ranging from COVID-19 policies to school board races, since he bought a home in the county a year prior.
“He’s this bridge between the MAGA movement and the scarier fringes,” Montgomery said. He referenced events Flynn headlines like the ReAwaken America Tour, which I covered in October.
“Flynn somehow brings it all together,” Montgomery said.
Palm trees and white hoods
There’s a saying in Florida: The further north you go, the further south you get. This makes cultural, though not geographic, sense: The northern part of the state has more in common with the Deep South than South Florida.
Although it’s technically the largest city in Florida, Jacksonville has long been the butt of jokes among residents of more metropolitan Orlando, Tampa, and Miami, who view it as something of a backwater.
Jimmy Midyette’s speech is hued with the slight southern drawl of a Jacksonville native. Sitting in his office in City Hall, where he’s the diversity manager for the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, on a clear, breezy afternoon a few days before Christmas, Midyette said he isn’t surprised by the hate festering in Northeast Florida. He recalled hearing stories about what it was like to be in the Ku Klux Klan when he was a kid.
“I grew up in a time, you know, on the west side, whenever you would go to Five Points and see skinheads and that wasn’t unusual,” he said, adding, “Being gay, I think I had an extra reason to be aware of it.”
White supremacists have a long history of anti-LGBTQ bigotry. In 1937, 200 members of the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in a public park then attacked a gay nightclub in the Miami area, assaulting patrons and demanding the club be shut down. When white nationalists protested outside a popular LGBTQ eatery in Jacksonville in 2022, they carried signs that mixed homophobic and antisemitic rhetoric.
Florida has targeted the LGBTQ community perhaps more than any other state in recent years.
The Republican-controlled government passed a controversial bill dubbed “Don’t say gay” because of its restrictions on discussing subjects related to sexuality and gender identity in schools. Laws passed in the last few years have effectively led to hundreds of books being banned in schools, including in Jacksonville, many that featured LGBTQ themes and characters.
Midyette believes that politicians’ claims that they’re just trying to protect kids from being exposed to inappropriate content are disingenuous.
“In every speech that the legislators give related to the bill, in every statement the governor makes about the topic, it’s very clear that it’s don’t say gay, trans, Black,” he said.
He sees a similar approach to white supremacy.
“The message is not necessarily I’ve got your back, but we’re going to prosecute doctors, we’re going to prosecute people who tried to vote, we’re going to prosecute teachers who were LGBTQ friendly,” Midyette said, noting that he was speaking in his personal capacity. “…It’s like wink wink, nudge nudge.”
Both the city and the state have been criticized for policies and decisions that have had a disproportionately negative impact on Black people.
Jacksonville’s Black residents have been fighting for civil rights and equal representation for decades. The city consolidated with the county in 1968; it’s widely acknowledged that white leaders in part pushed consolidation to dilute the Black vote. The population within the old city limits was projected to soon become majority Black and people believed this meant Jacksonville would have its first Black mayor within a decade. Consolidation shored up white power.
After consolidation, it took Jacksonville over 40 years to elect its first, and to date only, Black mayor.
In 2022, Black voters in Jacksonville lost a voice in the houses of power when the state legislature capitulated to DeSantis by dismantling the majority-Black congressional district in the city. An appellate court upheld the DeSantis-backed district map in December.
Judy Sheklin, legislative chair of the Jacksonville branch of the National Organization for Women, called out the state’s treatment of its Black residents at the November protest demanding the city take down its largest Confederate monument.
“Whether it’s by gerrymandering to eliminate Black congressional districts, white washing of history by removing Black history curriculum, voter suppression by race, or by radical distortion of facts, as when our governor tells us that slavery was really vocational education,” Sheklin said. “This is unacceptable.”
In 2021, organizers of Orange Crush, a three-day festival spanning over Juneteenth, moved the event to Jacksonville. Some welcomed the festival, which is largely attended by young Black people. Others publicly spoke out against it coming to Jacksonville. Some businesses in areas where Orange Crush had planned events preemptively closed out of fears that attendees would cause disturbances or commit crimes. Such concerns were for naught. The Florida Times-Union would describe the event as a peaceful “beach day.”
The episode brought up the widely held belief that prejudice has deep roots in Jacksonville.
At least seven Black men were lynched in the coastal city in the early 20th century, according to the Florida Times-Union. In 1960, whites attacked Black people downtown after a lunch counter sit-in; the brutal beatings would come to be known as Ax Handle Saturday. In a series on his website, JaxPsychoGeo, about the Ku Klux Klan’s activities in the area, local author Tim Gilmore included a photo of white robed members of the white supremacist group parading downtown in 1964. Local lore holds that Martin Luther King Jr. was so afraid of the town’s racists that he went to nearby St. Augustine instead during the Civil Rights Movement, where he would ultimately be arrested and jailed. Gilmore said that’s probably an urban legend, given King’s fearlessness.
That the legend persists underscores the city’s violent, racist past and, tragically, its present.
The proliferation of hate turned deadly in Jacksonville last summer, when a racist white man murdered three Black people at a Dollar General in a Black neighborhood. Before the shooting, he went to Edward Waters University, a historically Black college, where security spotted him and asked him to leave. The killer’s guns had swastikas on them and he wore a symbol popular with white supremacists, including the racist who murdered nine in the Charleston church shooting. The Charleston shooter is believed to have been radicalized online.
Minadeo says he doesn’t support violence and he doesn’t have a violent record. But J., a Jewish outlet in California, reported that Minadeo’s content “is rife with violent imagery and messages.” (The article described Florida as “an emerging hotspot for extremists.”) He frequently mentions the Holocaust and invokes Nazi symbols and sayings both on his videos and during his in-person activities, which he typically films to use for content.
On Oct. 28, 2022, he filmed members of the National Socialists Florida hanging banners from an overpass in Jacksonville, according to the Florida Times-Union. One banner said, “End Jewish supremacy in America.”
That day, Minadeo reportedly told local police that he is “the most famous antisemite in America on the internet.” He also said he planned to move to Jacksonville because of the climate and its conservatism. It’s not known if he ultimately did move to the city.
The next day Minadeo filmed antisemitic messages displayed on the football stadium with a laser during the Florida-Georgia game.
Unidentified individuals used laser lights to project a swastika onto a skyscraper downtown a few months later. The move prompted city leaders to act. Jacksonville went on to pass legislation prohibiting using lasers to project messages onto buildings without a permit and permission; violators can be jailed.
At the time, City Councilman Rory Diamond (R) told the Daily Dot, “I don’t think their message is resonating. It’s 2023; 99.99% of people in Jacksonville think these people are crazy.”
Minadeo’s GoyimTV Telegram channel shared a post by the leader of the National Socialists Florida complaining that the legislation was a violation of free speech rights.
The law has had the desired effect. There haven’t been any reports of antisemitic laser displays on a building in Jacksonville since.
Midyette of the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission said that sometimes it takes bad publicity to spur leaders in Florida to action.
“When it spills from online, that’s when that’s when I think people are like, ‘No, I’m not about that, like no laser Nazis for us. We’ve got money to make.’ Is kind of the way that I perceive our local Republicans going,” he said.
Some believe there are leaders who want to roll back the clock to the Jim Crow era, when the rights of Black people, women, and LGBTQ people were extremely repressed. Others simply say that they have to be dragged, (figuratively) kicking and screaming, to progress. When the city council proposed cracking down on laser light displays, Florida Politics’ headline read, “At long last, Jax leaders mobilize against antisemitic displays.” (Jax is a nickname for Jacksonville.)
Sometimes Jacksonville leaders do prove that they’re willing to take a stand.
On Dec. 27, the sun slanted through the trees onto a crew taking down the monument to women of the Confederacy from Springfield Park near downtown Jacksonville. Mayor Donna Deegan (D) had given activists a belated holiday surprise by ordering the monument removed at long last.
Black, the state representative who wants to mandate putting monuments back up, blasted the move as “another in a long line of woke Democrats’ obsession with Cancel Culture and tearing down history.”
The Florida Times-Union reported that a small crowd gathered for the occasion erupted into cheers when the statues were lifted up and away.
That day activist Wells Todd told the outlet, “It’s bittersweet. Why has it taken so long to remove something that should never have been put up?”
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