The state of Florida has emerged as a major hub for conservative and extremist groups. Some far-right figures, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, have found refuge in the state, and Governor Ron DeSantis’ populist political agenda features some far-right tropes. Militant organisations on the ground are planning to take advantage of the situation. Recently, the Jacksonville City Council passed an ordinance making it illegal to project messages onto buildings without the owner’s consent in response to incidents in which people used powerful projectors to cast hateful images and messages onto buildings. Sergio Olmos of NPR travelled to Jacksonville the night before the city council’s decisions and filed the following report.
JOSH NUNES: If you want to keep your eyes, you’re going to have to stand over here.
A group of self-identified neo-Nazis gather in an urban alley, as reported by SERGIO OLMOS (Byline).
UNKNOWN PERSON: Keep your eyes peeled.
The President of the United States (NUNES): Okay.
All the men are hiding their faces, OLMOS. Two of them are dressed in white gaiters emblazoned with the group’s initials in a Nazi-style font from World War II. Nearby, a playoff game for the National Football League is about to begin. There are a lot of happy football fans down town.
NUNES: That being the case, we don’t want a horde of irate people to rush out and attack our small group of two or three men, if you get what I’m saying.
Josh Nunes is the OLMOS team leader. He watches for law enforcement while another man sets up a professional laser projector on the ground. They project a message about outlawing drag shows onto a city skyscraper.
NUNES: What we really want is for people to share it on social media, for it to go viral, for it to push the conversation into the public sphere.
At OLMOS, Nunes dials the number of a man who is in charge of tracking the online community’s reaction. They begin with rhetoric aimed at typical conservatives, but quickly shift to open bigotry.
NAMES: Take a look. I see Mr. Bird approaching.
Nunes thinks a police helicopter might be in the sky. They start getting ready to relocate to a new location. They ditch the gauntlets and stroll through Jacksonville.
PERSON #2 WHO IS UNKNOWN: I like the Jaguar backpacks. You can’t go wrong with a jaguar backpack.
OLMOS: On this pleasant Saturday night, patrons of area bars and restaurants have begun streaming outside. There are people of different races and ethnicities present. When Nunes and company walk by, nobody seems to notice them. At last, they settle in near the water’s edge and project an image onto a tall building.
NUNES: A cross and a swastika.
A swastika, five stories high and visible from far away. OLMOS.
NUNES: Some of the things we display are essentially a laser Nazi stronghold. We have artists on staff, and occasionally we post images just to get the word out.
White nationalists were identified as the United States’ greatest domestic threat by DHS in 2021. Professionals have noticed a pattern in the actions of Nunes and believe there is a strategy at work.
BEN POPP: Their goal is to get people used to seeing things like this.
Anti-Defamation League researcher Ben Popp works for OLMOS. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has documented over 400 incidents of white nationalist literature being distributed in Florida over the past two years. Popp claims that white nationalists seek acceptance by normalising racist imagery.
POPP: They’re trying to make this a regular occurrence by doing it every weekend with laser projectors, which is what they want the community to think it is.
OLMOS: Popp says that these kinds of actions are meant to project power, to make the group appear bigger and more powerful than it actually is (which, for the time being, is a group of masked men in an alley on a Saturday night).
POPP: It’s also a way for them to announce their presence. Since many of these organisations are relatively small, an action like this, which involves the rental of a massive skyscraper in downtown Jacksonville, can give the impression that they are much larger than they actually are.
OLMOS: Meanwhile, established politicians like Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, have adopted some far-right talking points into their platforms.
The following is a (clip taken from a recording that has since been archived)
R.N. DESANTIS: We will never, ever give in to the woke mob. Woke people retire to Florida to die.
OLMOS: Right-wing media’s prominent coverage of conspiracy theories and culture war grievances in states like Florida has made these issues central to public debate.
(An excerpt from an audio recording)
DESANTIS: And that’s why in Florida, we’ll protect parents’ rights to send their children to school for an education, not brainwashing.
OLMOS: The governor has stoked anger this year by appealing to misinformation about critical race theory. He has repeatedly threatened to eliminate African-American studies AP classes from high schools. The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, signed by DeSantis last year, forbids the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools from kindergarten through third grade. Politicians and pundits have stoked artificial panic over children performing in drag, which in turn has emboldened extremists like Josh Nunes.
NUNES: The drag events have been the source of the most recent increases in recruitment. Since we first began, progress has been methodical but steady. Every month, we get together and do some sort of activism.
Nunes, according to OLMOS, says his organisation was founded a year ago with three people. He estimates there are twenty right now and would like to double that number by the end of the year.
It’s tempting to try to find easy explanations for complicated behaviours, MIKE GERMAN says.
Mike German, of OLMOS, used to work for the FBI. As part of his covert operations, he once infiltrated white nationalist groups. According to German, modern adherents of white nationalist ideology, or those who traffic in such ideas, are not always the stereotypical jackbooted neo-Nazis who march with swastika tattoos.
GERMAN: They are not as marginal as we like to pretend; they are an integral part of our culture. In other words, there are cops out there who believe this stuff. We all know that there are actual humans holding political offices in our governments. The former president of the United States recently had dinner with white supremacists.
The meeting between Donald Trump, the artist and business mogul Ye, and the white nationalist Nick Fuentes at Trump Tower at the end of last year is what OLMOS: German is referring to. Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and Fuentes have strangely allied themselves due to their shared admiration of Hitler and antisemitic views. The surname of Josh Nunes himself is ambiguous; it might be pronounced Noo-nez (ph). He claims to be of Portuguese descent.
NUNES: I can confirm that I have Iberian ancestry. I mean, you know, there are people of all stripes involved in this movement. There are purists who spiral with extreme rigour. But, you know, that’s just not going to fly in the United States.
OLMOS: The one thing that seems to be happening in America right now is a mainstream acceptance of far-right conspiracy theories and hate speech. It’s the kind of opportunity that people like Josh Nunes have been hoping for in order to humanise their ideas.
NUNES: We’re just regular white people from the working class who have some racial consciousness, so that makes us Nazis, right? We think this kind of thing helps us connect with the average person.
OLMOS: Ordinary citizens whom Nunes intends to enlist in his cause so that marginalised communities like his own can come out from behind closed doors.