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In Florida, far-right groups look to seize the moment

Jim Urquhart for NPR
Members of the white nationalist group National Socialist Florida use a laser projector to display white nationalist and anti-LGBTQ images on the side of the CSX building and other high-rise buildings in Jacksonville, Fla.

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It's an unseasonably cool January evening. Helicopters buzz overhead as a NFL playoff game gets underway. In a downtown alley not far from the stadium, masked men have their sights on the 37-story Wells Fargo Center.

Two of the men wear white gaiters with the acronym of their white nationalist group, National Socialist Florida, written in the typeface of German WW II propaganda posters. One of the men kneels down in the alley and takes off his backpack. He removes a commercial grade laser projector that retails for about $3,000. Smaller than a loaf of bread, compact, powerful and mobile.

Josh Nunes, the leader of the small band of white nationalist extremists, keeps a lookout for police while the other man aims the laser onto the skyscraper, careful to avoid helicopters flying overhead and possible detection. He projects a rolling ticker tape onto the building that reads, "Why are child friendly drag shows legal? @ Ron DeSantis." Nunes cranes his neck to see how it looks.

This demonstration might not seem like much, but for these far-right groups, it's a way to punch above their weight and get noticed.

"What we're really going for is people putting it on social media and spreading it around and pushing the conversation in the public arena," Nunes says.

Finding people with like minds

Nunes and his group first tried the laser projections last year during a college football game. They projected a message onto the stadium that read, "Kanye is right about the Jews!" The line was a nod to recent anti-Semitic rants by the artist and business mogul Ye, formerly known as Kanye West. On that night Nunes says he brought along the leader of another small neo-Nazi group in Florida to observe and "to see if it was worth picking up."

Nunes and his group regularly coordinate with other far-right groups, forming what the advocacy organization Anti-Defamation League calls an unprecedented level of coordination among white nationalist groups in Florida.

"What we have seen is certain types of activism definitely gets interest and recruitment up. And that's where like the drag queen shit — like everybody wants to be a part of the team shutting that down," says Nunes, referencing the manufactured hysteria over children and drag events stoked by politicians and pundits and spurred on by extremists like himself.

Nunes and his group are intentionally choosing messages meant to resonate with a mainstream conservative audience. At the same time , mainstream political figures like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have fused some far-right talking points into their political rhetoric.

This year, the governor tapped into outrage fueled by disinformation over Critical Race Theory by threatening to end high school advanced placement courses in African American Studies. Last year, DeSantis signed the so-called "don't say gay" law that barred classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

There were 141 incidents of anti-LGBTQ protests and threats targeting specific drag events last year according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, an advocacy organization. In addition, protests against drag shows have been a growing target among far-right groups, according to data from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

"We've just seen the largest upticks in recruitment from the drag stuff," Nunes says.

He says the group began with just a handful of followers going out to protest drag shows last year. But it's been growing, with demonstrations becoming a monthly occurrence.

"It's not uncommon to show up with 20 dudes now," says Nunes. "We're hoping by the end of this year maybe we got 30 or 40 guys."

A nice way to go about it

"Hang on one second. Hello?" says Nunes, pulling out his phone. "Cross the bridge and I'll drop you a pin." Moments later, the man Nunes was talking to appears and walks into the alley. He covers his face with a black gaiter and doesn't want to give his name. Two more men will join the same way, covering their faces and withholding their names. The group continues projecting different messages onto the building, most of them about drag shows.

"A lot of this is pretty boring, to be honest with you," Nunes says. "Most of the time we don't have much interaction."

Nunes oversees this campaign to spread hate like a foreman watching his crew pour cement. "So it's like when we've got two or three guys out here, we're not trying to have people accost us," he says, explaining that they're looking to avoid confrontations with pedestrians or police.

Nunes touts tolerance even as his group spreads noxious hate. "Obviously, we're critical of racial issues" he says, couching racist rhetoric in civility. "But there's a nice way to go about it, that's not gonna get your teeth punched out of your head."

The group is careful mostly to avoid attracting the attention of Antifa, far-left activists who would look to stop Nunes and his crew through physical force. Antifa has become a boogeyman of sorts for the right, even being called Nazis themselves in some right-wing media. Nunes and his group find that frustrating – it's a mantle they'd like to claim.

"They're like, 'Antifa's the real Nazis,' " Nunes says in exasperation. "You know, they say stuff like that and it's like, 'Yeah, you know, I don't know.' "

An unhoused man in the alley can't sleep with some of the noise Nunes and his crew are making. He gets up and asks what they're doing. Nunes offers the man some homemade coffee he brought for the guys in the group, brushing away questions. Nunes suspects a police helicopter might be overhead. They begin packing up to move to a different spot. They take off their gaiters and walk through downtown Jacksonville unnoticed.

People flood out from the bars and restaurants. It's a mixed crowd: white, Black, Latino. The five men mask up and set up again near the waterfront, keeping a lookout for police. One of the men shines an image onto the CSX building. "That's a cross and a swastika," Nunes says with pride. At five stories tall, the image is visible for miles.

Projecting power

In 2021, the Department of Homeland Security designated white nationalists the biggest domestic threat the U.S. faces. Experts say there's a strategy behind the kinds of things Nunes is doing.

"These groups are looking to sanitize this imagery like this," says Ben Popp, a researcher with the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. Over the past two years, the ADL has tracked over 400 instances of white nationalist literature being disseminated in Florida. Popp says the normalizing of racist imagery is one way that white nationalists look to gain a foothold.

"They want the community to view this as a normal occurrence, so they're attempting to make it a normal occurrence by going out every weekend and using these laser projectors to do this," Popp says.

These kinds of actions, he adds, are meant to project power, to portray the group as larger and more powerful than they are – which, for the moment, is a handful of masked men standing at the waterfront on a Saturday night.

But Nunes' small group continues to grow, as once-fringe white nationalist rhetoric and ideas gain traction. A 2022 poll by The Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 1 in 3 Americans believe in certain aspects of "Replacement Theory" when it comes to immigration, subscribing to the idea that liberal elites are trying to replace native born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains. It's a false conspiracy theory long circulated amongst white nationalists and now part of popular political parlance, and regularly cited by right-wing mainstays like Fox News' Tucker Carlson.

"It's a good way to relate to normal people."

Nunes believes he is able to draw men into the group by offering community to men who are looking for meaning, trapped in a digital culture.

"I think our society is pretty fractured. It's like, for the average male in America right now, a lot of dudes don't have one friend," he says. "They don't have one person they can call and borrow $500 if they needed to. And that is a thing that's real within this group. If one of our buddies needs help, we're gonna help them. There is a fraternity there.

"We're like regular working-class white people that are racially aware. And so we're Nazis, right?" Nunes says while overseeing the Saturday night laser projections, "And so stuff like this, we feel like it's a good way to relate to normal people."

Nunes is emblematic of today's white nationalists, embracing whiteness as descendants of Europeans rather than obsessing over Aryan bloodlines. He says he's half-Portuguese – in a movement historically fixated on perceived purity that would've been a barrier to entry in the past.

"I've definitely got some Iberian blood. And there's, you know, there's all types in the movement. There's people that are, like, super hard, purity spiralers. But it's like, at the end of the day, that's never going to work in America," Nunes says.

The face of hate

"I think it's tempting to look for simple explanations for complex behaviors," says Mike German, former FBI agent and current fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He worked undercover in the 1990s infiltrating white supremacist groups. German says those who adhere to white nationalist ideology today or who traffic in it don't always fit the stereotype of people marching with jack boots and swastika tattoos.

"They are part of our society. And it's not as fringe as we'd like to believe. There are people in law enforcement who subscribe to these ideas. There are people in government, people in elected office. White supremacists just had dinner with the former president of the United States," German says, referencing Donald Trump's meeting late last year with Ye and white nationalist Nick Fuentes. Fuentes and Ye have formed a bizarre alliance over a shared love of Hitler and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

As the nation grapples with how to confront the rise of domestic extremism, local city governments face their own challenges with people like Josh Nunes. The city of Jacksonville has passed a city ordinance that makes it illegal to project images onto buildings without the building owner's consent — a misdemeanor offense. But it's unclear how such a move will bear up under legal scrutiny. Many political groups have used projectors in public areas as forms of demonstration, an act that lower courts have historically upheld as protected by the First Amendment.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.