ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Eighty years ago, the United States was in the middle of preparing to enter the costliest war in its history. United under a flag and military propaganda, factories ramped up and men began training to fight Nazis, Japanese and most of all, Adolf Hitler.
No one at the time could have imagined that, decades later, a swastika flag would fly above Orlando.
It happened, though. Anti-Jewish cries were heard in Waterford Lakes and over I-4, to the horror of most Americans. A tiny group of extremists was allowed to gather under a flag protected by free speech it never stood for.
Miles away, students at the historically Black Bethune-Cookman University huddled in their dorm rooms under lockdown after a caller warned about bombs on campus, alleging ties with a Nazi organization.
“He did make connections to that organization in the call,” Daytona Beach Police Chief Jakari Young, an alum of the university, recalled.
The threats and demonstrations were part of a five-year pattern in which extremists have felt emboldened to leave their basements and closets and step into public view.
Former judge and Bethune-Cookman Chairman Belvin Perry said it was a consequence of political leaders embracing — or at least tolerating — the expression of those views to court potential supporters.
“I’m disappointed in our politics today,” Perry said. “I’m disappointed in the hatred that’s been shown in this country, toward people who don’t look like other people.”
Nazis weren’t the only active group in Central Florida this weekend. Conservative social media spheres went wild after a video showing supposed immigrants being dropped off at a hotel in Maitland. The videos were amplified to a national audience by local politicians and political hopefuls.
However, there were no immigrants. All the workers had visas and were brought in to help out at a nursery, a practice that has happened in past years.
Still, an anti-immigration rally took place, where only some of the participants were aware of the workers’ statuses. Toward the end, it got ugly as the protesters’ rage was directed at police officers guarding the facility.
One man told the officers they should remove their flag patches from their uniforms.
“You’re not American any more,” he screamed to the men doing their jobs and upholding the law.
The open rage expressed toward an officer in that simple exchange would have been unthinkable among conservatives just a few years ago.
“To me, [Monday’s incidents are] a wake-up call,” Perry said. “This goes far beyond party affiliation. It goes to the heart of this democracy. It goes to the heart of being Americans.”
He said security procedures at Bethune-Cookman would be examined and addressed, but no amount of security would eliminate the threat of extremists and hateful people wishing to do its Black student body harm.
Instead, he said people needed to see the faces of haters — and expose them.
“These folks exist in the shadows, but people know about them,” he said. “They know who they are, and they need to expose them.”
©2022 Cox Media Group