Posted on March 14, 2023

In Florida, Far-Right Groups Look to Seize the Moment

Sergio Olmos and Jim Urquhart, NPR, March 10, 2023

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 timemainstream 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.


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.


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. {snip}


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.


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.