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“As you’re interviewing me right now, they’re about to make an arrest,” the sheriff says.
A thousand miles away, the FBI have tracked down the man who allegedly called for him to be shot for speaking out against neo-Nazis.
If he’s afraid, Sheriff Mike Chitwood doesn’t show it. With his gold star badge on his chest, he cuts a defiant figure as he discusses the death threat he recently received.
The person behind it posted on an online forum that he wanted to “shut [Chitwood] up and show who’s in charge”.
Sheriff Chitwood, 59, went viral earlier this month after he called out a far-right group that has been harassing Jewish people in Orlando, Florida.
He stood alongside faith and community leaders and said it was a “badge of honour” to be on the group’s hitlist himself and dared its members to take a shot at him.
Orlando has been hit by a rash of antisemitic incidents, with Florida becoming, according to one expert, “ground zero for the extreme right-wing”.
Jewish residents in the area have been harassed and hounded by the far-right and have woken up to find antisemitic leaflets left on their doorsteps.
“This is a neo-Nazi ideology on display,” Sheriff Chitwood said in a news conference that has been watched around the world.
Speaking to Sky News, he warned that extremist groups “need to be kept in check” because there is a risk that someone hearing their rhetoric gets indoctrinated and goes out and commits a mass shooting.
A diatribe of antisemitic abuse
Among the incidents that first prompted Sheriff Chitwood to take a stance was the harassment of worshippers outside an Orlando synagogue in February.
The group later posted footage online. In it a man is seen standing outside the synagogue wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses; a string of garlic hangs around his neck. He raises his arm in the chilling slant of the Nazi salute, grins at the camera and praises Hitler.
As a worshipper tries to leave the place of worship’s car park, he spits a diatribe of antisemitic abuse through a megaphone at them.
This shocking footage was played by Sheriff Chitwood at his news conference – part of a montage of clips showing the spate of antisemitic attacks in the community.
“These scumbags came to the wrong county,” warned the Sheriff, looking grave.
Since going on camera and naming many of those allegedly involved in the abuse, Sheriff Chitwood has worked with police and FBI to track the neo-Nazi group and investigate potential crimes.
Last week, a 38-year-old man from New Jersey, who police say made an anonymous online threat to kill the sheriff due to his stand against the group, was arrested at his mother’s house.
Richard Golden was charged with making a written threat to kill or cause injury. He is accused of posting a message on an online forum saying “Just shoot Chitwood in the head and he stops being a problem. They have to find a new guy to be the problem”.
Speaking to Sky News, Sheriff Chitwood said this was just one of a number of attempts to scare him and his family since he spoke out at the news conference. He claims a false 911 call was made to his parents’ home, and that his daughter has been receiving phone calls.
But he refuses to be intimidated, saying: “I’ve been doing this for 35 years and I’m pretty darn good at what I do… I’m confident in law enforcement.
“There are a lot of people that feel like me. I just happen to be the one who’s most outspoken,” he added.
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‘A hate group of keyboard warriors’?
The group who filmed their hateful demonstration outside the synagogue in Orlando moved to the area from California at the end of last year. Their activities also sparked outrage in Los Angeles where, just days after Kayne West made bigoted comments about Jewish people in October 2022, the group hung antisemitic banners over a highway.
Then in February, two people were shot outside a Los Angeles synagogue. A suspect has since been charged with federal hate crimes.
In the Sunshine State, the group is accused of draping abusive banners and projecting antisemitic messages near the world famous Daytona International Speedway race track.
The LA shooting was the final straw for Sheriff Chitwood, he said.
He told Sky News: “I said at that point, ‘That’s it. I have to come out and let my community know what a bunch of cowardly scumbags came into our community’.”
He called a news conference and stood alongside leaders from a range of faiths and groups, as well as state politicians, and said that enough was enough.
According to Patrick Riccards, executive director of Life After Hate, a US non-profit that helps people leave violent far-right hate groups, this far-right network is a “stunt-driven organisation trying to gain attention”.
“They are largely a hate group of keyboard warriors,” he said.
‘Exponential rise’ in antisemitic and extremist activity
Today, Florida is home to an overlapping network of white supremacist groups, including some that are openly neo-Nazi.
The number of reported antisemitic incidents in the state has been on the rise for several years now – more than doubling since 2018, according to data compiled by the civil rights organisation, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
Florida ranks fourth out all 50 states when it comes to reported antisemitic incidents in the last three years, ADL data shows. The organisation also recorded 471 instances of white supremacist propaganda distribution in the state over that period – placing it 10th.
Sarah Emmons, regional director for ADL in Florida, said the organisation is “concerned about the exponential rise in antisemitic and extremist activity – both across the state and nationally”.
‘An active frontal attack’ on the Jewish community
“These are outsiders who are doing acts of verbal violence,” said local Rabbi Rob Lennick.
People in his congregation are living in fear after having antisemitic leaflets dropped outside their homes.
“We’ve seen violent expression in our community through leafleting, through public demonstrations, through projecting images up on buildings, through interfering with people driving in and out of synagogue facilities. It’s a frontal attack on the Jewish community,” he said.
“The thing about this kind of frontal expression of hatred is, even if it doesn’t show up on your doorstep, you sense the antagonism and the hostility and what begins to feel like a desire to cause hurt.
“And then you begin to feel threatened by it.”
Second World War veteran seeing Nazi swastikas once again
Marvin Miller is a Jewish World War Two veteran. He and his four brothers all served in the war and heard all the antisemitic slurs, he said.
He’s now 88 and lives near Orlando, where he is seeing the far-right active and pushing their messages of hate.
“How can they sit there and put swastikas on their arm and almost swear allegiance to the Nazi party?” he said. “It’s bizarre and it seems it’s so easy to pick up followers of this right wing movement, of white supremacists. Those are kind of frightening.”
Marvin says it’s heart-warming to see his community making it clear the neo-Nazi group are not welcome.
“It’s not just about the Jews because they’re walking over other minorities. Our black community, the Latino community, they’re in line for the the same remarks,” he added.
Antisemitism isn’t just a problem among adults on the far-right. It’s being seen at a school too.
A mother whose daughter goes to school north of Orlando has been sharing on TikTok how she has been bullied for being Jewish. She said a swastika was posted in a girls bathroom and incidents escalated to “targeted hate bullying”.
Her series of videos about the school have been viewed thousands of times and commenters have praised her for speaking up.
Florida to be a ‘staging ground’ for far-right extremists
Historically a melting pot of different cultures and political beliefs, Florida used to be a battleground state, flipping between Democrats and Republicans. But now the state that Barack Obama won twice is firmly red.
“Florida’s basically become ground zero for the extreme right wing in the US,” said professor Colin Beck, an expert on terrorism and political violence at Pomona College. It’s the “promised land” for Trump supporters and the right wing,” he added.
Arie Perliger, professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, says that in states like Florida there has been a trend of people from minority backgrounds moving out of inner cities and into the suburbs. This makes those areas more diverse and has been met with violent backlash in some cases – a situation that has been further exploited by politicians, he said.
Professor Beck said that while that right wing activity has not crystallised into an organised movement yet, it is heading that way.
“It seems to me like Florida will become the staging ground for this sort of thing,” he said, warning that when extreme right-wingers engage in local politics they are often able to gain control of local institutions.
Looking towards the future, Mr Riccard from Life After Hate predicted a “major rise” in hate crimes over the next couple of years following a pause after the 6 January Capitol riot.
He added: “2022 was largely a year for planning, where these organisations were trying to figure out what’s the next big thing they can do.”
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