By now, the sadness and disgust many of us first felt this past weekend emanating from the clash of white supremacists and neo-Nazi's with opposing activists in Charlottesville, Va. has subsided some but still remains a raw topic.
The overt violence was shameful and it illustrated just how divided a country we remain. Unfortunately, racism, intolerance and hate are alive and well in this country. While this is a condition our nation has fought for almost two centuries, you'd think by now a civilized society like ours would be a little further ahead of where we are today.
Closer to home, we also learned this week that Florida ranks second in the nation with 63 active hate groups, four of which are in Miami-Dade County, according to a new report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and extremists in the U.S. The report includes a detailed map of the 917 hate groups actively operating across the United States, with California ranking number-1 with 79 groups, Florida following close behind.
In Miami-Dade, the four active groups include the League of the South, a neo-Confederate group, whose members were one of many groups involved in the Charlottesville rally. A Gainesville resident and League of the South supporter, James M. O’Brien, 44, was arrested by the Virginia State Police at the rally for carrying a concealed handgun, according to the Associated Press.
Thankfully, we have not experienced a confrontation of this magnitude in our open community, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't remain vigilant. After all, the Keys, and Key West in particular, are communities of inclusion and could be a target for groups such as those that acted in Charlottesville.
We should be on guard when it comes to isolated acts of hatred or discrimination, like the May incident in Key West involving visitor Brandon Ray Davis, who was booked for felony aggravated battery with a deadly weapon — his scooter — after nearly running down two men on bicycles while deluging them with homophobic comments.
Also in May, Brandon Russell, a self-described neo-Nazi from Tampa and leader of a group called AtomWaffen (German for atomic weapon), sought refuge in the Keys after his roommate back home, Devon Arthurs, once a white supremacist, murdered their two friends, also open bigots, because they made fun of his new-found Islamic faith.
It’s not clear what Russell intended to do in the Keys, but when police pulled him over in Key Largo, they found two rifles, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, military fatigues and a skull mask in his car. Back at the Tampa apartment, federal agents found explosive-making materials that belonged to Russell, who had a framed photograph of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh on top of a dresser in his bedroom.
The Florida Keys and Key West embody so much of what our nation can only aspire to achieve; tolerance, openness, acceptance, and above all, unity. Illustrating how the aspects of unity, equality and diversity should be embraced not only in Key West, but globally as well, local artist JT Thompson single-handedly launched One Human Family almost two decades ago, a movement centered around equality, diversity and inclusion.
So committed to this direction, Thompson has dedicated years to world-wide distribution of bumper stickers and wristbands to foster that message today. And just as recently as this week, Thompson was in the process of reaching out to both the mayor of Charlottesville and the family of 32-year old Heather Heyer, the lone fatality in the weekend tragedy, with a message of support.
That's the spirit Key West and the Keys in general embodies. Sure, it's not absolute and there are varying degrees of support for inclusion and diversity up and down the the island chain. But it's wide enough and deep enough to know that sentiment outranks the pocketed areas of opposition.
Let's rejoice in the deep quality of our human spirit and be resolute in rejecting opposition to that spirit. There's no place in our community for that.