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White supremacists are convening in Lake City, Florida, this weekend for their annual conference — but local law enforcement aren’t particularly worried.
Florida’s League of the South, a white supremacist neo-Confederate group, is hosting the event at a plush wedding venue called Casa Isabel on Saturday. Lake City is a popular destination for the group because of its proximity to the site of the only major Civil War battle fought in Florida, which the Confederacy won in 1864.
Several members, including its founder and leader, Michael Hill, are slated to speak this weekend about the “systematic destruction of the culture, the customs, and the traditions of the Southern people” as well as what they view as the overreach of the federal government. It’s not clear how many people will attend the Lake City event, and Florida’s League of the South didn’t reply to VICE News’ inquiry.
But some members who have attended events in the past have lengthy criminal records, such as Michael Tubbs, who runs Florida’s chapter of the League of the South. The former Green Beret previously spent five years in prison for stealing weapons and 90 pounds of explosives while he was in the military, which he’d planned to use to bomb black- and Jewish-owned businesses.
"We’re not planning any response to it, per se."
This weekend’s conference comes almost exactly two years after the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — which League of the South members participated in — left one dead and dozens injured. Two members of the Florida chapter of the League of the South were arrested for their actions that day; one of them was found guilty earlier this year for brutally beating a black man in a parking garage during the rally. Members of the organization are also permanently banned from conducting paramilitary activity or participating in rallies in Charlottesville, which was the result of an ongoing lawsuit brought against organizers on behalf of the Virginia college town.
Just days ago, a gunman who posted a white nationalist manifesto online also opened fire on a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and murdered at least 22 people.
VICE News contacted the Lake City Police Department and Columbia Sheriff’s Office to ask if they were planning to ramp up security ahead of the event, which was first reported by the Miami New Times Tuesday.
Officers at Lake City Police Department said they hadn’t heard anything about the conference and asked VICE News to email an online link to the event. Public Information Officer Greg Burnsed then replied that the venue — located a five minute drive from Lake City Police Department — was outside of their jurisdiction but said officers were available to assist the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office if needed.
Columbia County Sgt. Murray Smith, who handles public affairs, initially told VICE News on Wednesday that he had not been briefed on the event. But later in the afternoon, Smith said that commanding officers had learned of the conference because a citizen had called into the station.
“The reason I wasn’t told, as a public information officer, was that there was nothing I would put out to the public,” Smith said. “This is a group that comes to our county and uses it a central location.” He added that the Florida chapter of the League of the South have held events in Columbia County in the past, because of its Civil War significance.
“We’re not planning any response to it, per se,” Smith said. “We’ve briefed our people on the road that this event is going on.”
For its part, the FBI wouldn’t confirm or deny that the conference was on their radar.
“The FBI investigates activity which may constitute a federal crime or pose a threat to national security,” Amanda Videll, a public affairs officer for the FBI’s Jacksonville bureau, told VICE News “Our focus is criminal activity, not on membership in particular groups or adherence to particular ideologies or beliefs.”
Law enforcement at every level has fielded repeated criticism since the violent rally two years ago for its failure to properly track the threat of white nationalists and supremacists in the U.S.
Charlottesville police, for example, disregarded intelligence warning them about potential violence at the rally in August 2017 and allowed white supremacists to battle anti-fascist protesters for hours on end, according to a scathing report published that year by an independent review team.
One police lieutenant in Gainesville, Florida, wanted to prepare for an upcoming event organized by white nationalist Richard Spencer at the university in September 2017, according to a November report from the New York Times which explored how the simmering radicalization of young, angry white men has blinded law enforcement.
But the lieutenant couldn’t find any current intelligence reports on the so-called “alt-right.” The state police didn’t have any useful information for him, and the FBI wasn’t sharing any of its own intelligence.
There have also been several recent examples where cops have even appeared sympathetic towards far-right extremists, which has led experts to wonder what exactly the FBI knew when it warned over a decade ago that white supremacists were trying to infiltrate local police departments.
The line-up this weekend
At the conference in Florida this weekend, Hill, who has regularly spewed anti-Semitifc, Islamophobic and racist vitriol online, will talk about “Why Southern Nationalism is the Answer to Communist Tyranny.”
In the past, Hill has urged his followers to adopt violent tactics. At a 2011 League of the South meeting in Georgia, for example, he encouraged members to stockpile AK-47s, hollow-point bullets, and tools to derail trains, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Hill has also labelled the federal government an “organized criminal enterprise” full of “domestic terrorists.”
Another speaker is “Ike Baker,” Chief of Operations for the League of the South, whom the SPLC has identified as “Isaac Baker,” a self-described Marine Corps veteran with an affinity for Nazi SS propaganda. Baker will talk about “Beyond the Black Pill: Southern Nationalism Post Charlottesville.” The “Black Pill” is an alt-right meme expressing nihilism, and is often used by the far-right to talk about how they feel betrayed by the Trump administration.
The third and final speaker scheduled so far is KrisAnne Hall, whom SPLC included on their list of anti-government extremists, a label that she rejects. Hall, a radio host, U.S. Army veteran, and former Florida prosecutor, rose to prominence during the 2016 election, for stoking conspiracies about the federal government. She now speaks at conventions and other events across the country, and part of her shtick is encouraging people to disobey federal laws they view as unconstitutional.
Cover image: Graves of Confederate unknown soldiers from the Battle of Olustee in Lake City, Florida. (Wikimedia Commons)