Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Monday declined to specifically condemn a Nazi rally in his state, instead choosing to attack Democrats for attempting to smear him in connection with the small gathering that saw two dozen people in Orlando waving swastikas, stomping on Israeli flags, and yelling antisemitic epithets at passersby.
“So what I’m going to say is these people, these Democrats who are trying to use this as some type of political issue to try to smear me as if I had something to do with it, we’re not playing their game,” DeSantis told reporters when asked about the incidents at an infrastructure event in Palm Beach County, according to Floridapolitics.com
While he did not condemn the Nazis, he did call them “jackasses” and said they could be prosecuted for protesting on an overpass.
“Some jackasses doing this on the street, first of all, state law enforcement is going to hold them accountable because they were doing stuff on the overpass,” he said, before returning to criticizing Democrats.
“I’m not going to have people try to smear me who belong to a political party that has elevated antisemites to the halls of Congress,” DeSantis said, singling out Rep. Ilhan Omar. “Why would they do that? Why would they want to elevate a half-dozen malcontents and try to make this an issue for political gain?”
The questions came after antisemitic rallies were held near Orlando, Florida, on Saturday and Sunday.
DeSantis, considered a possible 2024 Republican presidential candidate, had not commented until Monday, with his spokesperson expressing doubt as to whether the demonstrators were actually antisemitic, and raising the possibility that they were in fact Democrats trying to make the governor look bad.
Here’s the original video that I took that day is Eastern Orlando. I really can’t believe we’re seeing Nazis in 2022. FYI: I am of Jewish descent and a large portion of my family was killed in the holocaust. #HateSpeech #hatersgonnahate #orlando #Florida #Antisemitism pic.twitter.com/lmUPTjHw65
— Luke Denton (@Ekulnotned) January 30, 2022
In videos and pictures shared on social media, the demonstrators could be seen waving Nazi flags and banners, calling someone filming them a “devil” and a “fucking kike” and making Nazi salutes.
A video of the Orlando rally that spread on social media on Monday showed protesters standing on a highway overpass in front of banners of swastikas. One audibly yells, “Heil Hitler.”
Another video showed the demonstrators attacking a passerby in his car.
The rallies were held near the campus of Central Florida University, which has a large Jewish student body, and near Disney World.
"The Jew is the devil"
"Jews rape children and drink their blood"
"Jews brought slaves here"
A horrific antisemitic, anti-black rally is happening right now in Orlando, FL orchestrated by white supremacist Eddie McBride and his group NSM
Why are local PD allowing this? pic.twitter.com/QImbMY8xiJ
— StopAntisemitism.org (@StopAntisemites) January 29, 2022
— DP (@DawneyNP) January 29, 2022
The Orlando Sentinel reported that the group shouted other antisemitic slurs, and an array of Florida officials, including Republican Senator Rick Scott and Democratic House Rep. Val Demings, condemned the gathering.
Yesterday neo-nazis rallied in Orlando. But America beat their disturbing ideology before and we'll do it again. As a police commander I saw similar rallies, and I also saw that for every nazi there were a hundred Floridians there to stand up for what's right.
— Rep. Val Demings (@RepValDemings) January 30, 2022
“Anti-semitism and hatred are not welcome in this community,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said in a tweeted statement.
Anti-semitism and hatred are not welcome in this community. Despite displays of hate in Central Florida this weekend, our collective commitment to building an inclusive, compassionate community for all is stronger than ever.https://t.co/9v3fmv2n0k
— Mayor Buddy Dyer (@orlandomayor) January 31, 2022
Orange County sheriff John Mina also tweeted that hate has no place, though his office told Newsweek that the demonstrators were within their First Amendment rights.
I am aware of the anti-Semitic demonstration in Orange County. I along with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office deplore any type of hate speech. This hatred has no place in our society. Any reports of criminal activity will be thoroughly investigated.
— Sheriff John Mina (@SheriffMina) January 31, 2022
However, a spokesperson for DeSantis declined to speak out against the rallies, saying that they may be liberal plants, in a since-deleted tweet.
“Do we even know they are Nazis,” Christina Pushaw wrote, according to Floridapolitics.com.
Despite deleting the tweet, she continued to retweet those who agreed with that position, and she later stuck to her guns, telling Newsweek that she only deleted the tweet “because it was attracting trolls and abuse.”
While she tweeted that DeSantis would always condemn hatred and antisemitism, she indicated that she did not know what the “National Socialist Movement” is and was waiting for law enforcement to investigate, while fending off what she said were attempts to tie DeSantis to the rallies.
“In my tweet, I deferred to law enforcement to determine who was behind the protest, because frankly, I didn’t know anything about the group. But I can guarantee it wasn’t the governor. Attempts to tie the protest to his policies are disgusting political smears,” she said.
Among those to condemn Pushaw was Fred Guttenberg, an anti-gun campaigner whose daughter was killed in the Parkland school shooting.
Holy shit!!! @GovRonDeSantis, two weeks ago your press secretary @christinapushaw made a Hitler joke. This is now her response to the disgusting anti Semitic Nazi behavior taking place in Florida this weekend, targeted at people like me. Is this your public position? pic.twitter.com/9tAUd78hMB
— Fred Guttenberg (@fred_guttenberg) January 31, 2022
The highway overpass location of the Florida rallies resembled similar demonstrations in Austin, Texas, in October in which a group called the Goyim Defense League hung a sign that said “Vax the Jews” from an overpass.
Nazi rally over I4 in Orlando pic.twitter.com/0tIHYxgF97
— Jake Wears (@jakewears) January 30, 2022
JTA contributed to this report.