At former Rep. Ron DeSantis’s rally in Sarasota, Fla., on Saturday, members of a violent far-right group with ties to white supremacists showed up to voice their support for the Republican gubernatorial nominee.
As a protester was escorted out by a police officer, an apparent member of the group — the Proud Boys — followed him out, loudly chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” according to video of the incident captured by the local station ABC7.
The Proud Boys is a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated “hate group” that assails Islam, political correctness and feminism and embraces nationalism and President Donald Trump. It also overlaps with elements of the white-supremacist movement that have likewise supported Trump.
A Proud Boys member planned — and several others attended — the 2017 white-supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a woman, Heather Heyer, was killed by a neo-Nazi who allegedly plowed his car into a group of counter-demonstrators.
The group’s leaders have also encouraged violence against its anti-fascist counterparts.
DeSantis’s campaign did not appear to remove the Proud Boys demonstrators from his rally, though it distanced itself from them afterward, saying one of the group’s leaders had worked against DeSantis during the primary.
“This is the same group who attacked us in the primary,” DeSantis spokesman Stephen Lawson told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “To think we have any affiliation with this group is absurd. We had a great event today and the fact that this is what the press wants to focus on is ridiculous.”
A member of the Miami chapter of the Proud Boys wrote on Facebook that he attended DeSantis’s campaign kickoff with his running mate, state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, in Miami on Sept. 10.
DeSantis’s campaign has been beset by accusations of racism from the day after he won the GOP nomination when DeSantis said in a Fox News interview Florida voters shouldn’t “monkey this up” by voting for his African-American opponent, Andrew Gillum, the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee.
A Fox anchor, Sandra Smith, later said on-air that the network didn’t “condone this language and wanted to make our viewers aware that (DeSantis) has since clarified his statement.”
That same day, the American Ledger reported that DeSantis was a moderator of a conservative Facebook group where racist comments were shared freely and that a member of his campaign staff, Tony Ledbetter, had actively shared posts attacking Muslims and African-Americans.
Last week, DeSantis’s campaign said it wouldn’t return $2,000 it received from the company of a man who called former President Barack Obama a “Muslim n‐‐‐‐‐,” the Associated Press reported. The company also contributed $2,000 to DeSantis’s political committee.
The Washington Post reported on Sept. 9 that DeSantis spoke four times at a right-wing conference sponsored by David Horowitz, who has attacked Islam and diversity and defended America’s role in the slave trade.
In a tweet in August, for example, Horowitz wrote: “Black Africans enslaved black Africans. America freed them sacrificing 350k mainly white Union lives. American blacks are richer, more privileged, freer than blacks anywhere in the world, including all black run countries.”
At the rally Saturday, it did not appear that DeSantis or his campaign asked the Proud Boys to leave.
According to the Herald-Tribune, DeSantis played into their chants of “lock him up” — in reference to Gillum — as he claimed his opponent wanted to take Florida in a “far-left direction.”
After the event, the Republican Party of Sarasota, which organized the rally, said it wasn’t aware of the group.
“I don’t know anything about them,” Chairman Joe Gruters told the newspaper. “My thing is love your neighbor. There’s no place for hate in the party.”
Gruters also criticized the crowd for the “lock him up” chants. “I said: ‘Don’t say that. It’s the wrong thing to say.'”