Updated: Jul 5
“We do not believe in what the Nazis did during World War II, and if that lives on … I don’t know what else to say.”
Winter Garden Mayor John Rees on Thursday was asked a straightforward question at the city commission meeting: Do you condemn the neo-Nazis who distributed hate flyers throughout Winter Garden neighborhoods?
He responded, “I haven’t seen anything they put out there. I don’t know, but we’re all as human beings, we do not believe in hate. We do not believe in what the Nazis did during World War II and if that lives on, we’re not … I don’t know what else to say.”
A person in the audience said, “That’s not the same thing.”
It is not the same thing, which may be why District 3 Commissioner Mark Maciel quickly interjected, "Of course, we condemn Nazis!”
Still, the city has yet to put out a statement that specifically condemns the actions of the four individuals, who earlier this month were stopped by Oakland Police who pulled over their SUV as they tossed antisemitic pamphlets in plastic bags filled with stones (to weigh them down) into driveways of neighborhoods in Oakland and Winter Garden.
The group is believed connected with the neo-Nazi demonstration at Disney World. The driver received a citation for an expired tag. Oakland Chief of Police Darron Esan told Fox35 no arrests were made because the messages while “offensive to many, there were no attempts at intimidation or threats being made,” and still constituted “free speech.”
However, a new Public Nuisance law, passed in May, makes "intentionally dumping litter onto private property for the purpose of intimidating or threatening the owner, resident, or invitee of such property” a first degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, a year of county probation and a $1,000 fine. Hate material containing religious or ethnic messaging is a third-degree felony and reported as a hate crime.
The matter was referred to the FBI. Winter Garden Police said it is still under investigation.
VoxPopuli’s questions to Esan, Oakland’s mayor and town manager were referred to Deputy Chief of Police Mike Bryant who did not respond to email.
Rees did not respond to an earlier email from VoxPopuli, asking if he had a statement of support for Winter Garden’s Jewish community.
The commission has a blind spot for the Jewish community, twice scheduling budget hearings during Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, and declining to promote the Chanukah Menorah Lighting, sponsored by Chabad of South Orlando, as it does Light Up Winter Garden, which is sponsored by the West Orange Ministerial Association.
There’s been a “dramatic rise” in antisemitic incidents in Florida according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which puts the Sunshine State fourth in the nation for antisemitic activity. The organization, which has tracked anti-Jewish harassment, vandalism and assault since 1979, reported that antisemitic incidents in Florida have jumped 50 percent from 2020 to 2021, and there have been more than 400 white supremacist propaganda drops — like those found in Winter Garden and Oakland. According to the FBI, in 2020, 80 percent of the religiously motivated hate crimes in Florida targeted Jews.
District 2 Commissioner Ron Mueller — who was quick to denounce the “white supremacists [who] attempted to spread their hateful ideology” on social media — said, “Hate is hate. I don’t care where the source is, I will not condone this. There is no room for ambiguity in this whatsoever. It was a vile thing. It wasn’t an expression of First Amendment … It was simply dumping your garbage in people’s yards without their consent.”
Mueller also thanked police for their efforts to collect the flyers so children didn’t see them.
“Nazi hatred resulted in a world war and millions of senseless deaths,” Commissioner Colin Sharman, who represents District 4, wrote in a text message to VoxPopuli after the meeting. “Hatred has no place in our city and in our world!”
District 1 Commissioner Lisa Bennett offered no comment.