Hate-Fueled Attacks Rattle Florida After Trump's Election
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez
Vagner Dapresa walked into the West Flagler convenience mart looking for justice. He'd been pumping gas the night before when another customer had shouted at him: "You've been looking at me a lot — and I don't like faggots looking at me."
The remark stung Dapresa, a 31-year-old genderqueer Cuban-American with bleach-blond hair and a penchant for chunky gold jewelry. Accustomed to being harassed, he quickly shot back: "I'll look at whatever I want."
A cashier came outside to intervene, but to Dapresa's surprise, he sided with the other customer. Looking Dapresa up and down, both men jeered at "this faggot." After the other customer threateningly pulled out a broken beer bottle, Dapresa drove away in a panic, vowing to come back to make a complaint.
But when he returned to the Valero station the next morning, December 11, 2016, the day-shift clerk was even more combative. Dapresa says his repeated requests to speak to a manager were refused. As a crying woman looked on, the two lobbed insults at each other until the employee finally told Dapresa to leave.
"He goes, 'Look here, fucking faggot. Get the fuck out of here right now if you don't want me to break your fucking face,'" Dapresa says.
Without warning, the clerk leapt over the counter and punched him in the face, Dapresa says. He yanked Dapresa's ponytail, dragging him out of the store. "He grabbed me by my hair; he broke my face," Dapresa says. "He cleaned the floor with me."
Outside the store, Dapresa called police. But when the officer arrived, he told Dapresa the employee couldn't be arrested because of their conflicting accounts.
Dapresa left the gas station that day hoping the courts would help him. But when he got a copy of the police report, he saw the officer had omitted any mention of the homophobic slurs. Five weeks after the attack, Dapresa received a letter in the mail from the State Attorney's Office saying prosecutors did not have enough evidence to file charges against the convenience store clerk.
"The Miami Police Department don't do nothing. The hate crimes department don't do nothing. Nobody does nothing," the 31-year-old says. "How can you ignore the problem happening in this city?"
But in actuality, the problem extends far beyond Miami — and all indications are that it's growing worse. Dapresa's case is just one example of thousands reported through a new ProPublica database created to track incidents of violence, harassment, and intimidation. By partnering with New Times and other media outlets across the nation, the nonprofit's "Documenting Hate" project paints a vivid picture of the daily discrimination and abuse experienced by immigrants, people of color, members of the LGBTQI community, and other marginalized groups.
Vagner Dapresa shows injuries after he was attacked by a homophobic clerk at a West Flagler gas station, he says.
Photo via ProPublica
In all, New Times reviewed 169 hate-fueled incidents reported by residents and visitors in Florida, interviewed several victims, and identified patterns within data. The analysis showed that more than a third of the Sunshine State victims were targeted due to race or ethnicity, and nearly as many experienced religious discrimination. Smaller numbers were harassed for being an immigrant (13 percent) or for their sexual orientation (10 percent). (Due to the volume of reported incidents, New Times was not able to independently verify all 169 reports).
Many of them believe a climate of intolerance has proliferated under Donald Trump's presidency. In fact, a full quarter of those reporting Florida incidents said that their attacker invoked Trump's name or that he was indirectly to blame. Although older crimes can be added to the database, the vast majority happened after the November 8 election following a bruising campaign where Trump mocked a reporter with a disability and encouraged followers to attack protesters at his rallies.
Though Florida has one of the nation's strongest hate crime laws, victims and experts say it's still not enough. Several victims told New Times that their concerns weren't taken seriously by police or that they lacked protections under the law. Those targeted for their gender identity or physical disabilities, for example, still aren't protected under the state's statute.
All told, the 2,500 incidents submitted nationally through the database paint a bleak picture of a politically charged culture swarming with episodes of hate-fueled harassment and a legal system that has failed to keep up. And because hate activity is notoriously underreported, it's almost certain the problem looms even larger.
"Many of the hate crimes kind of get lost because when the police officer is called, the person doesn't know how to articulate that it was a hate crime and it's categorized as another type of crime," says Francesco Duberli, founder of Survivor's Pathway, a Miami nonprofit serving the LGBTQI community. "When you talk about communities that have been marginalized for such a long period of time... the understanding of justice becomes very blurred. You have in your mind that justice is not for you; therefore, it becomes common."
At worst, it's a cycle that pushes victims further from the criminal justice system as they stop seeking help. For Dapresa, the lack of concern from authorities felt like confirmation of his status in a city that has continually ostracized him.
"I'm disappointed about my life, about the law, this city," he says. "I'm disappointed about myself, because I feel nothing. I feel like my value is shit because nobody helped me."
Homemade signs for "colored" and "white" water fountains at a Jacksonville high school.
Photo via ProPublica
Drunk off four cases of stolen beer, four white teens loaded into a brown pickup and headed toward the black part of town on an August morning in 1988. It was nearly 4 a.m. on a hot Thursday in DeLand, Florida, and they were ready to raise hell.
Armed with a .20-gauge shotgun, the 19-year-olds hatched a plan to find a random, yet specific, target.
"Let's go shoot a n——-," they plotted.
Riding home from work that morning on his bicycle, 24-year-old Farris Williams would become their victim. As he pedaled down Adelle Avenue, the brown truck lurched toward him. Williams jumped from the bike, but his fate was already sealed. From the bed of the pickup, one of the teens fired two shots, leaving a golf-ball-sized hole in Williams' chest. Witnesses heard laughter from inside the truck as it peeled off into the darkness.
The heartless killing on August 4, 1988, cast a harsh shadow on Florida's troubled history of race relations and the persistent and often violent discrimination that extended decades past the Jim Crow era. The case was fresh on lawmakers' minds as the four men pleaded guilty to lesser charges and received sentences ranging from 16 years to just 24 months — a grave injustice that was not lost on Williams' family. The next summer, Florida legislators passed the state's first hate crime law, which enhanced the penalties for attacks motivated by racial, religious, or ethnic bias. Under the new statute, first-degree misdemeanors could be bumped up to third-degree felonies, third-degree felonies to second-degree felonies, and so on.
"We want to send a very clear message to the extremists who express bigotry in the forms of criminal activity," Anti-Defamation League director Arthur Teitelbaum told reporters. "We believe the bigots ought to get the message that we are going to nail them in jail."
The law came at a time when bigoted displays were on the rise across America, and people of color weren't the only ones targeted: The number of anti-gay attacks doubled from 1985 to 1986 as the AIDS scare swept the nation, while a 1988 report from the Anti-Defamation League documented the frightening emergence of skinhead gangs. Tensions were so high that even the state legislator who introduced Florida's bill, a white Christian from Jacksonville, reported receiving death threats from angry constituents.
"Some people who are black and Jewish have lived their whole lives with prejudice,'' Republican Rep. Jim King told the St. Petersburg Times. "I've only been exposed to this for a week, and I'm pissed.''
But despite its good intentions, King's proposed statute was still far from inclusive. In fact, the bill was initially opposed by the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union because it didn't include protections for women or gay people. King argued that adding gender could make the law too broad, while including sexual orientation would likely jeopardize the entire bill in conservative Tallahassee. Instead, he struck up a compromise with the groups: If they dropped their opposition, he promised to introduce an amendment the following year to add both provisions to the law.
Swastika spray-painted on a telephone pole in Dania Beach are among the bigoted displays captured in ProPublica's database.
Photo via ProPublica
Gender protections were never included in the statute, but lawmakers added language addressing sexual orientation in the summer of 1991. A new challenge soon emerged: The following year, judges in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Pinellas Counties struck down the law, calling it unconstitutionally vague.
While the state squabbled over whether the statute could be enforced, the country's highest court debated the topic on a national stage. Supreme Court justices first took on the issue when Wisconsin courts threw out the state's hate crime law in 1992 for violating freedom of speech. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist roundly rejected that idea in a unanimous 1993 opinion. "A physical assault is not by any stretch of the imagination expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment," he wrote.
The Florida Supreme Court followed suit in January 1994. The ruling stressed that racist, homophobic, and otherwise bigoted language was still protected, but threats or acts of violence and property damage using those slurs weren't.
The decision was a win for civil rights activists, but critics argued the law was still inadequate because prosecutors couldn't bring extra charges in "mixed motive" cases where bias was only one factor. In a road rage incident where a white driver used racial slurs while punching a black driver, for instance, hate crime laws wouldn't apply because racial prejudice wasn't the only reason for the assault.
Despite those limitations, the law remained untouched for more than a decade until a Florida Supreme Court committee took up the issue in 2007. The group tried to amend jury instructions so that those who committed a crime based "in whole or in part" on prejudice could be sentenced under the hate crime statute. The committee's recommendation went nowhere.
Around that time, the radical right's emergence led to a rise in anti-immigrant and white nationalist organizations. From 2000 to 2008, the number of hate groups grew 54 percent, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). President Barack Obama's election only fueled the fire; the SPLC says the continued rise in 2009 was "driven largely by an angry backlash against nonwhite immigration... the economic meltdown, and the climb to power of an African-American president."
Obama's successor, a sexist billionaire who, after decades of bilking the working poor, kicked off his campaign by denigrating Mexicans as "rapists" and calling for a ban on Muslims, did not alleviate those tensions. After a cooling-off period from 2012 to 2014, the country saw an uptick in hate groups in 2015, particularly of those within the radical right. The SPLC attributed the rise partly to "incendiary rhetoric led by a number of mainstream political figures," including that of then-candidate Trump.
The Sunshine State has long been a hotbed for those hate groups. According to the SPLC, Florida is home to 63 of them, more than any other state except California. Many nationally active groups are headquartered here, including the white nationalist site Stormfront in West Palm Beach and the anti-gay Liberty Counsel in Orlando. In every part of the peninsula, their presence has become as ubiquitous as the state's orange groves and outlet malls. As of last year, Florida had a dozen more black separatist groups than theme parks and twice as many Klan chapters as IKEAs.
And there's no sign of membership slowing. In 2016, hate groups reached a near-historic high as voters did what pundits said was impossible: On the evening of Tuesday, November 8, they sent the long-shot Republican nominee to the White House.
Vandalism drawn on a car in Sanford.
Photo via ProPublica
In Florida, the floodgates opened the morning after Election Day. It wasn't yet 7 a.m. when a black woman jogging near Tampa was told to "go back to Africa."
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A construction worker on the Metromover in downtown Miami yelled for all Muslims to present themselves and cheered that he had voted for Trump.
A white elementary-school student in Windermere told a black classmate that "they" were going to kill her now that Trump was president.
A woman ordering a meal at Wendy's in Ellenton was cornered by a stranger and repeatedly asked if she was a lesbian.
At a high-school football game in Jacksonville, players from a majority-white school taunted their opponents at a majority-black school by chanting "Donald Trump" so aggressively that police had to intervene.
It was the first of many bad days for marginalized groups in Trump's America: In the three-month span from November 9 to February 7, the SPLC tracked more than 1,300 hate incidents across the country, far more than before the election. After months of silence about the problem, Trump finally addressed the rise of anti-Semitic threats to dozens of Jewish community centers and day schools in late February, calling it "a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil." Many critics believed it was too little, too late.
Though the president can't be held responsible for every instance of hate, groups like the SPLC believe his influence looms large. According to the organization, a third of the incidents in the 34 days after the election made direct references to Trump, his "Make America Great Again" slogan, or his "grab 'em by the pussy" remark caught on video.
"I do not think there's any question that Trump is the cause," the SPLC's Heidi Beirich said in an interview with Salon earlier this year. "The first day of his campaign, he bashed immigrants and said Mexicans are rapists... You can go right down the list and see that based on who he attacked in the campaign, they then became victims after the election."
In South Florida, Trump's presence was felt from the moment he arrived at Mar-a-Lago for Thanksgiving, his first visit since the election. That weekend, shoppers were perusing the produce section of a Palm Beach Publix when two men began harassing a woman in a hijab. Warning the woman she'd soon be deported, one of the men threatened to take her to Trump himself.
"He's here now. Wait till you go outside," the man taunted. "I'll behead you like... ISIS do, and I'll dump it on his doorstep. He will be so happy."
The moment, later reported to ProPublica's database, turned an otherwise mundane trip to the store into a hostile situation that ultimately had to be diffused by bystanders.
"With this election and stuff, people have gotten really scary, really violent," says a witness who asked New Times not to identify her for fear of retaliation. "It was very racially charged."
That was far from the only incident in South Florida. Two weeks later, a biracial Delray Beach woman was walking along the Intracoastal Waterway near a small yacht when a pack of young white men shouted, "Grab that n——- by her pussy!" she said. She quickly ran away.
"I was caught off-guard because I have never had anyone say anything negative to me like this," the woman wrote in an account included in the database. "This was unprovoked and scary."
Eric Null, a 51-year-old health-care administrator in St. Petersburg, felt the same fear as he drove from work to a car dealership January 18. As he headed down Martin Luther King Jr. Street, a driver in a white van took issue with his pro-equality and Hillary Clinton bumper stickers, Null says.
"He rolled his window down from the passenger side, and I thought maybe something was wrong with my car, so I rolled my window down too. That's when he started screaming obscenities and homophobic slurs," Null tells New Times. "He was yelling at me: 'You fucking faggot, Hillary lost!'... He told me: 'I'm gonna kill your faggot ass.'"
Null called 911 but said the dispatcher was less than sympathetic. After hearing that the other driver hadn't hit Null's car or inflicted bodily harm, the voice on the other end told him there was nothing police could do.
"They just brushed it off like it was no big deal," Null says, "like I was a second-class citizen."
At least nine other residents and visitors say they were rebuffed by Florida law enforcement when trying to report hate activity, according to ProPublica's database. Becca Tabasky, a Florida Keys native, was in Dania Beach for a friend's wedding in March when she spotted a large red swastika spray-painted on a telephone pole. She dialed the Broward Sheriff's Office's nonemergency line and was told someone would contact her shortly. But when she explained the situation to the officer who called her back, he told her there was nothing he could do because no one was directly being hurt or threatened. Worse, she says the officer gave her grief about wasting his time and mentioned there was graffiti all over Broward County.
"The point was being lost that this is not just graffiti; it's a symbol of hatred," says Tabasky, who is Jewish. "Some people will see it and see genocide, see dead family members. Jewish community centers are getting bomb threats, and cemeteries are getting all bashed up. That's what some people see when they see this swastika that you're calling graffiti."
The phone call grew heated as the two argued about whether the swastika merited police intervention. Tabasky says the officer refused to identify himself and said he was doing her a favor by even calling her back.
"He told me I was being brash and asked me why I was being so aggressive," she recalls. "It was so condescending, so horrible, to say nothing of the privileged guilt I felt that I can be lippy to this asshole, while a person of color or someone who didn't speak English might not have been able to."
After contacting a supervisor, Tabasky ultimately received an apology and was told the city would come out to cover up the swastika, she says. But she left the conversation feeling like the situation was of no concern to law enforcement.
"I was never saying police should be the ones coming and covering it up... But this is happening in your community, and this is your job to be mindful of it," she says. "On so many levels, it felt like not only do they not have protocols, but they don't understand the sensitivity around it, which is actually the bigger problem. You just don't care."
A swastika drawn in chalk outside a St. Petersburg church.
Photo via ProPublica
Inside a second-story office building in Coral Gables, Vagner Dapresa settles onto a sofa at Survivors' Pathway and crosses his legs. It's one of the few places in Miami-Dade he feels safe.
"It's not easy," he says. "I never feel relaxed."
In search of a "better, brighter future," Dapresa left his family in Cuba and moved to Miami when he was 17. Growing up, he knew he was genderqueer, although he didn't publicly identify that way until he turned 21. (Dapresa says he has no preference for which pronouns others use to refer to him; New Times is using male pronouns as opposed to alternating male/female pronouns for the sake of clarity.)
"I am not a girl. I am not transgender," Dapresa says. "I am genderqueer, half-and-half."
Though he's never regretted the decision to move to the States, finding work here has been tough. Although federal law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, employers have been hesitant to hire someone who doesn't look traditionally male or female and who checks neither box on job applications, Dapresa says. As is the case with 92 percent of the transgender and genderqueer Latino clients at Survivors' Pathway, a long stretch of unemployment pushed Dapresa into sex work, leaving him with a nonviolent criminal record that's made it even more difficult to find a job.
It's a cycle Dapresa believes has prevented him from getting not only work but also justice. Though there's no way of knowing for sure, Dapresa suspects his rap sheet gave the police officer a reason to discredit his account of the December assault.
"I assume that because I have a legal background with prostitution, I feel as though he has discriminated against me by not taking my complaint," Dapresa wrote in a letter of complaint to city officials.
(The independent Civilian Investigative Panel considered Dapresa's complaint but found there wasn't enough evidence to prove misconduct against the officer involved. A Miami Police Department spokesman says that the agency takes allegations of hate crimes seriously and that it appropriately forwarded Dapresa's case to the State Attorney's Office.)
Vagner Dapresa regularly experiences discrimination in Miami for being genderqueer. "I am not a girl. I am not transgender. I am genderqueer, half and half," Dapresa says.
Since 2002, Miami-Dade prosecutors have filed 61 hate crime cases, though many other didn't fit all the criteria. As one of the only types of crime that require the state to prove motive, landing a conviction — or even filing charges — can be tricky. Even murder cases don't require prosecutors to explain why the defendant killed the victim.
"Proving motive is not something that comes naturally to us," says Luis Caso, head of the hate crimes unit at the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office. "In some cases, we might suspect it involves hate, but we might not be able to prove it. We can only charge the enhancement if we have the evidence."
And because hate crimes are underreported, it's rare for cases to end up in court at all. Advocacy groups say that victims can be reluctant to come forward and that some don't realize what legally constitutes a hate crime. Even when incidents are reported to police, officers often fail to put the pieces together, cataloguing incidents of hate simply as assaults or property damage.
Though the government has tracked hate crimes since 1992, experts warn that federal statistics are systemically flawed. The Department of Justice estimates 260,000 hate crimes are committed each year, but the FBI typically reports fewer than 7,000 annually. If the DOJ estimate holds up, that's only 2.6 percent of the total number of hate crimes actually occurring.
Much of the problem lies with the voluntary reporting system. Because police departments aren't required to report hate crimes to the FBI, many of them simply don't. In 2015, Florida had the nation's worst record for reporting, with a mere 5 percent of the state's law enforcement agencies participating in the program. So although Florida seemingly had a low number of hate crimes that year — just 72 — the figure is undoubtedly lowballed.
"It's certainly important to watch the statistics, but there are real issues in getting accurate statistics," says David Barkey, Southeast area counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, the organization responsible for pushing through most of the nation's hate crime legislation. "From a 50,000-foot view, hate crimes are underreported."
Barkey says Florida's hate crime statute was one of the first in the country and to this day remains one of the strongest. But recent attempts to make it even more inclusive have failed. During this year's legislative session, state Sen. Kevin Rader of Boca Raton sponsored a bill that would have added language addressing gender identity and physical disability and given prosecutors the ability to seek increased penalties in mixed-motive crimes. But Rader, a Democrat, says he couldn't persuade the chairman of the criminal justice committee to hear the bill.
"It was kind of straightforward and simple and really just protects tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Floridians from those types of acts," says Rader, who plans to reintroduce the bill next year. "To speculate would just be guessing, but we couldn't get it done."
Given that Florida lawmakers have introduced bills regulating transgender bathroom use as recently as last year, Barkey believes the provision on gender identity might have sunk the bill.
"From our perspective, it shouldn't be politically challenging," he says, "but this bill got no committee hearings this year, so I would say that's a politically challenging category."
Although Dapresa sees Trump as a homophobe and Vice President Mike Pence as "more nasty and more of a bad person than the president," he says things haven't gotten worse for him since the election, only that people are now paying attention. Duberli, the Survivors' Pathway founder, agrees.
"For a person like me that's been here working years in this field and seeing crime, I don't see a difference. It keeps happening," Duberli says. "The only difference that I'm seeing is that now haters are more entitled to say what they feel without the previous fear they had that there might be some sort of consequences."
Duberli says he understands the frustrations of victims like Dapresa, but he knows the State Attorney's Office isn't always able to get them the results they desire.
"The state attorney takes very seriously these cases, and if they decided they cannot proceed, it's because there is not enough evidence," he says. "They're very willing to work with the LGBT community, and I can tell you that because I work with them."
Still looking for employment, Dapresa was disheartened to receive notice in mid-June that he was disqualified from a job at Winn-Dixie after a background check. The letter was yet another reminder that many see him not as a victim but a criminal.
"If you send the undercover officer out to get the prostitute working the street, you can send the undercover officer to the company to stop discrimination to genderqueers," Dapresa says. "Go ahead. We're waiting for you. But you don't care, right?"
Six months after being attacked at the gas station, he's still reaching out to senators and mayors to seek justice. To this day, the simple act of pumping gas fills him with dread, though he's more angry than sad about the situation. After all, by now, he's learned to live with the feeling.
"It's bad," he says, "but it's my life."
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