What began as a civic organization for Weston residents to protest a city rezoning project has slowly transformed into a secretive Facebook group frequented by several elected officials that now features anti-Black Lives Matter posts and offensive memes.
Back in 2017, a group called Keep Weston Green was formed by residents on a mission to "preserve and protect the green spaces against zoning changes and against development in Weston." According to a report published on The Real Deal, the group organized in response to a developer's proposal for a $70 million apartment development at the Weston Hills Country Club.
Records show that the organization dissolved in September 2019, just four months after successfully lobbying Weston officials to turn down plans for a park-and-ride facility that could have improved mass transit from southwest Broward County to Miami. At the time, residents feared the mass transit service would lead to a rise in crime in surrounding areas.
Now, the coalition has rebranded as Weston UNITED on Facebook. Activists who have been monitoring the group say its current focus on the local Black Lives Matter movement ties back to its yearslong efforts to protect the manicured suburb of Weston, which is 82 percent white.
"They've just become more open with their racism, but their origins were very much kind of that tacit subliminal racism in terms of housing and transit policy," says Joseph Mullen, an 18-year-old Black Lives Matter Weston activist and Democratic National Convention delegate.
In June, as Black Lives Matter Weston began announcing its plans for a peaceful protest in the city, Weston UNITED members erupted in outrage, calling the students "spoiled," "troublemaking," and "delusional." Many group members echoed the same sentiment: There is no racism to protest in Weston.
Dozens of screenshots of posts from the private group shared with New Times reveal comments alleging that the local BLM activists were bankrolled by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, calling Black Lives Matter Weston a terrorist group, and, in one instance, theorizing that it represents a "well coordinated attack by the Muslim brotherhood to take us down from within."
In June, an Instagram video posted by @blmweston identified Weston City Commissioners Mary Molina-Macfie and Margaret "Peggy" Brown, and former City Commissioner Jim Norton, as Weston UNITED members.
"These elected officials and candidates are complicit in the actions and views of Weston United; if they have not seen many of these posts before, then they are being revealed now, and these politicians can no longer plead ignorance," the activists of Black Lives Matter Weston wrote in a June 26 statement addressed to Weston UNITED.
Brown and Norton, both of whom are vying to be Weston's next mayor, didn't respond to multiple requests for comment from New Times. Neither did Molina-Macfie.
In several posts and comments from the group, members discussed arming themselves ahead of a recent Weston protest that the Sun-Sentinel reported took the form of a peaceful march through the city.
"I am calling on gun owning law abiding citizens of Weston to protect our city and property. Reach out to your friend. We will hold the line," one member wrote.
"When people ask why you need an AR15 this is why lol," another commented.
One meme shared in the group reads, "BREAKING NEWS: Quaker Oats officially changes name to Shaquille O'atmeal," with a photo including Shaquille O'Neal's face superimposed over the Quaker logo.
Several activists with Black Lives Matter Weston say they have tried to join the private Facebook group but were rejected by administrators.
"One of the scarier parts of this is that it's a safe haven for anyone to stay in and say whatever because it is so private, and people have to be cherry-picked to enter the group in the first place," says Jean Qian, a 16-year-old student activist with Black Lives Matter Weston, who noted that the page makes it possible for elected officials to post and support problematic material in private.
Mullen says the involvement of local officials is no coincidence.
"They're not just a Facebook group," he asserts. "They are openly doing petitions, backing candidates, and trying to have very subversive influence in the city."
George Navarini, a Pembroke Pines candidate seeking to replace state Rep. Rick Stark, says he has been a member of Weston UNITED since it began as a group focused on zoning concerns.
Navarini concedes that the comment from a Weston UNITED member calling on gun owners in Weston to "hold the line" was "a little bit on the edge." Asked if he supports that type of language as a candidate for state legislature, he Navarini firmly says no.
"That is inappropriate language directed to anybody: student, senior, anyone," he says. "No, I will not condone that."
Navarini says he believes Black lives do matter but he also believes that Black Lives Matter is a "Marxist organization" — which, as a Miami native with immigrant parents from Argentina, he opposes on principle. When he was five years old, he says, someone burned a cross in his family's front yard in Allapattah.
"My suspicion, I strongly suspect, considering the age and the age that we're in — none of the leaders of the Marxist Black Lives Matter movement has ever had a cross burned on their front door," he says. "I have."
During an online special city meeting held June 29 by the Weston City Commission to discuss the topic of defunding the police force, Grace Sigal, a former director for Keep Weston Green and one of several current administrators for Weston UNITED, spoke about a petition she created called "Safety first, Support BSO," referring to the Broward Sheriff's Office.
The petition, which has garnered more than 500 signatures, argues that a Sun-Sentinel op-ed piece published by the Black Lives Matter Weston activists that talks about Weston as "an example of white flight" is an inaccurate reflection of the community. Sigal urged city officials to address the article, telling them that the city's image is "at stake."
"The repercussions of this silence can have long-lasting effects on the reputation of this wonderful city being tarnished for future residents which can result in property value decline and loss of business and city revenue," the petition states.
During the meeting, one Weston student named Olivia shared her own experiences with racism in the city. She said she moved to the area about three years ago and encountered a level of racism she'd never experienced before.
As she spoke about the white people in Weston who claim racism doesn't exist simply because they don't experience it, her words were met with a disapproving head-shake from Commissioner (and mayoral candidate) Brown.
"Black students in Weston and around Broward County are continuously intimidated and scared by police in our county. We cannot control how we feel," Olivia said.
Brown was shown continuing to shake her head and wave her hands at the camera.
"You can continue to make fun of me, especially on camera, and look at me and pretend that the things I experience do not happen. But they do," Olivia shot back.
Joy Rice, a 17-year-old Black Lives Matter Weston activist, tells New Times it's extremely frustrating to see the tactics local officials are using to undermine Black residents' experiences with racism. She says the officials have brought up the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, demanding that the students provide them an example of that happening in Weston.
At the beginning of the June 29 meeting, Brown posed a question along those lines: "Where are the statistics? What is this about?"
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Says Rice: "You don't have to be a victim of police brutality to be oppressed by the system. We shouldn't have to get to that point where we have to wait on a murder to happen for us to want change in Weston."
After the Black Lives Matter Weston activists met with the principal of Cypress Bay High School to discuss the need for more curriculum on Black history, the school announced it will be offering a new honors African-American history elective course for the upcoming school year.
But while the activists acknowledge and celebrate that step forward, they emphasize that a lot of work remains.
"I think that what Weston UNITED thinks is that we're going to back down, and we're definitely not," Rice says. "The more reluctant people are, the more determined we are as an organization to make sure that we can vote as well as have change in this community."