A “Celebration of the Arts” at the ART/ifact venue on Massachusetts Avenue Saturday night was targeted by a dozen Neo-Nazis who gathered outside to harass attendees because some of the performers were drag queens – men dressed as women.
“They were calling (attendees) pedophiles. They were screaming at them … screaming, ‘Heil Hitler!’ screaming, ‘You’re pedophiles, groomers.,” said event organizer Jason DeShazo, who performs under the stage name Momma Ashley Rose.
“They actually projected projections on the side of the building that said, ‘Warning – child grooming in progress’ and one said pedophiles should be taken care of. I don’t remember how — it said something about pedophilia and death. But I will say that all of our people that came in definitely were bothered. One of our children was crying because they were scared.”
The Lakeland Police Department received reports and responded to ART/ifact at about 5:15 Saturday evening and spoke with the Neo-Nazis and DeShazo, police spokeswoman Robin Tillett said.
“The representative from the protesting group advised they were not Lakeland residents and said they were there to protest an event occurring at the location,” Tillett said. “Officers advised the representative of the rules outlined in the Florida state statutes and municipal ordinances, with which the group complied.”
Tillett said the group had the right under the First Amendment to protest, as long as they weren’t harming anyone and obeying the law.
“When responding to calls involving protestors, our officers are there to ensure the safety and security of those at the event, while also ensuring those demonstrating are allowed to protest and exercise their first amendment rights permitted by law,” Tillett said. “Should an officer witness activities that violate the law, action is taken.”
Mayor Bill Mutz issued a brief statement, saying he learned of the Neo-Nazi gathering on Sunday. “I was grateful to learn how effectively our Lakeland Police Department handled the matter safely for all parties and without any incidents,” Mutz said.
DeShazo said he was pleased with Lakeland Police Department’s response.
“Lakeland Police Department, I really feel, did very well making us feel safe and protected,” DeShazo said. “They checked on us several times. They wanted to make sure our doors were secured. They were constantly monitoring and riding around, coming in, checking on us until the protesters left.”
Almost all the Neo-Nazis wore red T-shirts, and black pants or shorts, and hid their identities behind masks, hats and sunglasses. They carried a sign that said “DRAG QUEENS ARE PEDOPHILES WITH AIDS!” a Nazi flag, and a white flag with a red cross inside a blue square in the upper left corner. A group photo also shows a nearby sign with three symbols: a Star of David, the equal sign, and the sickle and hammer of the Soviet flag.
“I’m saddened and disgusted by it, but I’m also cognizant of the fact that we’ve seen a rise in anti-Semitism in this country that is unparalleled since the 30s and 40s,” said David Goldstein, rabbi of Temple Emanuel Synagogue of Lakeland. “Basically people forget words have power.”
Goldstein said Gen. Dwight Eisenhower knew when the Jewish concentration camps were liberated at the end of World War II that there would come a time when people would not believe that six million Jews had been exterminated in Nazi gas chambers and ovens in the 1930s and 1940s.
“That led him to create all sorts of documentary evidence — which people still reject,” Goldstein said of the thousands of photographs and films made by soldiers and journalists at the time. They show emaciated, starving prisoners, along with piles of corpses. “We seem to be living in a time when hatred is more powerful than knowledge. And willful ignorance is unfortunately fueling far too many people.”
The rabbi said he considers the dozen outsiders who harassed people in Lakeland Saturday night as “cowards” because they concealed their identities.
Florida Statute 876.12 states, “No person or persons over 16 years of age shall, while wearing any mask, hood, or device whereby any portion of the face is so hidden, concealed, or covered as to conceal the identity of the wearer, enter upon, or be or appear upon any lane, walk, alley, street, road, highway, or other public way in this state.”
“Their intent is to spread discord and bring a message of hate to others,” he said. “I’m heartened by the people I’ve met here in Lakeland and the people I see in Lakeland, reject this message and have stood very strongly with the Jewish people.”
He said if he could ask them anything it would be if they know anyone who is Jewish or anyone from the LGBTQ community.
“People are still very threatened by ‘other’ — whether it be gay, black, Jewish, Muslim,” said Goldstein, who is a veteran of the Israeli Army and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “It’s raised the flag of hatred. And that’s the sadness of it because this country was built on diversity. And yes, we’ve had our bouts with hatred issues, but we’ve succeeded in the past of overcoming that. And seeing it rear its ugly head again reminds us that the fight is never over. It’s a fight against ignorance.”
He said social influencers like Kanye West and others are also feeding this current wave of anti-Semitism. West recently tweeted anti-Semitic comments and told right-wing extremist Alex Jones that he “loves” Nazis and “likes” Hitler, including saying, “The Jewish media has made us feel like the Nazis and Hitler have never offered anything of value to the world.”
Goldstein said, “People don’t question what they see online, what they hear. They automatically assume, if it accords with what they want to believe, then it must be true.”
Polk County has seen heightened anti-LGBTQ activities in recent years. School Board member Sarah Fortney, who is gay, was labeled as a “porn peddler” by political opponents who succeeded in unseating her. In addition, at a 2021 School Board meeting, members of Concerned Citizens Defending Freedom and Winter Haven 9-12 stood up and turned their backs to LGBTQ students during the annual reading of the LGBTQ proclamation.
DeShazo, 43, grew up in Okeechobee, the only child of conservative Christian parents who attended a Pentecostal church. He describes himself as a gay man who performs in drag, singing only family-friendly, inspiration songs to audiences of all persuasions.
“I have known I was gay since I was at least 7 or 8 years old,” DeShazo explained. “I did go through conversion therapy, which obviously did not work because it’s abuse. A religious organization forced me to go through it.”
He said his parents have been very supportive and loving – something he knows many in the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, plus community do not receive from their families.
DeShazo spent years as a pastor in LGBTQ churches before founding the non-profit Rose Dynasty Foundation, which raises money for various charities, mentors LGBTQ-plus youth, and works with children on the autism spectrum.
“Our focus is providing that safe space, raising money for nonprofits and also spreading the message that everyone is love accepted and wanted no matter who they are,” DeShazo said. “I always try to tell people, you know, I’m just here to spread a message of love and acceptance. And if you considering someone teaching a child or teaching young adults, how to love and accept people and be kind to people, this is what you’re getting.”
He said the grooming accusation is simply hurtful and false.
“This is not grooming. I also always say if grooming works, I should be straight,” DeShazo said. “I was groomed by straight people my whole life to not be gay. And it obviously didn’t work. This is not about grooming. This is about teaching acceptance and love. If anything, the people that have these issues with this are the ones grooming their children how to hate and grooming them how to be unkind.”
DeShazo’s first hint that something was wrong was when he was putting on his makeup and the mother of an 8-year-old girl who was performing that night called from her car to say she didn’t feel safe coming into the building because there were Nazis outside of the building.
“I was like, whhhaaaattt?” DeShazo said. “Literally, my mind went, ‘Oh, God, the day has come.’ I knew this was coming. You know, I’m not dumb. I’ve been watching what’s happening. I’ve already had a few false accusations from politicians already. And, you know, we knew it was going to happen.”
There have been other Neo-Nazi protests throughout the state in the last year, including around the stadium at the University of Florida-University of Georgia annual football game in Jacksonville on Oct. 29.
He then moved to make sure the organization’s volunteers got inside safely before locking the doors and blocking off glass doors and windows.
He said Lakeland Police officials told them not to talk to the Nazis or even acknowledge them.
DeShazo said officers told him, “’Let us handle them. We’ll keep them away.’”
Volunteer Ellen Chastain said on her Facbook page, “THIS IS HATE!”
“No one engaged, no one was held hostage, and no direct death threats were made. (That I am aware of.),” she wrote in response to misinformation about the event that had circulated on social media.
“NAZIS are here nationally and locally. If it’s not an attack on LGBTQ people, it’s (people of color), Jews, non-white immigrants, and our democracy. Do not ignore it! … Christians, note the use of the Christian flag.”
Chastain, who founded Lakeland’s annual Art Crawl event, said people attending an unrelated Christmas party at a neighboring venue came over to express their support and assistance.
“Hate is hate … and no one is entertaining them,” she said.
DeShazo said once he saw the police were doing their job, he and his volunteers went back to making sure the show went on as scheduled for the 70 people in attendance.
“We’re like, we’ve got to a show to run, we’ve got money to raise for a good cause and we’re not gonna let any hate win,” DeShazo said.
Saturday night’s event raised $2,500 for scholarships for Camp Out, Florida’s first LGBT summer camp Rose Dynasty helped to found. It is held each year at an undisclosed location and is a week-long, sleepaway camp.
“We had local artists bring art in to sell and donate,” DeShazo said. “We had dancers, we had singers, we had musicians, we had drag queens, we had straight people, gay people, all types of people, coming in (and) performing.”
On Sunday evening, after a whirlwind of phone calls and crafting a statement for his Facebook and web pages, DeShazo said he was trying to process everything that had happened.
“I appreciate everyone who has reached out and are continuing to reach out to make sure we were okay, along with to see if we need anything,” he said. “I think it’s important for people to know that we need allies. We need people to stand by us and beside us. I think it’s been amazing that the people this last 24 hours and have reached out to check on us and to see how they can help. That overwhelming love has helped more than I think people realize.”
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