Last month, an intentionally set fire damaged a prayer hall at a Tampa-area mosque, the second such fire at a Florida mosque in the past six months.
Earlier this month, Joseph Schreiber was sentenced to 30 years in prison for setting fire to the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce on Sept. 11. It was the same mosque that Orlando Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen attended occasionally. Mateen shot and killed 49 people last summer at the Pulse nightclub in what was the largest mass shooting in the country, at an establishment frequented predominantly by those in the LGBT community.
Meanwhile, in January, three Clearwater congregations — all within a mile of one another — were targeted with anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi graffiti on the same day.
With these incidents of hate taking place over the past year, a coalition of groups gathered in front of more than 150 people at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg on Thursday night to stand in solidarity with those who have been targeted by acts of hate.
And nationally there have been several incidents where Sikh men have been shot and killed.
“We live in a moment where fear has run rampant,” said Jeff Johnson in kicking off the evening. He’s the founder of Love Not Fear, a new community-based nonprofit. “Our culture breeds fear of the ‘other,’ however defined, and fear calcifies into a hatred that leads to despicable acts against our fellow human beings.”
Johnson said he began brainstorming up the idea of creating the group around a year ago and received help from Equality Florida’s Nadine Smith in creating his organization. He said it was an attempt to become the antidote to the fear that he said was “tearing our world apart.”
Smith said that the worst thing the community can do when there are acts of hate taking place in these different communities is to “be fearful and be silent.”
“We refuse to allow hatred, and we refuse to allow fear to overwhelm us and become the new normal,” she declared.
Participating in a panel discussion to talk about the current situation and how to improve it was members of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.
Johnson asked members what they doing with their groups or faith communities to stand up for those who are of a different faith.
Dr. Gagandeep Mangat, a Sikh himself, said it was crucial for people simply to begin talking to other people.
“We gotta stop tweeting about it,” quipped the Rev. Kenneth Irby, from the Historic Bethel AME Church in St. Petersburg, eliciting applause. “It is the action and the engagement that allows us to replace the fear with curiosity,” he said, adding that “if we are to make appreciable gains we have to get out of our comfort zones.”
Also participating in the panel discussion was St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Toward the end of the talk, Kriseman said that when he was campaigning in 2013, he heard from people who said he should change the name of South St. Petersburg because of the “perception” of that part of the community.
“I don’t want to change the name, I want to change the perception,” the mayor said, adding that if it were up to him, the Trader Joe’s that opened up on 4th Street North and 27th Streets two years ago would have actually opened on MLK and 62nd Avenue South. “It would have drawn people from all over the city to that community.”
“The more we can interact with each other, the more we can learn about each other, the better off as a community will be and the quicker things will change,” he said.
Among those in attendance were St. Pete City Council members Amy Foster, Steve Kornell and Karl Nurse, along with the St. Pete Area Chamber of Commerce’s CEO and President Chris Steinocher.
After the panel discussion had concluded, the organized engaged those attending in some interactive exercises to help them identify commonalities that bridge the diversity of the group.