One of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' more bizarre moves has been the establishment of the Florida State Guard. This during a gubernatorial tenure that has seen DeSantis lurch to the far, far right on everything from civil rights to public education to whether or not people suspected of "drug smuggling" ought to be summarily executed upon crossing our southern border. The guard was announced with some pomp in 2022 and premised as an alternative version of the state National Guard under the orders of nobody but the governor himself and would be focused on emergency response in case of natural disasters or other state emergencies.
Why DeSantis needed his own alternative to the National Guard was always sketchy, and critics warned from the beginning that the authoritarian-minded, vengeance-obsessed DeSantis was exactly the sort of political leader who should not be given his own dedicated paramilitary force. The suspicions were that Florida Republicans were not creating an "emergency preparedness" force, but a state-sponsored anti-federal militia.
Those fears quickly proved to be grounded. Last June, scandal erupted when a founding supervisor and other volunteers quit, warning that the training program for the new state guard was "heavily militarized," with "marching drills and military-style training sessions on weapons and hand-to-hand combat." The governor's office then appeared to bend the previously stated purpose for the guard, telling The New York Times the group would help "ensure Florida remains fully fortified to respond to not only natural disasters, but also to protect its people and borders from illegal aliens and civil unrest."
That gave the game away. DeSantis and Republican lawmakers may have sold the program as one of emergency preparedness, but the training appears to be focused on an imagined future of armed and hand-to-hand combat with "illegal aliens," or with the state facing "civil unrest."
Last week, the Miami Herald broke the news that the DeSantis administration had hired Stronghold SOF Solutions to recruit and train guard volunteers. The paramilitary-minded company "trains police and military members on tactical shooting, explosives and urban combat," reports the Herald, and "lists as one of its instructors a former U.S. Navy SEAL accused of war crimes."
The Southern Poverty Law Center is now weighing in as well. The SPLC normally dedicates itself to tracking hate groups and potentially violent anti-government militias. Now it's issued an unusual analysis warning that the Florida State Guard appears to be rapidly transforming into a true oddity: a state-sponsored anti-government militia.
“I would be worried that people who harbor more extreme antigovernment views are going to be eager to join up,” [Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection]’s policy counsel Jacob Glick told Hatewatch. “This [FSG] is a state backed carbon copy of how a lot of these illegal, private militia groups operate.” He noted that antigovernment extremists “fantasize about being recruited by Far-Right authoritarian politicians to do their dirty work.” Glick worries FSG establishes a structure whereby such groups as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys can terrorize their perceived enemies with the air of state-sanctioned legality. Glick isn’t alone in these types of concerns.
Jason Van Tatenhove, who served as a high-ranking Oath Keepers official and now speaks out about the perils of the antigovernment movement, warned Hatewatch that FSG seems to be playing the same public relations game his old militia group did – saying FSG focuses on emergency preparedness when it actually concentrates on paramilitary and combat training. He described FSG as a “professional, private paramilitary organization that is extremely well funded.”
Task Force Butler, a non-profit that trains veterans in research and operations to counter extremism, portrays FSG as possibly the “single greatest direct cash infusion” the antigovernment militia movement has ever seen.
It doesn't take much imagination to envision DeSantis calling up his militia to act as thuggish state-sanctioned guards if, say, student protests at state universities were to run afoul of any of his future unpopular edicts.
An alleged response force trained in military-style combat that exists outside the military and is not answerable to military codes of conduct is a nightmarish scenario for anti-extremism experts.
Kristofer Goldsmith, founder and CEO of Task Force Butler, expressed concerns over the necessity of a police force within FSG and the lack of accountability. He asked, “If the governor of Florida doesn’t think that law enforcement, the National Guard, the military and non-profits that deploy veterans for disaster relief are good enough to do their jobs and serve Florida, then how is the new Florida State Guard, which has been given vast powers with virtually no accountability or responsibility, going to be empowered to make positive change?” Without any accountability or transparency, Task Force Butler says FSG becomes an “extrajudicial” entity like other antigovernment militias.
Of equal concern to experts is that recruiting volunteers to receive free paramilitary hand-to-hand combat, arms training, and military equipment is a very good way to attract and train up anti-government extremists.
Goldsmith agreed with this assessment and noted what type of people are likely to be attracted to such training. “Anytime that the Florida State Guard is doing Oath Keepers training, it’s going to attract Oath Keepers,” Goldsmith said “When they start doing service to communities, they’ll attract people who want to actually serve their communities.” Considering FSG recruits are given military-style equipment and training, Goldsmith asked, “Why wouldn’t extremists take advantage of that new training opportunity?” He said he believes extremists will “gladly exploit” FSG.
DeSantis now has a small private army that's not answerable to National Guard or military leaders if wrongdoing occurs, one that seems intentionally crafted in premise and training to mirror anti-government militia groups throughout the country. The SPLC is right to be worried; there is nothing in DeSantis' past that suggests he would be able to resist using his barely trained new security force for political posturing, in Florida or outside of it. And his targets are likely to be the same groups of Americans he and the SPLC's extensive list of far-right hate groups have already declared to be enemies.
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