Police are investigating an incident of vandalism at the Pride Community Center of North Central Florida (PCCNCF) in Gainesville as a hate crime after windows were smashed and a note left behind this weekend.
On Saturday morning, PCCNCF director Debbie Lewis got a call from a friend across from the center, who told her that the building had been vandalized.
Lewis tells The Advocate she made her way to the scene after calling the group's vice president "because he's younger and more able than I am, so and I wanted to let him know the first thing."
She says that seeing the damage was difficult.
"[I]t was pretty shocking to see," Lewis says. "Just all the broken glass, and we could see that rocks had been thrown, and there was a note just inside, which probably also was thrown."
Center staff isn't sharing the content of the note because of the ongoing investigation, but a spokesperson for the Gainesville Police Department tells The Advocate in an email that the note referenced an upcoming advertised event.
"So it was clear that it wasn't just people who like to break glass," says Lewis. "It was people who wanted to send a message to us."
The spokesperson with the Gainesville Police Department wrote, "We urge the community to report any suspicious activity. Neighbors in the area are asked to check video surveillance or report if they witnessed the incident that possibly occurred between [4 p.m.] on [September 23] and [9 a.m.] on [September 24]."
They added, "We have asked our officers to increase their patrols in the area."
Lewis, who has been with the center for three years, says there's been a sharp uptick in negative sentiment and incidents surrounding the center in the last year.
She says that before Gov. Ron DeSantis got the "don't say gay" bill passed and signed into law, the center had a well-publicized rally with a huge turnout.
But Lewis says that along with the support came a lot of abuse.
"I'm the person that listens to the voicemail," she explains. She says that Gainesville has until recently remained free of growing far-right thinking of the remainder of "not blue Florida."
But, she says, the political influence from around the rest of the state is making itself known.
For example, she says that on several occasions, anti-Semitic flyers have been distributed around the area, and last month, the Alachua County Democratic Party headquarters in Gainesville were vandalized. As the Advocate Channel reports, experts have registered an uptick in anti-semitism and extremist violence in Florida.
"I don't know if they're related, but these things all certainly seem suspect," Lewis says.
Equality Florida representatives tweeted their dismay and support for the center.
"We are heartbroken this has happened in our community but are undeterred," they wrote. "The PCCNCF remains committed to being a safe place, and this display of hatred has only strengthened our resolve to continue to show up with love for our beautiful LGBTQ+ community."
Despite the fear and financial burden the attack caused, Lewis says one thing is certain: The vandals won't like that they inspired hundreds of acts of love.
Since the attack became public, she says the attention the story has received has been unlike anything she could have expected.
"It's gone viral because even as I'm sitting here at my laptop, every several times a minute, I'm getting a notification that we've gotten another donation," she says. "And we're probably getting close to 500 donations, individual donations since this happened. And we've gotten donations locally, but we've also gotten donations around the state and the country. We've had a few come in from the West Coast today that I noticed. We had one come in from Germany."
Lewis says it's heartening to see the outpouring of support the center has received, regardless of whether they are from the LGBTQ+ community or allies.
"People are angry that this happened. People love the queer community here, whether part of it or allied with it. I think we have that support from them, and they're spreading the word far and wide, and it is coming back to us."