Kathryn Salsbury is a white woman who was raised Christian in a small town in rural Kansas. So she was shocked when her kids found a swastika spray-painted in front of their driveway in July.
Salsbury has spent a lot of time thinking about why her family was targeted. It could be that her three kids are half-Syrian. Or it could be that Salsbury, an outspoken progressive in a deep red part of the country, sometimes gets in political skirmishes with her neighbors on Facebook.
“It’s really eroded my sense of peace and made me question why I chose to raise my children in this community,” she said. “I don’t know why it happened, but if their goal was to intimidate me, it worked.”
Salsbury’s story isn’t unique.
I wanted to get a sense of how frequently swastikas were appearing in public. I spent the month of July tracking news stories and reports from members of the public made through the Documenting Hate project, to collect every instance I could find of swastikas appearing in public.
The swastika drawn in front of Salsbury’s property was one of 42 instances of swastika vandalism that appeared across the country that month. I found swastikas in 19 states, most of which involved graffiti appearing on private buildings, like homes and houses of worship, or public spaces, such as school playgrounds and city parks.
Employees at a Southern California hospital repeatedly found swastikas drawn in a stairwell. The vandalism would be painted over, but the swastikas reappeared again and again.
A piece of paper with a swastika and the message “KKK hate Muslims, we will kill you” was left in the mailbox of a Muslim family in Malverne, New York.
A bike path in Youngstown, Ohio, was vandalized with a swastika and graffiti reading, “Rape is OK” and “Kill all women.”
The swastika is one of the most recognizable anti-Semitic symbols on the planet. Yet, as the horrors of World War II fade into history, the swastika has come to mean something slightly different.
In the incidents I tracked, the swastika was used as a weapon against everyone from black and Hispanic people to Jews and Muslims. It’s a catch-all for all types of extremist hate.
“It has become the ultimate hate symbol for the white supremacist movement as a whole,” said Christian Picciolini, a former skinhead turned anti-hate activist. “From the ultra-racist uncle to the neo-Nazi to the alt-right. It’s such a reviled and hurtful symbol, they know that, just that symbol alone, without even any words, is going to really hurt somebody or scare somebody or make them very, very angry.”
Here are some trends from the reports of swastikas that appeared in the United States in July:
- There were two instances in which swastikas were paired either with the word “Trump” or Trump campaign slogans like “Build that Wall.”
- Six instances of swastika graffiti were found on or very close to a school or playground.
- Five cases involved swastikas showing up in public parks.
- Three swastikas were placed on private businesses.
- There were six instances of swastika vandalism on private homes or swastika-laden notes appearing in a person’s mailbox. When a Jewish family in Phoenix returned home from vacation to find a swastika and the word “Jew” painted on their home, they decided to leave the graffiti up for others to see.
- Eight of the swastikas appeared on property owned by ethnic or religious minorities. An Islamic cemetery in Castle Rock Township, Minnesota, which had to survive a bitter fight with Islamophobic locals to even get built in the first place, was vandalized with spray-painted swastikas and the message, “Leave, you R dead.” In Brooklyn, New York, an unidentified man carved dozens of swastikas into wet concrete in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Midwood.
- Boise, Idaho, appears to be a hotbed for this type of activity. The city saw four acts of vandalism with swastikas over the month. Three days after a memorial to Anne Frank was defaced with a swastika and other racial slurs, someone drew a swastika and “Rapeugees Shop Here” in chalk in front of a local Iraqi restaurant.
- In the overwhelming majority of cases, the vandals were not apprehended. Arrests were only reported in the news media about three of the cases Reveal reviewed. In two of those cases the suspects arrested were teenagers.
White supremacists in Charlottesville weren’t just whistling ‘Dixie’
In a story published yesterday, I dug into the online chat room the organizers of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, used for planning. You can check out all of my findings here.
The TL;DR version is that, internally, the goal of the event was largely to provoke counterprotesters into violence, which Unite the Right organizers could then use to convert moderate, white conservatives to the cause. After a neo-Nazi allegedly drove a car into crowd of counterprotesters, they largely came to the realization that that wasn’t going to happen.
However, one interesting wrinkle from the chats had to do with their plans to engage in a group sing-a-long to the Confederate anthem “Dixie” while on the ground in Charlottesville. The thing is that most of the people didn’t know the words. “Dixie” isn’t an especially popular song in 2017 regardless, but they regularly joked that coordinating the song was tricky because so many people involved weren’t from the South.
The reason the event was held in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park was to protest the city’s removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. To the Unite the Right attendees, Lee’s statue didn’t really have much to do with the specific history of the Confederacy. Instead, it was a symbol of white supremacy that knew no geographic boundary.
While there’s a movement across the country to take down monuments to the Confederacy, there’s also been a push in the opposite direction, with new monuments sprouting up. Recent months have seen new construction in places like Crenshaw County, Alabama, and the east Texas city of Orange.
The monument there will be at the intersection of Interstate 10 and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Reclaiming a racist frog meme
When cartoonist Matt Furie created Pepe in 2005, making a political statement was the furthest thing from his mind. The green cartoon frog, which originally appeared in his Boy’s Club comic, had few interests outside of getting high, hanging out with his friends and pulling his pants all the way down to his ankles while peeing.
Pepe was eventually adopted as a symbol of online meme culture. From there, it evolved into a symbol of the alt-right, appearing in a popular meme about Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment. The image became so strongly identified with white supremacists that even the image alone, divorced from all other context, could be viewed as a racially tinged attack.
Horrified by his creation’s association with racism, Furie is fighting back. When author Eric Hauser adapted the meme into a children’s book with Islamophobic overtones, Furie took legal action on the grounds that the book violated his intellectual property.
Hauser, who was an assistant principal at a middle school in the Dallas suburb of Oak Point until controversy swirling around the book resulted in his resignation, insisted the book wasn’t intended to be promote bigotry. The book follows Pepe has he battles a bearded alligator named Alkah, whose minions look similar to women in full burkas.
This week, Furie reached a settlement with Hauser stopping all future sales of the self-published book and donating all proceeds, which amount to about $1,500, to the Center for American-Islamic Relations.
“Furie wants one thing to be clear: Pepe the Frog does not belong to the alt-right,” Furie’s lawyers wrote in a statement. “As this action shows, Furie will aggressively enforce his intellectual property, using legal action if necessary, to end the misappropriation of Pepe the Frog in any way that espouses racism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Nazism, or any other form of hate. He will make sure that no one profits by using Pepe in alt-right propaganda – and particularly not by targeting children.”
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