Revisiting Summer Hate Graffiti As Concern Over White Nationalism Grows

Aug 19, 2019

An anti-Swastika sticker appeared on a streetlight pole in downtown Eugene days after the June 12 incident. It unknown how many stickers were placed around the city, or who put them there.
Credit Melorie Begay/KLCC News

Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, there’s been an increase in hate crimes nationally. The public has been shocked by incidents including the killings of 11 Jewish worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and most recently 22 mostly Latino people at a Walmart in El Paso. But subtler messages have also contributed to the climate of hate. KLCC’s Melorie Begay takes a look at one incident that happened earlier this summer in Eugene.

On June 12 several downtown businesses were defaced with multiple red swastikas. A suspect still hasn’t been found. Since then the City of Eugene passed a resolution condemning white supremacy and resolved to stand in solidarity with those who oppose the ideology.

“It provides some political leadership and a statement of core values for the city of Eugene and other cities that pass similar resolutions that say we don’t believe that this movement has a place here, we reject bigotry and that, that helps close the space that operated here,” said Lindsay Schubiner, program director with Western States Oregon. It’s a non-profit that works to confront white nationalism in the Pacific Northwest and across the country.

I interviewed Schubiner in July before the recent mass shooting in El Paso where the gunman echoed Trumps language calling Latino immigrants invaders. I asked her how hate graffiti should be viewed at a time when the Tree of Life synagogue shooting occurred less than a year ago.

“Maybe there’s a continuum of incidents of hate violence and the severity that goes from calling someone a name, or graffiti on one hand, which does need to be taken seriously, to mass murder on the other. But I think to address it as though these things aren’t related and part of a similar world view is troubling and dangerous,” Schubiner said. The risk of doing nothing, she said, is that the incidents may escalate.

When news of the swastikas broke in Eugene, a debate stirred whether the incident warranted media response, suggesting that it was giving the perpetrator what they wanted.

“That’s tricky because you don’t want to overreact because if you do you give the perpetrators free publicity some of which they are seeking,” Steven Wasserstrom, a Religion professor at Reed College, said.

It’s important for the community to set the tone in response to incidents but, he says regardless of who the perpetrator is, swastikas are never neutral.

“It is never anything less than the most extreme of hate signs. There are some from the extreme right who say ‘oh it’s just and ancient Indian ornamental device’ that sort of thing but that’s nonsense,” he said.

Education is key when events like these happen, Wasserstrom said, especially if the vandals are kids.

The Oregon legislature passed a bill this year requiring schools to add the Holocaust to lesson plans. The curriculum is expected to roll out in 2020. Until then, people like Sabena Stark visit classrooms.

Sabena Stark
Credit Melorie Begay/KLCC News

“My parents came to the states in 1946. They came from a displaced persons camp in Munich, Germany after the war. They had both been in Auschwitz and several other slave labor concentration camps,” said Stark.

When Stark isn’t out educating kids about her family history, or working at the University of Oregon, she’s home writing about her childhood. She’s writing a memoir that details her experiences living with parents whose trauma followed them until they passed.

“We moved a lot. My parents had a very hard time particularly my father had a very hard time keeping a job because he was- they never really felt that the war was over. They thought that people were still trying to kill them,” she said.

Stark said she developed a sense for social justice, leading her to help found the advocacy group “Showing 

A photo of Stark’s mother Sonja, her father Szya, and her older sister Susan.
Credit Photo courtesy of Sabena Stark

Stark said she developed a sense for social justice, leading her to help found the advocacy group “Showing Up For Racial Justice,” or SURJ. I asked what news of the hate crime graffiti meant to her.

“I struggle with the line between free speech and incitement to killing because in other countries where there have been Nazi’s, people aren’t allowed to do that,” she said.

She said she sees parallels between the U.S. treatment of immigrant families and Nazi concentration camps.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lists 7 hate groups that align with Neo-Nazi and racist ideologies in Oregon. That reality in combination with the state’s history makes it difficult for minority populations to ignore incidents like swastika graffiti. Targeted groups are fearful, said Eric Ward, the executive director for Western States Center.

“They don’t go out to dinner, they don’t walk to get ice cream in the downtown because they’re afraid something might happen to them, and if we remain silent there’s no reason they shouldn’t believe that,” he said.

There’s a singular line that leads from white supremacist groups in the 1920s to post civil rights white nationalism, Ward said.    

“The state still struggles with equity and opportunity because of that historic legacy, but it’s not just historic. History never sits in the past, it always feeds and creates conditions that we confront in the present,” he said.

Ward and Wasserstrom agree that denouncing swastika graffiti is critical, but they urge against overreacting. Wasserstrom said the normalization of swastikas could open the door to more serious crimes.