OPINION: Even Casual Displays of Hate Shouldn’t be Tolerated

Maybe it was because I’d just picked up Kim from Union Station in Kansas City, and had time to ponder the grim symbolism of a genuine World War II-era German freight car temporarily installed outside. The car is part of the touring exhibit, “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.”

Perhaps it was the current political climate, where white nationalism has become part of the American conversation. Or it might have been the approaching anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, in which neo-fascist Proud Boys from Kansas, including William Chrestman, have been charged with breaching the Capitol.

But it was likely all of the above that contributed to my outrage when, on the ride back on Interstate 35, Kim, my wife, read me the story on her iPhone that somebody had spray-painted swastikas on the back door of a drive-in restaurant in our hometown of Emporia, but that it wasn’t being treated as a hate crime.

The swastikas were sprayed in white paint on the back door and elsewhere at the Sonic drive-in on West Sixth in Emporia. The incident seemed like “random criminal damage to property,” according to a police captain quoted in the Emporia Gazette. The restaurant owners didn’t know of a reason why the drive-in would be targeted, and police said the vandalism did not appear to be motivated by hate or bias. Also, it was noted, there is no law against hate crimes in Kansas.

I was outraged by the act itself and dismayed by the casual manner in which the authorities in my hometown seemed to be treating it. There’s nobody on the face of the earth who can wield a spray can who doesn’t know what the swastika means. It’s a symbol of hate, bigotry, intolerance, mass slaughter.

 The ghost of a swastika remains Wednesday, after attempts to remove it, near the back door to the Sonic restaurant on West Sixth Street in Emporia, Kansas. Similar graffiti was spray-left at Emporia High School, Emporia State University, another local restaurant and a convenience store, according to authorities. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector) 

Some years ago, the city of Emporia was so worked up over gang graffiti that letters were sent to property owners warning it was their responsibility to clean the stuff up. I know, I received one of the letters. I spent a couple of hours painting over the alley side of my shed, which had been tagged with symbols I had to use a reference sheet to interpret. They hadn’t been there more than a week or so, and I would have eventually painted over them anyway.

Don’t swastikas on a local business merit some level of concern? Had our tolerance for hate so thickened that, as a community, as a state, as a country, we are no longer capable of recognizing the danger posed by public displays of bigotry? The police, of course, were in a tough spot, faced with what appeared a single act of petty vandalism. Sure, I got it. Maybe it was just some kid who sprayed the swastikas at the Sonic to provoke a reaction. Perhaps there was no real threat. After all, it wasn’t like the swastikas were painted on a school or a synagogue. But any swastika anywhere is an affront to the community, particularly because Emporia promotes itself as the “founding city” of Veterans Day. John Cooper, the soldier whose death inspired his stepfather to lobby to make Armistice Day a holiday for all veterans, had been killed in Belgium, fighting the Nazis.

I would have liked to have seen some acknowledgment from the mayor or the chief of police that, no matter what the motivation for the vandalism, swastikas are a symbol of hate and would not be tolerated.

Once back in Emporia, before even going home Wednesday afternoon, we drove around the Sonic to see if anything remained of the vandalism. The ghost of one swastika remained, after obvious attempts to remove it, on the bricks near the back door. It made me sad, because the drive-in seemed the unlikeliest of targets. It is a pleasant place, especially in summer, for a cold treat.

But later that afternoon came the news that Sonic was just one of the places smeared by hate. Similar graffiti, including swastikas, had also been left at Emporia High School, Emporia State University (where I teach), another restaurant and a convenience store. Police said they had arrested a 19-year-old Emporia man, Isaac Lawrence, and charged him in municipal court with criminal vandalism. The case was later referred to the county attorney for consideration of felony vandalism charges because the damage exceeded $1,000. Meanwhile, Lawrence, a 2020 graduate of the high school, was held in the Lyon County Jail.

 Emporia High School was one of several targets vandalized by graffiti in the community late Tuesday or early Wednesday. The graffiti included swastikas, according to authorities. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector) 

At Emporia State, swastikas and other graffiti were left on the east face of Visser Hall, which houses the National Teachers Hall of Fame. On Thursday afternoon, Mani Rico, a worker for a local restoration company, told me it had it had taken half a day for him and a crew member to scrub and power-wash the symbols from the brickwork. In addition to the swastikas, Rico said, there was a message. He did not remember what the message was, he said, but I suspect he was understandably reluctant to repeat it.

Watching as the crew finished up, I could taste the detergent they were using on my tongue. I could also still taste my outrage. I burned at the thought that anyone would deface a building that is dedicated to helping produce our state’s elementary and secondary school teachers. Seeking to make sense of things, I reached out to Rabbi Sam Stern, who came from San Antonio in June to lead Temple Beth Shalom in Topeka. There are no synagogues in Emporia.

“A swastika is obviously and always an expression of hate,” Stern told me. “The Jewish community is concerned any time we see swastikas in public places because it was not only a symbol used by the Nazis during World War II, but is also used by neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups today.”

Antisemitic hate is at its highest level in decades, Stern said.

In 2020, the largest single category of hate crimes reported to federal authorities involving religion targeted Jewish people, according to the Department of Justice. In 2014, a gunman killed three people at the at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, in Overland Park. The shooter, avowed racist Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. of Missouri, died in prison.

While not passing judgment on whether Lawrence was responsible for the graffiti or not, or what the motive may have been, Stern said he was “happy to help provide education to whoever is responsible.” I asked Stern what he would say to whoever left the graffiti, if he had to make just one point. He knew immediately.

“I’d borrow the phrasing of the Auschwitz exhibit in Kansas City,” Stern said. “These events weren’t long ago and not that far away.”

I had not told him of seeing the Nazi-era railway car at Union Station, where I picked up Kim from her trip to St. Louis on Amtrak.

Kansas is one of the few states without a hate crime law. While there are statutes which provide for stiffer sentences for existing crimes, attempts to pass a comprehensive hate crime bill have been defeated in the Legislature. One of the most recent attempts, in 2017, sponsored by Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, died in committee. It was introduced the same year an Indian man was killed in an Olathe bar by Adam Purinton, who shouted “get out of my country” before opening fire.

Both Miller and Purinton were convicted using the federal hate crime law, which is typical in murder cases where there is an obvious bias. But the vast majority of hate crimes reported in the country are smaller, community affairs. Nearly 75% of such crimes reported against property are vandalism, according to the FBI’s most recent report.

Tag a fence or a business or a public building with a symbol of hate and you might be dealing with more than just a vandalism charge. It might make your average, garden-variety community racist think twice.

– Max McCoy

Some Kansas prosecutors may be reluctant to endorse a hate crime law, because it may be more practical to seek a conviction for an established crime and then seek additional penalties as appropriate. Hate crime prosecutions depend so heavily on proving the motivation and mindset of the perpetrator that otherwise sound cases might collapse when faced with the additional standard to prove bias against a race, a religion or a sexual identity.

But a Kansas hate crime law would not be for prosecutors.

It would be to send a message.

Tag a fence or a business or a public building with a symbol of hate and you might be dealing with more than just a vandalism charge. It might make your average, garden-variety community racist think twice. Swastikas make many people feel legitimate fear, and that fear extends beyond our Jewish neighbors. Black people, leftist thinkers, those of Roma ancestry and the LGBTQ community have been targets for jack-booted thugs.

All of these groups were hated — and killed — by the Nazis.

The First Amendment rightly protects speech that most of us would find offensive. It’s the price of living in a free society. But the swastika and the noose can be used as tools of intimidation, to inspire fear in others, to make them afraid for their lives. Swastikas should not be outlawed, not in history texts, not in private homes, not in popular culture. Indiana Jones is defined, in large part, by his archenemy. When the symbol is used to inspire genuine fear? That’s where free speech protection ends, when a swastika is the equivalent of fighting words.

A Kansas hate crime law would send the message to vulnerable groups that hate and intimidation will not be tolerated here. Not on our fences, not on our buildings and not in our hearts.

Well, we’ll have to work on that last part.

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Opinion Piece by Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector