My hometown of Kansas was tagged with swastikas. We should not tolerate even occasional manifestations of hatred.
Maybe it was because I had just picked up Kim from Union Station in Kansas City and had time to reflect on the grim symbolism of an actual WWII German freight car temporarily installed at the outside. The car is part of the traveling exhibition, “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.”
Perhaps this was the current political climate, where white nationalism has become part of the American conversation. Or maybe it was the approaching anniversary of the Jan.6 uprising, in which the neo-fascist Kansas Proud Boys, including Guillaume Chrestman, were accused of violating the Capitol.
But it was probably all of the above that contributed to my outrage when, on the way back on Interstate 35, Kim, my wife, read to me the story on his iPhone that someone had swastikas spray-painted on the back door of a drive-through restaurant in our hometown of Emporia, but it was not being treated as a hate crime.
Swastikas were painted in white paint on the back door and elsewhere at Sonic’s drive-in on West Sixth in Emporia. The incident looked like “random criminal damage to property,” according to a police captain quoted in the Emporia Gazette. Restaurant owners were unsure why the drive-through would be targeted, and police said the vandalism did not appear to be motivated by hatred or prejudice. Additionally, it was noted that there is no hate crime law in Kansas.
I was outraged by the act itself and appalled at the flippant manner in which authorities in my hometown seemed to be treating it. There is no one on earth who can handle a spray can without knowing what the swastika means. It is a symbol of hatred, fanaticism, intolerance, mass slaughter.
A few years ago, the city of Emporia was so pissed off by gang graffiti that letters were sent to landowners warning them that it was their responsibility to clean things up. I know, I got one of the letters. I spent a few hours painting the side of the lane of my shed, which had been labeled with symbols that I had to use a reference sheet to interpret. They hadn’t been there for over a week or so, and I would have ended up painting on them anyway.
Don’t swastikas on a local business deserve some level of concern? Has our tolerance for hatred grown so much that as a community, as a state, as a country, we are no longer able to recognize the danger of public manifestations of fanaticism? ? The police, of course, were in a difficult position, dealing with what appeared to be a simple act of petty vandalism. Of course, I understood. Maybe it was just a kid who sprayed swastikas on the Sonic to cause a reaction. Maybe there was no real threat. After all, it wasn’t like swastikas were painted on a school or synagogue. But any swastika is an affront to the community, especially because Emporia is posing as the “Founding city” of Veterans Day. John Cooper, the soldier whose death inspired his stepfather to push for Armistice Day to be a public holiday for all veterans, was killed in Belgium while fighting the Nazis.
I would have liked the mayor or the chief of police to recognize that whatever the motivation for the vandalism, swastikas are a symbol of hatred and would not be tolerated.
Once back in Emporia, before we even got home on Wednesday afternoon, we took a tour of the Sonic to see if there was anything left of the vandalism. The ghost of a 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 most unlikely target. It is a pleasant place, especially in summer, for a cold treat.
But later that afternoon, it became known that Sonic was just one of the places tainted with hate. Similar graffiti, including swastikas, had also been left at Emporia High School, Emporia State University (where I teach), another restaurant and convenience store. Police say they arrested 19-year-old Emporia man Isaac Lawrence and charged him in city court with criminal vandalism. The case was later referred to county prosecutor for consideration of criminal vandalism charges because the damages exceeded $ 1,000. Meanwhile, Lawrence, a 2020 high school graduate, was being held in the Lyon County Jail.
In the state of Emporia, swastikas and other graffiti have been left on the east face of Visser Hall, which houses the National Teachers Hall of Fame. On Thursday afternoon, Mani Rico, an employee of a local catering company, told me that it took him and a member of the team half a day to scrub and wash with water. the symbols of masonry. In addition to the swastikas, Rico said, there was a message. He didn’t remember the message, he said, but I suspect he was understandably reluctant to repeat it.
As I watched the crew finish, I could taste the detergent they were using on my tongue. I could also still taste my indignation. I was burning to the idea that anyone could tear down a building dedicated to helping train elementary and secondary school teachers in our state. Seeking to make sense of things, I contacted Rabbi Sam Stern, who came from San Antonio in June to run the Beth Shalom Temple 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 whenever we see swastikas in public places because it was not only a symbol used by the Nazis during WWII, but is also used by neo-Nazis and groups. white supremacists today. “
Anti-Semitic hatred is at an all-time high in decades, Stern said.
In 2020, the largest category of hate crimes reported to federal authorities involving religion were aimed at Jews, according to the Department of Justice. In 2014, a gunman killed three people at the Greater Kansas City Jewish Community Center in Overland Park. The shooter, an avowed racist Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. from Missouri, died in prison.
Without passing judgment on whether or not Lawrence was responsible for the graffiti, or the pattern, Stern said he was “happy to help provide an education for 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 would borrow the wording from the Auschwitz Kansas City exhibit,” Stern said. “These events were not so far away and not so far away.”
I didn’t tell her I saw the Nazi-era wagon at Union Station, where I picked up Kim on her trip to St. Louis on Amtrak.
Kansas is one of the few states that does not have a hate crime law. While there are laws that provide harsher penalties for existing crimes, attempts to pass a comprehensive hate crimes bill have been rejected by the Legislature. One of the most recent attempts, in 2017, sponsored by Sen. David Haley, a Democrat from Kansas City, died in committee. It was introduced the same year that an Indian was killed in a bar in Olathe by Adam Purinton, who shouted “get out of my country” before opening fire.
Miller and Purinton were both convicted using the federal hate crimes 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 cases. Almost 75% of these reported property crimes are vandalism, according to the The latest FBI report.
Mark a fence, business, or public building with a hate symbol and you might be faced with more than just a charge of vandalism. It might make your average garden variety community think twice.
Some Kansas prosecutors may be reluctant to approve a hate crimes law because it may be more convenient to seek a conviction for an established crime and then seek additional penalties, if necessary. Hate crime prosecutions are so dependent on proving the motivation and state of mind of the perpetrator that otherwise valid cases could collapse when faced with the added standard of proving prejudice against a race, religion or a gender identity.
But a Kansas hate crimes law wouldn’t be for prosecutors.
It would be to send a message.
Mark a fence, business, or public building with a hate symbol and you might be faced with more than just a charge of vandalism. It might make your average garden variety community think twice. Swastikas cause many people to feel a legitimate fear, and that fear extends beyond our Jewish neighbors. Blacks, left-wing thinkers, those of Roma ancestry and the LGBTQ community have been the target of 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 is the price of living in a free society. But the swastika and the noose can be used as tools of intimidation, to instill fear in others, to make them fear for their lives. Swastikas should not be banned, neither in history texts, nor in private homes, nor in popular culture. Indiana Jones is defined, in large part, by its nemesis. When is the symbol used to inspire genuine fear? This is where the protection of free speech ends, when a swastika is the equivalent of fighting words.
A Kansas hate crimes law would send the message to vulnerable groups that hate and bullying will not be tolerated here. Not on our fences, not on our buildings and not on our hearts.
Well, we’ll have to work on that last part.