Opinion |

How to Stop America's Swastika Problem

Scraping the swastikas off our public spaces still leaves a mark. Ditching Steve King - re-elected nine times - from Congressional committees still leaves Trump, whose racism-friendly supporters are now filling his re-election coffers

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File Photo: Members of the National Socialist Movement hold a swastika burning after a rally in Draketown, Georgia on April 21, 2018.
File Photo: Members of the National Socialist Movement hold a swastika burning after a rally in Draketown, Georgia on April 21, 2018.Credit: SPENCER PLATT/AFP

After I saw the swastika on the tree at my children's playground, I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I call the police? Tell the Homeowners’ Association? Or the management company?

One sunny afternoon a few weeks later, I was at the other park, the one without swastikas, with some friends from the neighborhood. A young couple - Mike and Nabila - they have an 18-month-old girl the same age as my son.

>> It Was a Beautiful Saturday Morning, Save for the Swastikas

As we strapped our children into their strollers and headed out of the park, I told them about the swastikas. They gasped.

"Where did you find it?" Mike asked.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning, save for the swastikasCredit: Mya Guarnieri Jaradat

"At the park over there,” I said, pointing. "The one with the big slide."

"What did you do?"

"Nothing," I admitted. "What should I do? Should I call the police?"

Mike shook his head. "Don’t bother."

I was surprised to hear this from Mike - he’s a fireman. As a civil servant himself, I expected him to tell me that I had a duty to call the police, to report the incident.

"We’re turning to authorities too often and not taking matters into our own hands enough,” he explained.  

I thought about that a bit as we walked together. Iowa’s congressman Steve King immediately came to mind. The New York Times had run an article detailing his white nationalist politics and revealing his connections to far-right leaders like France’s Marine Le Pen.

After remarking in the same article, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?" Republican leaders condemned King and removed him from the committees he served on.

It was a cynical move designed to distance the GOP from King and to broaden their appeal to minorities. But if the Republicans continue to embrace Trump, who espouses the same politics as King, the move is totally superficial and disingenuous.

Rep. Steve King explains defense of 'our civilization' tweet to Fox New's Tucker Carlson. March 14, 2017.Credit: Screen grab

And it’s not enough - populist politicians like King and Trump are pandering to their constituency. At the same time, they’re also shaping public opinion. It’s a dangerous, runaway process that has to be fought on all levels.

I could see Mike’s point then.

"So how do I get it off the tree?" I asked.

"Spray paint," he suggested.

"But I’ll still know it’s there," I said.

There were also practical concerns - my husband works long hours and I’m alone with the kids all the time. What would I do with my three-year-old and 18-month-old while I was spray-painting the swastikas on the trees? Leave them strapped in the stroller? They’d freak out. Let them wander around the unfenced park that’s between a road and a parking lot?

And when my three-year-old asks why I’m painting on a tree? What would I be modeling for her? How could I explain that some sorts of vandalism are okay and others are not?

I explained all of this to Mike. He made another suggestion. "Scrape it off."

I imagined the tree scarred. It would be better than a swastika. But I would still know what had been there.

So I continued to do nothing. A few days later, as I passed the park, I noticed that the offensive graffiti - along with some bark - was gone.

"Was that you guys?" I asked the next time I saw Nabila. We were putting our 18-month-olds in side-by-side bright blue swings.  

Nabila nodded. "Mike went out the next morning alone with the scraper."

"Thank you," I said, my eyes filling with tears. I was touched.

But I still find myself avoiding that park because I know what was there. And, more so, I know that the people who did the graffiti are out there, too. So are the people who put Steve King into office and who have elected him not once, not twice, but nine times. 

A deafening silence from the GOP regarding Trump's racist attack on the five young Black and Latino men wrongly accused of the 1989 Central Park assault. Credit: Mandel Ngan, AFP

So are the people who voted for Trump and who are now lining his reelection coffers.

King and Trump and their ilk are merely symptoms of a deeper ill. That sickness manifests in a variety of ways that are well-documented: from the police killing African Americans to the shockingly high numbers of African American maternal deaths to the wage gap between whites and minorities.

It manifests when a white terrorist walks into a mosque and opens fire on a group of people whose religion, Islam, means peace, on a group of people worshipping God with nothing but empty hands and open hearts. 

But it also takes place on a smaller scale every day and that smaller scale allows the bigger things to continue. It starts with casual racism, even "positive" stereotypes like that of the model minority.

It starts with the casual racism of a clerk at Target who, when I was buying a few things for Hannukah and balked at the price, remarked: "I thought all you Jews are rich - you guys control all the money, right?"

It starts with the neighbor who, when my children trampled his flower bed and I apologized, leaned in and whispered, conspiratorially, that it was fine that it was my kids and not any of these "nigger children" who run around the neighborhood.

It starts with the co-worker who, in the faculty workroom, confides that she can’t stand "the Haitians" - a group that makes up much of our student body.   

Casual racism is a form of dehumanization - and the tragedy that took place in New Zealand is a horrific reminder of what can happen when someone stops seeing a particular group as humans but, rather, as an "other."  

Removing Steve King from his committees - scraping the bark off the proverbial tree - gives the superficial impression of change. Where the work needs to happen is on the personal level, the grassroots level, on the one-to-one level, so the Kings and Trumps and Netanyahus of the world - and there are many - aren’t elected in the first place.

Mike’s right. We shouldn’t be reaching out to the authorities - especially in America and Israel where the authorities are racist and incite or commit violence themselves. You can’t turn to leaders who make Muslim bans or call Mexicans rapists or who say that "Israel is not a state of all its citizens." 

Instead, we should be reaching out across walls of race, gender, and class. We must reach out to each other.

Mya Guarnieri Jaradat is a journalist, writer, and the author of The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others. She is currently working on a memoir about her time in Bethlehem. Twitter: @myaguarnieri