The apartment doors are perhaps the most bone-chilling targets. A 77-year-old woman whose family survived Nazi-era Europe was inside observing the Sabbath last month in Brooklyn when she found two swastikas, in red, on her front door.
In Hackensack, NJ, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors labeled it “terror” when she saw the swastika on the door of her 10th floor apartment in 2017.
And at the apartment building where State Sen. Brad Hoylman, who is Jewish, lives in Greenwich Village, the swastika appeared on an elevator the week after Donald Trump was elected president.
Since that election, and particularly in the months since the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, swastikas have popped up with alarming regularity, according to law enforcement officers. In New York City, with the largest Jewish population of any city in the world, swastika incidents skyrocketed 76 percent from 2016 to 2018, according to the NYPD. Such hate graffiti has hit the Forest Hills train station, parked cars in Borough Park and a Jewish Community Center on Staten Island. Out on Long Island, they’ve been found on a sidewalk in Oceanside, at a Target in South Setauket and in the grass, 20-feet long, in Levittown.
The ancient symbol co-opted by a genocidal Nazi regime 75 years ago is resurgent in New Jersey, too, appearing wherever the public roams: Across a pedestrian bridge in South Orange, near a community center in Highlands and on the home team’s bench at the hockey rink in Howell.
“I sometimes call it a hate contagion, like a fever, an infection, a hate virus, that’s spreading very quickly,” said John Esmerado, an assistant prosecutor in Union County, NJ, who investigates such incidents. He said that ten of the 21 bias crimes in the county in 2018 involved swastikas. That was up from five swastika incidents the year before, and just three back in 2015.
“These are just very unusual places where we had never seen swastikas before, and never at this level of frequency.”
Hear Matt Katz’s first of 2 stories on WNYC about swastikas.
Middle and high school bathrooms are popular targets, but bigots also hit several local universities: a Holocaust professor’s office at Columbia, a sculpture at Princeton and a dry erase board in a study lounge at Rutgers.
The hate markings aren’t just done with spray paint and Sharpie. In Haworth, NJ., someone made five swastikas with shaving cream in the middle of the road. Over Halloween in Brooklyn Heights, they used chalk. Soap was the implement in Ocean Grove, NJ, and silly string in Jericho, Long Island.
Swastika sightings provoke infuriated social media posts that go viral, and lots of local television coverage. But the incidents rarely lead to arrests, and they baffle many public officials who have yet to figure out how to stop the scourge.
Inconsistent Swastika Stats
The extent of the swastika problem is unclear, because official reporting of swastikas is wildly inconsistent. In New York City, the NYPD has up-to-the-moment data on swastikas, but New Jersey officials didn’t provide any data to WNYC past 2016, when the state police reported 70 incidents. A spokeswoman for the New Jersey Attorney General said discussions are underway to figure out how to release more timely information.
Most hate crimes in New York City are anti-Semitic, according to NYPD Hate Crime Task Force Deputy Inspector Mark Molinari, and the vast majority of those involve swastikas. There were 189 anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city last year — a 23 percent increase from the year before, he said. Almost all of those incidents, 150, involved swastikas.
Yet obtaining statewide totals is more difficult. The number of swastika incidents compiled by New York State each year don’t match up with NYPD figures because the state categorizes such incidents differently, according to a spokeswoman with the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services. When police departments file mandated hate crime reports, officers can only choose one legal category per incident, even if multiple crimes took place. So a crime involving smashed windows and swastikas might be filed as a simple property crime even if there were also swastika charges.
Of course, many crimes are not reported to police at all. Some surface on social media first, and are then reported by the local news. WNYC found approximately 100 swastika incidents reported by local TV news and websites in the New York City region since the 2016 election. But many more were also collected by the Anti-Defamation League, which verifies incidents itself (nationally, the ADL said anti-Semitic vandalism spiked from 377 incidents in 2015 to 952 in 2017). And still more incidents were sent into Documenting Hate, a ProPublica reporting project that partners with WNYC.
Hoylman, the state senator whose apartment building was hit with a swastika, said hate crime reporting throughout New York is inconsistent, with some police departments incredulously reporting zero such crimes. “I think there needs to be a more aggressive approach to collecting information on hate crimes and hate speech statewide,” he said.
Local media, he said, does an important job of documenting hate crimes. “This needs to be shouted from the rooftops,” he said. “The silence and the complacency that leads to this type of cancer is infecting our body politic.”
Yet some officials opt for silence.
Swastikas in Summit, NJ
In November and December, four separate swastika incidents hit the middle and high schools in the well-to-do New Jersey suburb of Summit. The incidents caused considerable pain, with one parent telling WNYC that she feared drawing a dreidel on her daughter’s lunch bag during Hanukkah. And the incidents triggered controversy, too, after school leaders failed to immediately inform parents about what happened.
Superintendent June Chang later apologized, but he generated further confusion when he indicated in a public letter that going forward, the community would not necessarily be told about future swastika incidents: “As part of our ongoing consultation with local authorities, it has been determined that it is in the best interest of the investigations to refrain from broadly communicating about additional incidents should they occur.”
In a statement to WNYC, Chang said he would “continue to update the public,” and noted that during a recent sweep of all district facilities two other swastikas were found, though it is unclear if they had already been there for quite some time.
Summit Police Chief Robert Weck said that the concern was that “sometimes when an individual sees there’s a reaction to an action that they were doing, they might keep doing it.” That’s because letters from school officials inevitably lead to news stories on TV and hyperlocal websites. Swastika sightings have recently become something of a staple of local news—WNYC found about 100 swastika incidents reported by the media in the New York region since the 2016 election.
But Lisa Stein, a Summit parent, sees the swastika as a possible harbinger of something darker—and she wants to be informed about every incident. “Not telling us seems to be about making us give up and go away,” she said. “And that makes me not want to give up and go away.”
Lisa Stein and her neighbors in Summit, NJ, responded to the spate of swastika incidents in the local schools by printing and distributing hundreds of anti-hate signs throughout the community. (Matt Katz / WNYC)
Immediately after learning about the first swastikas in November, Stein — who is Jewish and a distant cousin of Holocaust victim Anne Frank — printed and helped to distribute 1,300 anti-hate fliers to middle school students. They hung in the hallways of the school through last month. She also loaded her trunk with signs that said “No Home For Hate In Summit” and dropped them off at dozens of downtown businesses.
“We are flooding the community with love and a rejection of hate in all of its forms,” Stein said. “We’re looking for ways to do that, and we’re not always waiting for permission to do so.”
Summit isn’t the only school district to try to control the flow of information when it comes to swastika sightings. School officials in Sparta, NJ, previously acknowledged that they didn’t call the police after a swastika was found in a district school.
Yet Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the anti-hate Simon Wiesenthal Center said these days, swastikas are hard to hide — particularly because of social media. “Promoters of these hatreds,” he said, “can use internet technologies to drive the story, to target their victims, and to use the same symbols as a recruitment tool for their own 21st century version of hatred and bigotry. So I think that’s the big game changer.”
Stories about swastikas scratched into school buildings and drawn on Jewish students’ notebooks spread via social media, potentially leading to incidents elsewhere. Nationwide, the number of swastika incidents in K-12 schools more than doubled from 2016 to 2017, to 186, according to an Anti-Defamation League tally. Often phrases like “Hitler was not wrong” and “Kill all Jews” accompanied the symbol, the ADL said.
In Summit, the community reacted to the incidents in a range of ways. Temporary restrictions were placed on the use of school bathrooms, since that’s where the graffiti was found. And a “Day of Unity and Kindness” was held in December, which involved students talking about hate symbols and writing about microaggressions on rice paper. “We then tossed the rice paper in a bucket of water and watched the ink bleed until there was only a colorful mixture of words once used maliciously,” recounted one student.
Community leaders also convened. An interfaith meeting was led by two Christian ministers and Rabbi Avi Friedman, who was previously on the pulpit at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh before it was the target of the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. “My emotional response [to the swastika], my visceral response, is: ‘I’m in danger,’ that this is a threat to me and my family,” he said. “My intellectual response is this is an expression of hate to a wide swath of people in our community — African Americans, Latino Americans, new immigrants, the LGBT community.”
Summit resident Bola Lawrence, who is African American and an immigrant, also attended the interfaith meeting. She said the swastika has the same effect on her as a KKK hood, or a noose. “It instills terror — terror in me that this is still happening, terror for my children that they will see this,” she said. “But then, after the original terror I have hope. Hope because we are here talking about it, but maybe two decades ago, if those symbols had been in the bathroom, there would not have been a gathering like this.”
Why a Surge in Swastikas Now?
There is no single explanation for the new omnipresence of this symbol. Law enforcement officers say bonafide neo-Nazis are growing bolder and more public, reflecting an apparent increase in the influence of racist ideology in the political conversation. And experts believe that more incidents are getting reported now that hate speech is under heightened public scrutiny.
Still, police say that many of the crimes involve kids who are rebelling, aware that the swastika is bad but perhaps ignorant to the fact that it symbolizes genocide. Some swastika incidents are related to personal grudges—between neighbors, for example—more than anti-Jewish sentiment. Other culprits are simply drunk young adults.
“We have people who are out there doing things not realizing how ridiculously offensive it is, how obscenely offensive it is, and that it’s a crime in and of itself,” said Molinari, of the NYPD.
And even though Jews are the primary victims, not all swastikas are intended to convey an anti-Semitic message. Jewish neighborhoods with Orthodox populations, particularly in Brooklyn, seem to get the brunt of much of this anti-Semitism. But two churches on the Upper West Side were recently hit, as were campaign signs for politicians of Puerto Rican descent in Newark and a mural of the Puerto Rican flag in Trenton.
Further complicating things, a swastika next to Trump’s name might be intended to convey the political message that Trump himself is a Nazi, according to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino.
“In an increasingly tribal and divided society, hate symbols sometimes will be in the eye of the beholder — when some of our most polarized and entrenched conflicts are not only the traditional racial and religious ones, but also ones now relating to politics and nationalism,” he said.
Arrests are Rare
Drawing a swastika, like hanging a noose or lighting a cross on fire, is a felony in New York State. In New Jersey, it has a similar classification as an “indictable crime,” with the level of severity dependent on the degree of damage.
Police catch some perpetrators. In 2016, a 20-year-old student was arrested for drawing 110 swastikas at Nassau Community College. The following year, five 17-year-olds from Syosset were charged with spray-painting their school. And in Westfield, NJ, a 13-year-old is facing five counts of criminal mischief after five recent incidents at his school.
Yet most high-profile recent swastika incidents have not yielded criminal charges. Last year New Jersey Congressman Josh Gottheimer, who is Jewish, had campaign signs and a supporter’s home hit with swastikas. That matter is still under investigation, according to the Sussex County Prosecutor.
In November, the office of a Holocaust professor at Columbia University was tagged with huge swastikas. That, too, is still under investigation, according to the NYPD.
Swastika crimes are notoriously hard to investigate. The NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force shows up on the scene of every reported swastika, but most incidents don’t end in arrests.
“The swastika cases, all of our property damage cases, are harder to make an arrest than our person-on-person crimes because these property damage cases are done in the dark of night — dark alleys, doorways, stairways, elevators, stuff like that, where there’s no witnesses, no video footage,” Molinari said.
How to Respond
Police urge the public to report all swastikas. But some people take it upon themselves to just wipe away the hate.
Gregory Locke had just wrapped up dinner in Hell’s Kitchen in February 2017 when he walked onto the No. 1 train going uptown at 50th Street. His head was down, checking his phone. When he looked up he saw swastikas everywhere — on the subway maps, doors and ads. He also remembered seeing some hateful language about Jews belonging in ovens.
Gregory Locke walked onto an uptown No. 1 train in February 2017 when he saw that it was covered in swastikas, from the walls to the maps. Along with New York straphangers of various backgrounds, Locke scrubbed the train clean using hand sanitizer. (Matt Katz / WNYC)
“I was probably eyes wide, and didn’t know what to make of it,” he said. “And someone else on the train at that point sort of announced to the car: ‘Alcohol will get rid of Sharpie. We need hand sanitizer.’”
And so right there as the subway rumbled uptown, a bunch of New Yorkers, strangers of various backgrounds, began scrubbing with hand sanitizer and tissues. After a couple of stops, the swastikas and slurs were all gone.
“Someone on the train had said, ‘I guess this is Trump’s America,’” Locke said. “My personal thought was, ‘It won’t be, if we won’t let it be.’”
But in an interview nearly two years later as he rode a No. 1 train back uptown, Locke added: “I think that person’s premonition has maybe come true a little bit.”
At the time, some viewed the incident as a good news story. Locke’s Facebook post about what happened drew 500,000 shares. “It was a time when many people felt very lost and very disappointed in the country, and knowing that there are people out there who share your viewpoints and opinions and will stand up publicly for those viewpoints and opinions was something people needed to see,” he said.
But about a month ago, Locke came across a swastika painted on the road near his apartment in Harlem. A city contractor had been paving the street, so he took a picture and sent it to the Department of Sanitation. “And the response was swift,” he said. The NYPD showed up, and the swastika was painted over within a few hours.
Still, Locke was disturbed. Part of his reason for moving from his hometown in Georgia to become a lawyer in New York was because he saw this as a city that accepts anyone, from anywhere. Four-and-a-half years and two swastika incidents later, he’s now a little more cynical.
“I don’t regret my decision, but it is not the pure bastion of love and hope like I expected it to be when I moved here,” he said.
Gothamist and WNYC are part of the Documenting Hate project, which gathers and verifies reports of hate crimes and bias incidents. You can learn more and report incidents here. Authorities also urge those who see hate crimes to contact the police.
Matt Katz reports on air at WNYC about immigration, refugees and national security.
You can call him on Twitter at @mattkatz00.