Aberdeen Swastikas Not Just Plain Property Damage

Aberdeen history professors let us down in today’s paper. First, Presentation College history prof Brad Tennant says the six swastikas painted around Aberdeen last week are just property damage, not white supremacist agitprop:

Context: Nazi parking spot? (screen cap from KSFY, 2017.04.28)
Context: Nazi parking spot? (screen cap from KSFY, 2017.04.28)

When it comes to the recent vandalism in Aberdeen, Tennant said, residents have no way of knowing what was going through the mind of the person who painted the symbols. There’s no context, just a swastika painted on a wall.

“It’s just plain property damage,” he said.

While the swastika has a history that’s both positive and negative, Tennant said, graffiti on the side of a building is not positive.

“It’s a statement,” he said. “Either a racial statement or something else” [Elisa Sand, “Swastika Use Today Represents White Supremacy, Professors Say,” Aberdeen American News, 2017.05.04].

No context? We live in a time and place where the swastika is universally recognized as a symbol of evil. We aren’t talking about the 90-year-old pre-World War II Native American symbols worked into the brick and tile of the Hotel Alex Johnson. We are talking about some punk who wanted to torque people off. He (yes, I’m assuming young and male) could have chosen any number of other graphics to rile the public—horned demons, f-words, middle fingers, penises, doobage, peace signs, Muslim stars and crescents. Instead, Herr Schpraymeister reached for the obvious go-to symbol of racial and religious hate. Even if our graffitist is just young and stupid, the only reason the swastika echoes in his young and stupid noggin is his absorption of willingness to ape cultural expressions of bigotry. He didn’t just damage property—he spread hate.

(Stay tuned for history prof error #2 in my next blog post!)

12 Responses to Aberdeen Swastikas Not Just Plain Property Damage

  1. mike from iowa

    If vandalism was the sole intent, why not make a circle or an X and get the heck out before you get caught? Making a swastika seems pretty intentional, contextually.

    Obama did it. He has time on his hands.

  2. There you go, Mike. It wasn’t gang-tagger font. It wasn’t initials or hearts or smiley faces. It was one clear symbol with one clear intent.

  3. mike from iowa

    Swastika in a handicapped parking stall. Nope, no message there.

  4. I studied a little Nazi history in college (actually studied World History under Dr. Tennant at RHS) and agree this particular symbol is very troublesome. And I also agree with the concept of hate crimes. However, we still live in United States where people accused of crimes are afforded the assumption of innocence until proven guilty. I don’t think Dr. Tennant played down the history of the symbol and its evilness, what I do think is that he acknowledged the fact we just don’t know anything about what this vandalism means to the person who put it there. We definitely know how you feel about it Cory, and actually I feel much the same way. But do we know how old this person is, or how much they understand – if anything – of the history that makes that symbol so evil? And those details are important because intent is CRITICAL in determining a hate crime. Obviously the person here meant to put a “dirty” and provocative image where it did not belong – “torque people off” to use your words. But did they really mean to say they hate other races and mean to strike fear in people? We have no idea, it is very possible they did not. Many young people frankly don’t think that far ahead – and their lives probably shouldn’t be destroyed over it if that was not the case. I am confident that Mr. Tennant saw a lot of young people failing at critical thinking over his years at Roncalli (I imagine this, certainly I was always perfectly responcible!) and I think his perspective is right on in a tolerant society that puts free speech above all.

  5. mike from iowa

    Paul T sez- However, we still live in United States where people accused of crimes are afforded the assumption of innocence until proven guilty.

    No offense, sir, but have you paid any attention to libelous garble coming from the so called CIC of the United States? W/O any evidence at all he accused Obama of wiretapping him and continues to make that same claim over and over. And it isn’t just this one single event. He blasts people everyday w/o proof.

    Have we fallen so far as a nation that the public gets held to a higher standard than elected officials? The present AG committed perjury (imho) at his confirmation hearing and was allowed to skate. Three Code Pink activists were arrested and charged with disrupting that same hearing and one was convicted for laughing at the notion Jefferson Beauregard Sessions dealt equally with Blacks and Whites. That person faces a stiff fine and a year in prison for exercising her 1st amendment rights.

  6. What a strange statement by an educated professor. (Oh, it’s just damage that’s all!!! )
    Aberdeen has a sector of racism these days that is not good for its image.

  7. 12″ swasticas etched in rocks on the hiking trails around RC this spring are noticeable.


  8. Paul T, I’m not trying to make a case for a hate crime prosecution or abrogation of the First Amendment. I agree that we haven’t heard directly from the vandal or seen into his soul to measure his exact intent.

    I am saying that we should not let our Socratic caution give aspiring vandals any ground for excusing their action as mere property damage. We need to make clear to kids that drawing a swastika is not some casual defacement of property but that spreading that image inherently means to say that one hates other races and means to strike fear in people. The swastika is an inescapably hateful symbol, as surely as the f-word is an inescapably vulgar word, not acceptable in public expression.

    Mine is a social and moral argument, not a legal one.

  9. But if we want to look at the legal argument, consider South Dakota’s hate crime chapter:

    SDCL 22-19B-1: Malicious intimidation or harassment–Felony. No person may maliciously and with the specific intent to intimidate or harass any person or specific group of persons because of that person’s or group of persons’ race, ethnicity, religion, ancestry, or national origin:

    1. Cause physical injury to another person; or
    2. Deface any real or personal property of another person; or
    3. Damage or destroy any real or personal property of another person; or
    4. Threaten, by word or act, to do the acts prohibited if there is reasonable cause to believe that any of the acts prohibited in subdivision (1), (2), or (3) of this section will occur.

    A violation of this section is a Class 6 felony.

    SDCL 22-19B-2: Deface defined. For purposes of this chapter, the term, deface, includes cross-burnings or the placing of any word or symbol commonly associated with racial, religious, or ethnic terrorism on the property of another person without that person’s permission.

    Bearcreekbat will tell us that proving specific intent is problematic, and without evidence of stupid statements from the perp, we don’t have a case. But proof of specific intent is all that’s missing. The punk (I’m sticking with my profile: young, male) defaced property. He used a symbol commonly associated with racial, religious, or ethnic terrorism. That symbol intimidates and harasses (and note it wasn’t one one building targeting one owner; it was on multiple buildings around town, suggesting an intent to send the message to the entire community).

  10. bearcreekbat

    Cory, I may have been unclear in past comments, but in my view proving specific intent might be slightly more difficult than proving general intent, but both are really pretty easy.

    The prosecution need not produce DNA or scientific evidence of intent. It need not produce testimony by the defendant or others to prove intent. If the prosecution can come up with enough evidence to convince a jury that a defendant in fact committed the physical act he is charged with, the jury is then normally instructed by the court that it may infer the needed intent.

    If the prosecution can prove that John Doe painted the swastika on that property, nothing more would typically be required to convince an appellate court to uphold a jury’s inference of the required specific intent. And in deliberations, jurors are naturally going to infer intent absent any evidence of an innocent intent, implicitly shifting the burden to the defendant to prove a negative.

  11. Bear, now that you speak up, It occurs to me that I misremembered your comment on Ehab Jaber; you said intent is rather easy to prove! I apologize for bad morning memory.

    Given that statement, it appears slapping this vandal with a Class 6 felony for hate crime might not be as hard as I thought. I’m not going to beat the drum for that prosecution; I’ll settle for making clear (clearer than Professor Tennant does) that painting swastikas around town carries a moral element beyond mere property destruction, as surely as burning a cross does, and that we have an obligation to make that moral element clear to all parties concerned.