Despite continued efforts by senior college staff, Public Safety, and the Swarthmore Borough Police to investigate and eliminate incidents of hateful graffiti on and near campus, two more swastikas were discovered at separate times in the stall of the gender neutral bathroom on the second floor of McCabe Library. An investigation into the incidents is ongoing, and although there are no named suspects and no major college policy changes resulting from the repeated acts of vandalism, various community members and groups have responded to the continued acts of hatred with demonstrations of unity, support, and solidarity.
The most recent vandalisms in McCabe Library were first announced to the broader college community via an email sent out by Dean of Students Liz Braun on Nov. 21. In the email, Braun explained that a single swastika had been found in the gender-neutral bathroom of McCabe Library. This can be assumed to be the same bathroom President Valerie Smith referred to in an Aug. 31 email, in which she detailed a similar incident where two swastikas were spray-painted on the interior wall of a bathroom stall. The Nov. 21 incident occurred shortly after an on-campus vigil in honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance, which GLAAD describes on its website as an annual observance that honors the memory of those whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence. The discovery of the first of these new swastikas so close to the Day of Remembrance bears particular significance because German Nazis, who used the swastika as a part of their propaganda, actively discriminated against and interned transgender citizens during the 1930s and 1940s in similar ways to the discrimination against Jews and other minorities, as explained by the Houston TG Day of Remembrance website.
The discovery of a second swastika in the same location was reported in a Timely Warning Notice sent out via email to students, faculty, and staff on Nov. 23. In the email, Director of Public Safety Michael Hill reported that Public Safety received information about the second swastika at approximately 9:15 p.m. on Nov. 22. The email also notes that Swarthmore Borough Police had been contacted in reference to these incidents.
“These incidents do not define us. They strengthen and unify us in our fight against them…[and] I am thankful to belong to a community such as ours, that does not tolerate such action, and has both the will and the ways to fight it,” Braun said in her campus-wide email.
Co-President of Kehilah Jamie Starr ’19 noted that these repeated incidents were not as shocking as the discovery of the first swastika in McCabe, but recognized that the recurring nature of the graffiti was upsetting.
“The first time, this [was] so new and novel and [we thought] we need to stop it right now, and now that it keeps happening…we feel kind of helpless. You learn to just deal with it. And I think that’s been happening…It’s a busy time, and people don’t have time to be emotionally upset by this,” Starr said.
She pointed out that, at this point, there is not much else Kehilah can do as a student group, and tasked the college with taking proactive and preventative steps.
Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Joyce Tompkins was notified of the incidents before the entire campus was altered via email. She participated in meetings with the college’s Bias Response Team as soon as possible after the discovery of each swastika alongside Jewish Student Advisor Adam Lavitt.
“We don’t know who the targets of these [incidents were], but I feel, in my role, that I need to be cognizant and available to any marginalized group or individual that’s hurting. In the Interfaith Center, we were focusing on our Jewish community because of the history of the swastika,” Tompkins said.
She noted that the response to these two swastikas was different than the campus response after the first one, partly due to the fact that the incidents happened right before Thanksgiving break.
“My sense [after the third swastika was found] was that a lot of people had already left campus and that—II can’t speak for everyone—[but] there was a general feeling of wanting to get away and just heal and be away from it. It felt to me like a wound that had begun to feel better, and [the question was], ‘Do we rip off the Band-Aid?’, or ‘Do we try to allow the healing to continue?’ and it felt to me…[that we should] let some time away settle things,” Tompkins said.
As students took a break and returned home or gathered on and off campus for the Thanksgiving holiday, several felt these incidents jarred their expectations of a place like Swarthmore.
“I never expected something like this to happen at Swarthmore. I figured Swat was a liberal place and in a liberal area, since it was near Philadelphia,” Katherine Huang ’18 said.
Ivan Lomeli ’19 agreed with Huang’s sentiment, explaining that he never imagined something so hateful could occur during his time at the college.
“I had heard about hateful incidents, such as the Intercultural Center’s door being ‘vandalized’, to say the least, but I never fathomed something so directly hateful and targeting to occur,” Lomeli said.
Student Government Organization’s Chair of Diversity and Inclusion Chris Chan ’17 said that these incidents were a setback for a campus that is constantly striving for inclusiveness and unity.
“I personally think the incidents are unacceptable, intolerable, disgusting, and revolting. The fact that this is happening not just once, but multiple times indicates that there is someone out there, either on or off campus, explicitly discriminating and targeting a specific group of people,” Chan said.
After these repeated incidents came to light, many groups across the college community have mobilized in different capacities. Tompkins praised Wednesday’s Jewish Day of Resistance as a positive way for both Jews and allies to channel hurt and anger about the fact that these events have continued to occur on campus. Braun said in a statement that the Bias Response Team has been working to connect with individuals and groups that have been most directly affected to get their input on how to improve the overall campus climate. She pointed to the upcoming intersectional anti-Semitism workshop organized by Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development T. Shá Duncan Smith as an example of a programmatic opportunity for the community.
On the same day as the Timely Warning Notice released by Public Safety, Mosea Esaias ’17 penned an email to the student body on behalf of the Student Government Organization, issuing a call to social and political action in response to hatred, bigotry, and violence, on campus and on a broader national scale. The statement outlines that SGO wants to recognize and support those who have been engaging in social justice work on campus and outside of Swarthmore.
“We will act as allied partners in their struggle for liberation and equality…and will use its access and allocate our economic, physical, intellectual, and symbolic resources in order to support students organizing on campus, in local communities, and on the national stage,” the call to action reads.
It also included a link to a Political Action Resource Guide, intended to give students an opportunity to find organizations that are mobilized on a local and national scale, as well as upcoming events and other ways to become politically engaged. The guide includes information about events, such as the Stand with Standing Rock March in Washington, D.C. happening on Dec. 10, and lists of organizations grouped by interest area, such as Gender and Legal Defense.
In a statement, Esaias also noted that, in accordance with both the call to action and the SGO Bias Response Policy, SGO reached out to groups potentially targeted by the vandalism in McCabe to extend their support and to offer the possibility for future collaboration on projects addressing the issues of anti-Semitism and homophobia. He explained that SGO members are also continually meeting with members of the college administration and will be meeting with Braun next week, where these issues surround hateful graffiti will be a main focus of the meeting. Esaias also highlighted a meeting with Tompkins about the last collection of the semester, titled The Celebration of Light and that is scheduled for 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. in Upper Tarble on Dec. 7, which will be co-sponsored by SGO.
Braun confirmed that Public Safety is working very closely with the library staff to find ways to increase vigilance in the library since it has now been targeted multiple times. She also said that Public Safety is also working closely with Swarthmore Police Department on their ongoing criminal investigation. Both Hill and Braun could not comment directly on the ongoing investigation due to concerns that statements may inadvertently impact the investigation. At this point, no suspects have been identified, and it is unknown whether or not the various swastikas were all created by the same individual or by different individuals, as well as whether or not the perpetrator(s) is/are members of the Swarthmore community.
Huang appreciated the college’s prompt response to the discovery of more swastikas.
“I’m glad they include links to help groups on campus like CAPS, and Kelilah, and MSA,” she said.
However, Huang was not convinced that the college was doing all it could to improve the security of campus in light of these recent events.
“I feel like this horrific thing is at least preventable inside our McCabe, which has people posted at the desks. But I don’t work there, so I don’t understand really know what’s going on,” she said.
Huang is an employee of the Cornell Science & Engineering Library.
“You’ve gotta send the email, but I already want more than an email. I think they should be doing something now…we are hoping the administration does give some sort of stronger response,” Starr said.
The library staff has begun to take some steps to move forward after these incidents. Digital Resources and Scholarly Communications Specialist Maria Aghazarian pointed out that library staff are providing sticky notes and inviting students to share their responses to the incident on the door of the bathroom where these incidents have occurred.
“[We] are planning additional ways of building community and making our library welcoming, safe and inclusive,” she said.
Aghazarian also mentioned the library had formed a response team that will be meeting with Tompkins on Friday and plans to collaborate with Lavitt in the future.
Looking forward, Tompkin praised the sense of unity she saw between different groups on campus, such as the increased dialogue between the Muslim Students Association and Kehillah, in light of these events.
“It’s not just one person’s wounds. It’s all of our wounds, together,” Tompkins said.
CORRECTION: The piece currently states that Esaias penned an email to the student body on behalf of the Student Government Organization. While Esaias did send the email out, it was written collaboratively and approved by the entire SGO.
CORRECTION: The statement released by SGO was written by Esaias and Roebuck, not just Esaias as the piece currently notes.