Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Most students already know that at 10:30 p.m. last Tuesday, August 30, students encountered two swastikas in a second-floor McCabe bathroom and reported them to Public Safety.
Ziv Stern ‘20 was nearby when it happened, and managed to take this picture of one of the swastikas:
The discovery sent ripples of activity through the college: first, the news made its way through administrative channels; then, after President Smith’s all-campus email, it seeped through the student body and, eventually, onto the news feeds of tens of thousands of people.
This article traces some of those ripples.
At “five or six” in the morning on Wednesday, August 31, T. Shá Duncan Smith, the new associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and community development, got an email about the incident. She received it because she is part of the Bias Response Team, which deals with events classified as “bias incidents.” More on that below.
Duncan Smith said this type of incident wasn’t new to her, since she came from the University of Michigan, a large university where “this happens kind of often.” But that it happened in a historically progressive, small community like Swarthmore made it more disturbing to Duncan Smith. She said the incident was even worse because it happened during the first week of classes.
“When incidents like this occur, it really irritates me. One, because it was […] the first week of classes, so it’s disruptive. It makes it so that students who are hurt by this or feel unsafe can’t really thrive,” Duncan Smith said.
The email she got also included an invitation: the Bias Response Team would meet at 8 a.m.
What is the Bias Response Team?
The Bias Response Team is a way for the administration to respond coherently to bias incidents. What’s a bias incident? The college defines it as any act that targets a person or group based on their identity.
Swarthmore’s bias policy is virtually identical to similarly-worded policies that many colleges have adopted in the past decade. At other institutions, the broadness of these definitions has been tested by, for example, students who reported pro-Trump chalkings as bias incidents. (In her interview with The Daily Gazette, Duncan Smith briefly touched on the issue of ambiguous bias incidents: She said that speech that supports a particular candidate might feel like a bias incident to some, but should probably not be treated as such by a college).
Unsurprisingly, bias policies have drawn strong condemnation from FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and others who are worried that American campuses are embracing censorship.
That said, it’s hard to disagree that a giant spray-painted swastika in a bathroom constitutes, in administrative parlance, a bias incident.
The Bias Response Team met at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, and all four members were present. Members include Duncan Smith, Public Safety Director Mike Hill, Dean of Students Liz Braun, and Director of Equal Opportunity Zenobia Hargust.
What they talked about
Duncan Smith said there were three primary aspects to the conversation that morning.
First, the four administrators discussed the report and investigation. Mike Hill told The Daily Gazette on Wednesday that the investigation was ongoing.
Second, they discussed the disciplinary consequences.
“This is the serious, serious tier [of violation]. Somebody could be dismissed based on that,” Duncan Smith said, though she added that a student would have to go through the conduct process before the school makes a decision.
Third, they discussed how to communicate with the Swarthmore community about the incident and how to provide support to those who might need it. This led to Valerie Smith’s all-campus email at 11:30 a.m, as well as conversation about the incident at Friday’s collection.
That same morning, college staff painted over the swastikas.
Kehilah finds out
Whatever its history, the swastika in modern America is most strongly associated with Nazism and the Holocaust, including the genocide of millions of Jews.
When former Kehilah (the Jewish student organization) board member Aaron Wagener ‘17 saw President Smith’s email, he was stuck in the self-checkout line at Target. He quickly made his way through the payment process, carried his brand-new food container back to Mertz, and composed an email to Kehilah.
“I was basically like: let’s get something out fast, so when people see the email from Val [Smith], pretty quickly they’ll see something that gives them some resources,” Wagener said. He told the group that he’d be in the Common Worship Room in Bond Hall between 4:30 and 6 p.m. that day and invited them to join him.
He printed two articles to take to the Common Worship Room, titled “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere” and “Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion,” both of which addressed fighting anti-semitism within leftist movements.
When he stapled the articles in McCabe, he stapled them face-down.
“I don’t want people to think that I’m ‘that kind’ of Jew, who’s gonna be, like, making a fuss about this stuff,” Wagener said. He said anti-semitism often gets dismissed in progressive circles, including at Swarthmore.
Kehilah co-president Simona Dwass ‘19 went to Wagener’s informal get-together.
“There was a freshman there who had been here for a week,” Dwass said. “And she was very much expecting Swarthmore to be one thing, and this, she felt, proved that wrong. And so she was emotionally affected by this and didn’t really know what to think.”
Dwass said that as the conversation progressed the first-year appeared to become more comfortable.
In the immediate aftermath of the discovery, Dwass expressed disappointment that only Kehilah reacted with a dedicated event.
“[Other groups] didn’t go out of their way to have conversations about it.”
By the end of the week, other religious groups and religious advisors had shown their support for Kehilah with statements and, in the case of the Muslim Student Association, flowers. President Smith spoke about what happened at a collection on Friday.
The incident goes semi-viral
When Will Meyer ‘17 started writing a Daily Gazette op-ed about the incident a few hours after President Smith’s email, he didn’t set out to reach hundreds of thousands of readers. Like Wagener, Meyer thought progressives should take anti-semitism more seriously. Because he wanted to speak to a Swarthmore audience, he focused on criticizing anti-semitism on the left.
But soon, his mother started hearing from her friends: they asked whether the article they’d seen was by the Will Meyer they knew. Meyer realized the article had spread beyond his immediate target audience.
And it spread far and wide. As of today, the article has more than 200,000 views, and a sometimes-vitriolic comment war refuses to die out at the bottom. The op-ed got a mention in a brief write-up on philly.com, and Meyer said he has received an overwhelmingly positive response from both right- and left-leaning readers.
But if there’s one thing he’d change, he said, he would include more criticism of conservative anti-semitism. After the op-ed’s readership expanded beyond the college, Meyer realized that “some people on the right were a little too comfortable” with what he wrote.
Anti-semitism, Meyer said, transcends ideology.
On Friday, Jewish Exponent wrote an article about the McCabe swastikas, linking them with spray-painted Swastikas that people recently found in Havertown, PA and Lakewood, NJ. The former is near Haverford; the latter is 1.5 hours away by car.
On Thursday, September 1, Keton Kakkar ‘19 and Tai Warner ’19 found another swastika in the Crum woods and reported it to Public Safety. In an email on Friday, Valerie Smith said it was unclear how old the swastika in the Crum was. Brandon Torres ‘18 said he saw a swastika in the Crum more than a year ago.
Public Safety could not be reached for comment on this Crum swastika.
President Smith promised in an email that the spray-painter, once found, “will be dealt with to the full extent of our powers at the College.” But the students interviewed for this article, admittedly a tiny sample size, seemed not too invested in finding out the perpetrator’s identity or motives.
“It would be interesting to find out who did it and why they did it, but I don’t think that has much to do with the response, and how we can help people get through this if they need measures to get through this,” Dwass said.
Meyer agreed: “I wouldn’t say it doesn’t matter to me who did this, because it does. But it’s so outside of what we can fix. What we can fix is how the community as a whole talks about these issues,” he said.
Of the still-unknown vandal who defaced the bathroom and may well read this article, Duncan Smith said simply that “they don’t merit or deserve a response.”
Brandon Torres ‘18 and Keton Kakkar ‘19 are members of The Daily Gazette editorial board. While they supplied information and tips, they were not involved in the writing of this article.
Featured image shows Bond Hall, site of religious worship. Courtesy of The Daily Gazette.