Community navigates aftermath of hate symbol

by Alison Levitt and @addiebullock

Students who initially found the symbol reported it to the administration with this photograph.

On Sunday, Feb. 19, the administration was notified of a swastika stomped into the snow with footsteps between Piper dormitory and Johnson Pond. A student emailed members of the administration and attached a photo of the symbol on Sunday afternoon. The College has since opened an investigation of the incident under the Department of Security.

Max Steiner ’19, the student who initially reported the swastika, told the Echo that he saw the symbol from the window of the third floor stairwell of Drummond. After taking photos of the image, he remarked that “it just hit me that someone had actually taken significant time out of their day to draw a 15 foot by 15 foot swastika to scare people. That reality is what has stuck with me the most. This wasn’t some distant news story of Nazis marching in another state, this was done right in front of us, in our home.”

Swastikas have obvious historical significance; they are largely considered to be the most well known and long lasting symbols of hate, anti-semitism, and white supremacy across the world. Swastikas are banned from display in Germany, yet the hatred behind the symbol is still felt globally. The FBI’s 2016 annual report on hate crimes shows that Jews were the victims of 54.4 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes that year.

When the Echo spoke to Dean of the College Karlene Burrell-McRae ’94 following a Pugh Center event held in response to the incident, she underscored the administration’s stance on the hate related incident, and raised the idea of integrating dialogue and conversation about free expression and community into regular programming. She also raised the point that it is not clear whether this hate related incident was perpetrated by a student or by a member of the larger Waterville community.

Swastikas and other hate related symbols on college campuses are often a gray area of hate crimes and hate speech. Nazi-style swastikas are protected under the First Amendment, and public state schools cannot ban the images under constitutional free speech protections unless they are considered vandalism or represent a threat of impending violence. Private colleges, like Colby, are still limited in their ability to take direct action addressing hate related incidents because of their commitment to free speech on campus.

The Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion sent out an email on Monday morning informing the community of the presence of the swastika on campus, strongly condemning the symbol. The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion includes Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Betty Sasaki, Dean of Religious and Spirit Life Kurt Nelson, and Director of the Pugh Center Dwayne Paul. As part of the administration’s response to the incident, The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and other groups have organized several events including a Pugh Center dinner and dialogue, a United Against Hate Community Gathering in the Spa on Tuesday from 12 p.m. -5 p.m, and an open forum facilitated by Hillel on February 25 at 6 p.m. in the Bobby Silberman Lounge to discuss the implications of hate symbols on Colby’s campus.

Colby’s student handbook highlights the College’s commitment to free expression, stating that it “is essential in an academic community and will be vigorously upheld.” Infringing upon the expression of anyone’s views, including through interfering with a planned speaker or event or removing posted materials, is a violation of free expression. It is unclear where an act of this nature falls in Colby’s student handbook on punishable offenses. There is no explicit mention of hate crimes, hate speech or hate related incidents in the handbook, though it does condemn harassment and intimidation in general terms.

Within the charges outlined in the handbook, this incident most closely fits into the category of intimidation, which is defined as “spoken, written or physical conduct directed toward and individual or individuals that unreasonably interferes with with his/her full participation in the College community or that is intended to create or may be reasonably determined to have created a threatening or hostile environment.”

Although the College does not explicitly outline the repercussions for intimidation, a potential comparison can be drawn from the punishment outlined for chalking on campus. The College allows for student groups to “chalk” messages onto areas of the campus grounds, but the handbook states, “hate speech, harassing messages, as well as messages that could be construed as threats of emotional or physical harm toward an individual or group are not permitted,” and perpetrators of such messages may be subject to disciplinary action.

The Hillel Board, SGA and Area Resident Directors also issued a student wide email denouncing the hate related incident and included a message from the Hillel board, saying “Many of us on the Hillel board were shocked to hear about the swastika drawn on Johnson pond, on a campus where we are Jews often have the privilege to feel safe… It is disturbing to see this hatred on our own campus. We stand in solidarity against hate with all of the affected groups at Colby.” Community Advisors circulated an email signed by all CAs offering support to their residents.

In conjunction with student responses from various groups on campus, individual students have also expressed their concerns. Jason Gurevitch ’19, a member of Hillel board and former president of Hillel, said the following to the Echo, “This is the fifth year in a row that I know of a Swastika being drawn on, or near Colby’s campus. We cannot treat this as an isolated incident. But even though this hate is real, as someone who is queer, and as someone who is Jewish, I cannot let it keep me from being visible, or working towards making those community as safe and comfortable as possible.”

Waterville has always enjoyed a status as a city with a vibrant Jewish population. Waterville is home to the Center for Jewish Life, which hosts a three day conference for Maine Jewish life. The City’s historical Jewish community has been studied by academics examining Jewish life in New England, and the Beth Israel Congregation remains an active and involved part of Jewish life in Central Maine. Two of Colby’s most generous families of alumni and donors, the Alfonds and the Lunders, have a long history of philanthropic efforts with both local and national Jewish organizations.