An upsurge of hate graffiti hits Greenpoint
Over the last year, the country, the state, the city and the neighborhood have seen a tremendous amount of change. For the first time in history, we have an African American president; the New York state senate has a democratic majority after more than thirty years of Republican rule and come January, New York City will see the inauguration of its second three-term mayor. Similarly, for the last decade Greenpoint/Williamsburg has been in a constant state of flux—the waterfront rezoning, newcomers moving into the community in record numbers, the building boom and subsequent bust that has resulted in blight and abandonment. Though, as everyone knows, with change—both positive and negative—comes backlash, and in Greenpoint it has come in the form of hate-inspired graffiti.
Recently, several community members have observed and reported a disturbing number of anti-Semitic and homophobic pieces of graffiti in Greenpoint, Northside Williamsburg and Long Island City, Queens. The tags range from crudely drawn or spray-painted swastikas to large stickers posted on telephone poles and the sides of pay phones to detailed and puzzling scribblings reminiscent of runes, an ancient Germanic language long since adopted and re-appropriated by Nazi and neo-Nazi groups. After a period of relative calm—the scribblings were first brought to the attention of the Greenpoint community several months ago by Miss Heather Letzkus of www.thatgreenpointblog.com, a fresh batch of graffiti was discovered on Saturday night on Manhattan Avenue, and according to Letzkus, it has been popping up, on and off, for years now.
“The first time I noticed it was on Dupont Street. The year was 2001 or 2002, and someone had spray-painted “Skins” and a swastika on a fence. That said I haven’t seen anything of the kind north of Greenpoint Avenue since.”
However, just last summer Letzkus noticed and photographed a fresh crop of swastikas around the neighborhood. In response, a local Greenpointer who wishes to remain anonymous founded a Greenpoint AntiFa (anti-fascist) facebook group designed to fight fascism, anti-Semitism and hate in North Brooklyn. Though the group was initially meant to be a peaceful way to combat intolerance, its presence has been met with vicious opposition. According to this individual, those responsible for the graffiti are teenagers, who meet regularly on Eckford Street between Nassau and Norman, and have since threatened his life.
“I decided to found the group because I was tired of seeing swastikas painted in my neighborhood,” he said. “A lot of the kids who are threatening my life on the internet I grew up with—went to elementary and middle school, my girlfriend’s friends. The kids my age are unorganized, but there are a lot of adults in the neighborhood who pull the strings. The group started out with five or six of my friends, and over the course of two days I had 60 neo-Nazis join the group and send me hate messages—these are grown men, threatening to hurt me, kill me, hurt my family—and I’m only 19.”
According to longtime community members, the upsurge of anti-Semitic graffiti is a symptom of a larger systemic problem in Greenpoint, a neighborhood characterized by its large Polish population. As the neighborhood gentrifies—and those who initially settled it are being displaced—intolerance tends to increase.
“Rents have risen as have property taxes. Many old-timers here have been displaced—seen their neighbors’ homes razed to build condos by speculators—or in some cases become trash-ridden, derelict lots,” Letzkus continued. “I suspect what we’re seeing here is a manifestation of this. I understand the resentment, but the anger is misdirected and hurtful. This anti-Semitism is pervasive in Greenpoint. It usually manifests itself in more insidious ways, like housing discrimination and subtle jokes. This most recent spate of vandalism is simply a more visible [version of] an already existing problem.”
Greenpoint, however, is not the only neighborhood afflicted with hate graffiti—just across the Creek, the tags are prevalent as well. Mitch Waxman, founder of the Newtown Pentacle, has become familiar with these scribblings over the last nine months, and believes the graffiti—specifically that incorporating the runic alphabet—to be somehow connected to Eastern European gang culture.
“There has been a series of weird Germanic runes turning up all over town,” Waxman said. “I would imagine that someone has come to the neighborhood and is letting us know that they’re here. I would assign the entire thing to gangland—a connection between the eastern European mafias and iconography. And when you’re talking about Greenpoint, you’re talking about Eastern European influence.”
Mark Potok, the Executive Director of the Intelligence Project, a civil rights organization that researches and tracks the presence of hate groups across the country, said that since 2000, the number of active hate groups has grown exponentially, and can be attributed to the country’s changing social climate.
“The number of hate groups has grown 46% since 2000,” Potok said. “There are three factors: Non-white immigration, the economy and the rise of Obama, which has brought about a state of domestic terrorism. People are much more willing to say aggressive things—you see that in tea parties to militias to the town hall meetings. It’s a testament to how the demographics of the United States are changing.
According to Deputy Inspector Fulton of the 94th Precinct, the hate crimes unit is investigating the graffiti, and hopes to put a stop to it once and for all.