Swastika troubling, hate crime expert says

Vandalism isn’t new to Montana, and neither is racial prejudice. But the swastika recently drawn on a mural depicting Helena’s Chinese history has some worried that graffiti around town has crossed the line from meaningless to hateful.

Travis McAdam, the Montana Human Rights Network’s executive director, said swastikas are a fairly common element of graffiti, and don’t necessarily mean anything.

“Frequently, when you look at swastikas (in graffiti), they’re often drawn wrong,” McAdam said. “In this case with the mural, what really struck me was the swastika was drawn, I guess you could say, correctly. That makes me sit up and take notice and say, ‘OK, there might be something more there. That to me looks like something that was done to send a message.”

McAdam said the human rights network has monitored activities of white supremacist groups in the state for about 20 years. One common factor among many groups is their members’ reverence for Adolf Hitler and Third Reich propaganda, including swastikas. McAdam added that the network hasn’t noted any active white supremacists in Helena for some time, though there are individuals and groups in Bozeman and Billings.

In terms of possible community action, McAdam said his organization is willing to work with people to tailor a “creative solution” that will work in Helena. When an ethnic restaurant in Billings was struck with similar vandalism that appeared to be the work of a white supremacist group, McAdam said, citizens organized an “eat-in” to support the restaurant owners. Other communities have responded uniquely to similar acts.

On Friday, City Manager Ron Alles said he spoke with Police Chief Troy McGee, who said vandalism incidents, including graffiti, haven’t increased recently.

“There’s no real spike,” Alles said.

And while Helena police have said they’re treating the mural vandalism as something more malicious than run-of-the-mill graffiti, swastikas and other references to Nazis have shown up recently on a vehicle boot and in a downtown parking garage, leading police to believe the vandal or vandals are targeting the Helena Parking Commission.

Jim McHugh of the HPC said vandalism occurring in parking garages isn’t new, either. He said the degree of vandalism varies, from instances like the recent graffiti to issues of life and safety. He cited an incident at the 15th Street parking garage last summer, when an individual was trapped in the elevator after vandals dropped large rocks into the elevator shaft, compromising the equipment’s safety.

He said vandals have cost taxpayers a lot of money.

“Nobody likes to get a ticket, and there are those who are more outspoken than others,” McHugh said. “But the most vocal ones are a pretty small percentage.”

Interactions between parking enforcement workers and disgruntled parkers occur very infrequently, he said.

The defacement of the Chinese mural prompted the mural’s artist, Lance Foster, to get in touch with human rights network. Foster couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

At the city’s public art committee meeting on Thursday, committee members agreed that the swastika vandalism should be considered a hate crime. Kathy Macefield, a city planner who works with the committee, pointed out that if caught, the violator will be prosecuted.

McHugh had a similar statement. “Next time he or she does it, there’s a witness hopefully and (he or she) is caught.”

 

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