Swastika graffiti on UNM campus, how headlines got it wrong, and why it matters

Sieg Heil (Hail, Victory), Swastika symbol, Trump graffiti night of Trump election, on The Center of the Universe sculpture on UNM campus. Photo by UNM student Curtison Badonie 7:01 A.M.
The New Mexico Jewish Link, December 2016 Vol. 46, No. 4
January 4, 2017 Gallup Independent, page 4 News Analysis “Swastika graffiti on UNM Campus: How headlines got it wrong and why it matters”

SWASTIKA GRAFFITI ON UNM CAMPUS: How headlines got it wrong, and why it matters.   Story by Diane Joy Schmidt

ALBUQUERQUE What happened, what really happened.
Sometime late in the night after the election, graffiti artists expressed their pleasure with Trump’s win by spraying graffiti with the words Sieg Heil (Hail, Victory!) and Trump and a swastika on a storefront in Philadelphia. Very similar graffiti appeared on the campus of the University of New Mexico. A student on his way to Zimmerman Library captured a photo of the graffiti at 7:01 a.m., before the university grounds crew had a chance to cover it.  Curtison Badonie posted his single photo on Facebook and other social media. Spray-painted in purple paint in large block letters across a bare expanse of a sculpture called The Center of the Universe was SIEG HEIL, then a drawn Swastika symbol, and then TRUMP.

The Albuquerque Journal quickly came out with the story online that morning, Nov. 9, at 9:27. Their headline read “Vandals deface UNM buildings, artwork with anti-Trump graffiti,” with two photos provided by UNM, and the following morning, Nov. 10, in the print edition, ran the same headline and story with the main photo, which was almost identical to Badonie’s, shown here. The story reported that a number of buildings and public artwork had been tagged “with messages comparing President-elect Donald Trump to Nazis. A student reported the lilac-colored graffiti to UNM early Wednesday morning, said Dianne Anderson, a university spokeswoman. Someone defaced a popular piece of artwork, a sculpture called the Center of the Universe, with the words, “Sieg Heil Trump” and a swastika symbol. In another case, a vandal wrote, “I (heart image) fascism” with the word “Trump” superimposed over the heart.”

The reporter, Chris Quintana, did not say anywhere in the body of the story whether this was pro- or anti- Trump graffiti. However, there was an ambiguity left in the story, which the reporter did not explain, given the only two images presented, and the headline certainly was not.

The Associated Press very quickly picked up the Journal story, adding an even more perplexing headline, “Anti-semitic, Anti-Trump graffiti found on UNM sculpture,” and mis-spoke by erroneously reporting that “University of New Mexico officials say an unknown person has defaced several buildings on campus with anti-Donald Trump graffiti.” The AP story was picked up by thousands of news outlets and later on social media.

I reached out to Badonie on Friday, and asked what he thought about the newspaper coverage. “I don’t know if it’s anti- or pro- Trump but seeing that just worried me and [for] our society. Especially, for us people of color & queer people of color.” Badonie, an undergraduate student majoring in communications & journalism, is Diné (Navajo) from Chinle, Arizona.

On that first day after the election, and the next, and continuing into the following week, there was a great deal of confusion and anxiety among Hillel students and Jewish community leaders over the graffiti and the lack of clarity in the reporting.

The UNM campus has seen  repeated efforts to pass Boycott, Divestiture and Sanctions resolutions by the Students for Justice in Palestine group on campus that were fought off successfully, to date, by a tiny group of Hillel students.

Hispanic students on campus were very anxious,with many who are dreamers, here with uncertain citizenship status, and so were Muslim students. UNM President Robert Frank issued a statement Wednesday condemning the graffiti.

The Anti-Defamation League regional director here, Suki Halevi, immediately made inquiries to the university but was only able to ascertain that the matter was under investigation. She issued a statement Thursday condemning the Nazi words and symbolism and  wrote that “Regardless of who the messengers are, the use of these hateful words and symbols is offensive and alarming, especially to the Jewish community.”

Later that week, a freshman student reported that a classmate wearing a Trump shirt had attempted to pull off her hijab in Zimmerman Library on Election Day and students marched across campus to the president’s office demanding a safer campus.

I emailed UNM’s Director of Media Relations Dianne Anderson, the well-known former TV news anchor here who has now been at UNM for almost five years, to clarify whether or not her office had said the graffiti was anti-Trump. I noted that reporters are usually not the ones who write the headlines.

Anderson had never characterized the graffiti as pro- or anti- Trump. She sent me a copy of a brief email she had sent out to media that Wednesday morning, in which she called the graffiti “Nazi signs and Trump references.”

She included a list of facts sent to her by a member of her maintenance crew she had sent out in a second email, which read: “We have approximately a dozen tags. Same person, same color of paint, multiple locations. Located on buildings, artwork and sidewalks. All political address at President Elect Trump. Nazi and fascist are the primary reference [. . .]”

Both emails made clear that neither she nor the grounds crew ever said the graffiti was anti-Trump. Anderson added in her email, “I don’t believe the Journal’s story ever uses the reference “anti-Trump”. It is exclusively in the headline, which as a reporter you know, is not usually written by the reporter, but by a headline writer. I did not speak to the Associated Press about this issue.”

Then, unexpectedly, she wrote to me on Nov. 14, “I have been told that other tags in the graffiti from last week included profanity such as F___ Trump.”

Three days later, I sat down with Anderson at her office in the president’s suite and with Willie West, associate director of Environmental Services.  West showed me one photo of more graffiti from that night that had not been released. It had been written on a building near the art sculpture and with the same color spray paint. “F___ ME, TRUMP” was written in a cartoon balloon over a four-legged creature about to be mounted from behind by a Trump figure with a small penis.

West, who has been with UNM for 14 years, was of the opinion that both the Sieg Heil graffiti and this one were both done by the same person. He said that was based on his years of experience with graffiti on campus, that they were both done in purple spray paint, that they were on adjacent buildings, and, in his estimation, in the same handwriting. “And to give you more bearings,” said West pointing, “this is on this building here, so it’s boom, kaboom, kaboom.”

“They’re all very close in proximity,” added Anderson.

I asked West if he recognized the tagger. He said, “It doesn’t look familiar. I don’t recognize the style. You get used to the people.”

Finally, I said, “So, we don’t know what’s in the mind of this person.”

“No, replied West, “but we would like to catch him so we can charge him.”

We compared the two photos side-by-side on Anderson’s computer screen. West said that the F___ Trump and other graffiti had been done after the Sieg Heil Trump graffiti, because he said you could see where the paint had begun to run and the spray can was running out of paint. He said there was also F___ Trump graffiti on the sidewalk that they had also had to cover over, some in purple and then one that was done in yellow. He said the only one with a swastika was the one published.

Was it a supporter or a detractor?  Several possible explanations.

It would seem that there are several possible explanations. To the reader must fall the test of Occam’s razor, that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

After looking at the images, the first possibility is that the tagger was really pro-Trump, and was in sync with other pro-Trump Nazi taggers such as the one in Philadelphia, and had taken this opportunity to celebrate this victory, and then, to cover his tracks, to disguise true intentions, had added the anti-Trump graffiti.

One student had asked on social media: “Was it a supporter or a detractor?” Another responded, “That’s the beauty of Fascism. It keeps you guessing.”

The second possibility is that the tagger really was anti-Trump and wanted to make Trump look bad by making an elaborate and perhaps seemingly ironic, prominent pro-Trump Nazi salute to Trump, and then followed it up with a bunch of anti-Trump graffiti.

One student re-posted the erroneous and misleading AP story (headlined “Anti-Semitic, Anti-Trump graffiti”) to ‘prove’ that the Nazi graffiti really was done by an anti-Trump tagger, and added the (widely circulated but false news) claim that it was known that anti-Trump supporters were being paid to make Trump look bad.

There was, nevertheless, absolutely no evidence to say for certain what was in the mind of the tagger. However, the visual effect of the local newspaper account, by printing a headline with the words “anti-Trump graffiti,” directly above the photo of the graffiti with the swastika and the words Sieg Heil Trump, suggested that the tagger was somehow an anti-Trump agent provocateur, and the subsequent AP story followed their lead with their headline “Anti-Semitic, Anti-Trump graffiti on UNM campus,” and compounded this and added other errors. This legerdemain created unnecessary anguish, uncertainty and confusion for students.

The Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, now writer and political activist, after hearing that NBC had finally reported that Putin had directed the hacking attacks on the American election, (something everyone in Russia had already figured out), tweeted on December 14, “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

In retrospect, since the graffiti markings taken as a whole could have been done by either a pro- or anti-Trump person, one could consider it an unintentional political statement, an albeit unlikely ironic conceptual/performance art piece that shows the ugliness of hate at either extreme.

We stand on the cusp of a very different political reality. Perhaps one of the most important lessons to learn in the aftermath of this election is that careful investigation and critical analysis is crucial. We must avoid Orwellian doublespeak. What we call things, and how we name them really matters – now more than ever.