Hate speech vandalism at nearly half dozen NYC sites in last week sparks action by political, religious leaders

LOWER MANHATTAN -- It was a singular act of hate that was meant to divide people. Instead, a racist scrawl on a sign at the national monument that's dedicated to people of African descent brought together a wide array of people in a statement of defiance and strength against a spate of hateful acts in New York City in the past week.

"Whenever it happens, we have to combat it," said Jumaane Williams, the city councilmember from Flatbush, Brooklyn, who organized a public show of opposition to the vandalism at the African Burial Ground National Monument, at the corner of Duane and Elk Streets, in the heart of the federal district.

The gathering featured some clergy members from a variety of faiths, but most of the dozens of attendees were elected officials. Almost all of them were Democrats, but they represented a wide array of ethnicities and religious backgrounds.

"We're going to be with you all the way," said Helen Rosenthal, a councilmember from the Upper West Side. "Until crap like this doesn't happen any more."

Councilmember Margaret Chin, of Lower Manhattan, pointed out the varied ethnicities of the elected officials, religious leaders, and the crowd of onlookers.

"This is what NYC looks like," she declared.

The racist scrawl, reading "Kill N*****s," was brought to elected officials' attention after Suzanne Gardiner, an American of European descent, took a photo of it when she'd spotted it last Thursday. She said on Monday that she'd seen it when she was headed to the national monument site from a migrant asylum hearing at the Jacob Javits Federal Building across the street.

"It seemed to me a shocking thing that needed to be followed up on," Gardiner told PIX11 News. She showed the photo to Laura Flanders, a friend and journalist. Flanders ensured that the photo got distributed to other news media, including PIX11 News.

That, in turn, sparked outrage from elected officials, who then organized Monday's noontime protest.

It was designed to also decry other recent acts of hate, and to call for action against them.

Within the last week in New York City, a man was arrested for scrawling anti-semitic messages on walls inside Union Temple, a Brooklyn synagogue. The crime he's charged with having done led to the cancellation of a political event that had been scheduled to take place at the synagogue.

Two more arrests have been made for anti-semitic vandalism on private property in Brooklyn Heights. Also, similar scrawlings were found, and painted over, in Riverside Park, on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Both of those incidents happened in the last week.

Now, police are searching for a group of young people who were seen in a surveillance video throwing a small metal pole through the window of a Williamsburg, Brooklyn synagogue, while people were praying inside over the weekend.

All of the hate crimes had the collective effect of bringing together people eager to see good. After each incident, diverse crowds have come together at the sites of each crime, in opposition to them, and in affirmation of common needs of decency and respect.

"We're only going to win when we realize we have a mission to create hope, rather than despair," a rabbi said at Monday's event.

Laurie Cumbo, the City Council majority leader, told the gathering that its greatest effect would be for it to spur action on Tuesday.

"If we want to move forward, you have to vote!"

Some of the speakers, including organizer Jumaane Williams, pointed out that the African Burial Ground site is surrounded by surveillance cameras operated by both federal law enforcement and the NYPD.

Gardiner, who first brought the graffito to the public's attention, also mentioned surveillance video about the act of vandalism on the historic site. "I can't believe nobody's seen it," she told PIX11 News.

Williams said that elected officials "are in talks" with federal law enforcement about trying to identify the person behind the African Burial Ground defacement, and about increasing security at the site.