Sonja Jackson says she has had to ask that question a lot lately.
The 3-1-1 operator with the City of Denver says she saw “an almost immediate uptick in the number of reports of white supremacist graffiti” around Denver after the presidential election.
Westword posed Jackson’s observation to a representative of Denver’s Graffiti Prevention and Removal department, who told us the agency doesn’t track incidences of swastikas or other similar hateful messaging appearing on property; unless there’s an eyewitness to the crime or security-cam footage, it’s anyone’s guess whether the vandalism came from an actual white-supremacist gang or a troublemaking thirteen-year-old with no real understanding of what he or she is painting. Specific gang tags are more trackable.
But for victims, racially charged graffiti tagged on property since the election – won by a candidate who campaigned on building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and banning Muslims from entering the U.S. – represents a resurgence of ideals that pose a threat to a nation as diverse as the United States.
Denver Police spokespersons say that so far, the department is treating racially charged tagging around town, a few incidents of which we discuss in further detail below, as unrelated incidents.
Here are six examples.
Isabella Bird Elementary School
On a recent Sunday, Jackson says she received a call from the parent of a student who attends Isabella Bird Community School, which has a particularly high population of immigrant students. The parent reported that a swastika had been spray-painted on one of the school’s doors.
“They had swastikas on the front door, death threats,” Jackson says. “It was a very distressing phone call. The woman who initially reported it to me was herself Jewish. Her kids go to that school; she couldn't stop laughing hysterically throughout the report, apologizing and apologizing over and over, which broke my heart. I laughed with her, but there was a certain amount of hysteria, I felt, too. She was like, 'I don't want those kids to see it on Monday morning, I have to clean it.' Like compulsive, panicky. I totally understood that feeling."
In response to the incident, the Jewish Life Center of Stapleton has organized a solidarity parade on December 27. The parade will begin at 4:30 p.m. at Isabella and end at Founders Green for the annual public menorah lighting.
The Jewish Life Center of Stapleton's statement about the incident:
We condemn this deeply offensive act and stand together with our Stapleton neighbors in opposition to this and all forms of hatred and discrimination. This type of hateful expression has no place in our society, and is not in any way a reflection of our neighborhood or of the Stapleton community. Since the inception of the Jewish Life Center, we have only seen inclusiveness and unity in our neighborhood and have experienced respect and enthusiasm for proud Jewish identity. This is highlighted prominently at the annual public Stapleton Menorah lighting, on the holiday of Chanukah, which is attended by local public officials, and hundreds of people from all religions, and segments of the community. It was heartwarming to see all the beautiful messages of love and support at the scene of the incident. We applaud DPS Security and local Law Enforcement for treating this incident with the seriousness it deserves.Denver Police shared its own statement following the Isabella Bird school vandalism:
We have received numerous questions about the recent graffiti that was discovered at the Isabella Bird School over this past weekend. At this time the investigation is in the early stages but is actively underway. We do not have any suspects at this time. However, video surveillance at the school is currently being reviewed and detectives are contacting residents near the school to obtain any additional information.Anyone with information about the incident should contact Detective Chris Hardey at 720-337-4506.
At this point we are not certain of the motive or the meaning of the various graffiti messages. We are exploring many different possibilities – as there are several. We encourage the community to avoid jumping to conclusions and instead remain calm and stand together. This appears to be an isolated incident and not part of a pattern in the neighborhood. Regardless of the intent or message of the graffiti by the suspects, this act of damage is completely unacceptable and the Denver Police Department will aggressively pursue whoever is responsible. We feel the community is completely safe and nobody is in danger due to this graffiti. We also encourage anyone with information about this incident to please come forward.
Joshua Terry, co-owner of the hi-dive, says the bar and concert venue's other co-owner, Curt Wallach, found the first tag. "Initially, I assumed it was just one of our friends goofin' on us, but then I got a text that someone had tagged 'Trump USA 2016' five times in a row in the bathroom at our other bar, the Overland, that same night. So I was understandably upset.
"My first response was 'Fuck these people,'" Terry continues. "I get pissed enough about people tagging our bars in general, but when it is clearly intended to rile us up, it is even worse. People know that hi-dive and Overland are safe spaces where we do not discriminate. So I think that can make us an easy target for the people who like to spew hatred anonymously, but we just paint over it and try to take the higher road."
The hi-dive recently hung signs on walls in both of their bars that read: "We value your color, class, creed, gender and orientation. This is a SAFE SPACE. Anything less will not be tolerated."
Keep reading for more incidences of racially charged graffiti.
Little India Restaurant
Little India Restaurant has been a staple in Denver since 1998 and was voted the Readers' Choice for Best Indian Restaurant by Westword readers in 2016.
On November 8, the restaurant's sign was vandalized — with what appears to be the same writing as the "Hail Trump" tag on the hi-dive.
Simeran Baidwan told Life on Cap Hill that this was the eatery’s first brush with vandalism since September 11, 2001. “Our chef was really bummed," Baidwan says. "We’ve been here almost nineteen years. He’s been here for nineteen years. He’s fed this whole Denver community for nineteen years.”
13th Avenue and Humboldt Street
On November 16, Amber Timmons, a transgender woman, awoke to hate-crime graffiti spray painted on her car.
Shortly thereafter, messages that read "You are loved" were posted on the car's windshield, and the car has been repainted.
Jeung works at a concert venue in town (she doesn't want to say which one). On December 6, she received a receipt at an all-ages show with a swastika drawn on the signature line, above the printed-out "Thank You" that's on all the venue's receipts.
Jeung, an Asian American who has worked at the venue for almost nine years, says it was the night of an all-ages hip-hop show. "This kid came up at the end of the night, asked for a bottle of water, $2. I grabbed his card, ran it through. Another couple of kids came up, and they were looking for their friend's cell phone, so I was helping them for a minute. This kid went ahead and drew a swastika on the receipt and then ran off into the crowd. I didn't even find it; my co-worker picked it up off the the bar. She looked at it and was really upset.
"I've been mad, then I was sad, and for whatever reason or the rest of the night, I felt vulnerable," Jeung continues. "Not that anything was going to happen to me, because I have so many friends and allies at my work. I knew I was safe, but initially that night, while the crowd was letting out, I was watching everyone filter by, and that moment I was like, 'Which one of you is racist? How many of you are intolerant? How many of you hate whatever community, whether it be people of color, LGBTQ people, women?' I was thinking, crap, is this permeating through our community, our society? I am an Asian American woman in Denver, which is what I had always thought to be a very liberal place.
"I want to put a very real face on the fact that this is real, this is happening. Even if this kid thought that this is a joke, it's still offensive," Jeung says. "It still brings up a lot of terrible historic things. It's actually a Hindi swastika, so he totally failed at even trying to be funny, or racist and offensive."
A photo Jeung shared on social media of the receipt went viral.
"My biggest fear at this point is not for my personal safety, but for the safety of other people of color or women," Jeung says. "For whatever reason, the climate in this country has completely changed that makes it okay for kids to draw swastikas on a receipt and hand it to people. This country, for me, more than anything, is everyone being tolerant of every culture, this weaving of a cultural fabric. That's our strength. Now it looks like maybe it's not going to be that way for the next few years."
Sonoma Resort at Saddlerock
The Aurora Police Department is investigating a hate crime at Sonoma Resort at Saddlerock. APD has responded to four incidents of "KKK" being tagged on doors at the apartment complex in the last three weeks.
"Our chief came out," says Sergeant Chris Amsler. "This is a top priority for our department. We have multiple units that are investigating this. We do not tolerate hate crimes, and we will prosecute to the full extent of the law."
But the department is stopping short of accusing any white-supremacy groups. "The only tie or indication that it could possibly be white supremacists...was the words 'KKK' and some slurs toward African Americans," Amsler says.
The first incident happened on November 22. The victim, an African-American woman, awoke to find that her door had been vandalized. She was victimized again on the November 29 with the same graffiti. The day after, APD held a press conference with the mayor and the chief of police reassuring the community that the department was investigating the vandalism.
On December 10, three more doors in the complex were tagged with similar graffiti. As far as the police could tell, each incident happened in the middle of the night.
"I can't discuss if we have any leads, because it's an open investigation, but we feel that this is an isolated incident," Amsler says. "We feel it's the same person or persons who committed this. We have been working with the community on this case very closely. After the second incident happened, our mayor and chief of police held a press conference to let the community know that this is not Aurora, this is not the community we call home."
Anyone with information about the crimes is being asked to contact Detective Ryan Belleau at 303-627-3156.