It all started with someone snapping a photo of a pair of earrings in the shape of inverted swastikas found at a jewelry store in Greenpoint. A day after the photo had gone viral, New York City Councilman Steve Levin visited the Manhattan Ave. jewelry store to speak with owner Young Sook Kim, who appeared to have little idea what the symbol could mean. Kim, referencing the inverted swastika that is still held as sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism (the one that predated Hitler), told Fox News, “I don’t know what’s the problem. My earrings are coming from India as a Buddhist symbol.” Regardless, a number of politicians expressed outrage, including Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President, and State Assemblyman Dov Hikind. “The average person, when they see a swastika, they see it as a symbol of hate. End of story,” Hikind told the New York Daily News.
Some dismissed the incident as silly, “good red meat for the base,” or the response as disproportionate to the incident. But the context of the neighborhood reveals a story far more nuanced than a pair of misunderstood, cheap earrings. Bejeweled is located on Manhattan Ave. in the heart of Polish Greenpoint, an area with a history of neo-Nazism and anti-Semitic graffiti. In fact, two years ago, when an upsurge of hateful stickers and swastikas started littering stop signs and lampposts, one life-long Greenpoint resident and enthusiastic leftist, Joey Olszewski, decided to take action. Olszewski, 19 years-old at the time, knew it was the kids he grew up with who were vandalizing the neighborhood—a joke, he thought, at first.
Olszewski decided to counter their joke with a joke of his own, a Greenpoint anti-fascist Facebook group. He didn’t anticipate the response. Within a week, “hundreds of legitimate fascists” had joined the group, he said, and began sending him death threats, including videos of people shooting at or ripping up a printed out picture of Olszewski’s Facebook profile photo. It was then that Olszewski realized that the graffiti found in his neighborhood was far more serious than he had thought. Olszewski kept the group alive, though he had to make a number of fake profiles to ward off the death threats. In November of 2009, The Greenpoint Gazette published an article on Greenpoint’s anti-Semitic vandalism, after which much of the signs of overt anti-Semitism began to disappear, according to Olszewski. The L sat down with the leader of the Greenpoint Antifa (anti-fascist), now studying to become a history teacher, to get a better idea what the earrings found on Manhattan Ave. mean today.
Who was behind the anti-Semitic graffiti in your neighborhood, and why?
It was all just kids in the neighborhood. It was at first difficult for me to try to understand why they went that way, politically. We all live in a neighborhood that’s been gentrified, so it’s noticeable changes. I think a lot of it has to do with where they come from in Poland. Because I have many, many Polish friends. A lot of them come from a region called Lomza. It’s…the nicest way that I’ve been explained how Lomza is, and just to use stereotypes and generalizations, even though I like to avoid those, it’s like the redneck, backwoods part of Poland. Lots of farmland, very conservative values.
I think that when you have those conservative values, and maybe old-world anti-Semitism, not hardcore, but like, little, tiny pieces of it when you’re growing up with it from your parents, coupled with the death of the American dream, so to speak, which we’ve all had to live through, especially in my generation, and also in yours too, it creates a lot of animosity. You go to America, the streets are paved with gold…and it’s not. You can’t just get a high school diploma and be good anymore, so all these kids are struggling, I think, to understand that. And instead of taking it in a direction which could be productive, they just got really, really angry, and “Jews did all this shit.”
So let’s talk about new world, Greenpoint. In 2009 there had been an upsurge in anti-Semitic graffiti.
Oh yeah, and there still is. It’s good to know your enemy. And I see graffiti like this all the time. It’s in little runic symbols, and it’s all “blood and honor,” “Heil Hitler,” and it’s all in these runic things. You need to be in the know to understand what they are. Occasionally I’ll see a swastika spray-painted somewhere and that’s what really motivated me to start the Greepoint Antifa thing, more than anything else, because I was tired of seeing the graffiti. I mean, I imagined it was a joke, which is why I did a counter-joke. Like, someone just doing, “let’s think of the most offensive graffiti we can think, and do it,” but it turns out they were far more serious about it.
What about graffiti you’ve seen recently?
It’s gotten a little bit less in the past couple of years. Like you said, the article was from 2009, but there was a lot of stickers, pictures, “Fuck Jews” with the middle finger and everything, swastikas everywhere. And I mean, like, everywhere, everywhere. On streetpoles, on the corner. They used to do it on the corner, on the bottom of the streetlight. The runic symbols, you see them on the subway sometimes. There’s a couple on the L train that I’ve noticed.
On the L train? Wow.
Well, it’s Greenpoint. That’s how we get out. We just walk up to Bedford until we get to the northside and then we leave.
But these swastika earrings that were found in this store in Manhattan Avenue. I was there—I actually can’t find the manufacturer, it’s some Korean wholesale thing.
I’m sure they maybe misunderstand that it’s a Tibetan good luck charm, which is what it was supposed to be.
Exactly. The swastika predated Hitler converting it, as many, or maybe not that many know.
Well, I mean, if you’re going to wear a swastika earring and you’re white and Polish, you’re not a Buddhist, you know what I mean. You’re intending it to be something else.
Have you ever seen someone wear swastikas in your neighborhood?
They used to wear white power t-shirts a lot. But it’s calmed down in the past few years. If you’re familiar at all with any other anti-fascist movements in the United States, if you’re going to stay non-violent…I’m not a fighter. I want to be a history teacher. I can’t get assault charges and things like that. That wouldn’t be good for me at all. You kill a Nazi with exposure.
And that’s what did it. After the group, after The Greenpoint Gazette thing—I wasn’t on the front page, but the article I was interviewed about was—it almost stopped, like, dead. No more t-shirts. And I still see these kids, and I still get stares. But it’s one of these things where if I’m walking down Manhattan Avenue and I see them, I’ll stop and light a cigarette and just stare them down, and they’ll do the same thing. Walk a little slower and stare at me. There’s still an animosity. We still know each other. I’ve bumped into a few of them at bars, and I have been with my friends, they’re like, “If there weren’t cameras we’d kill you,” and it’s like, no you wouldn’t, you know what I mean. This is so not worth it. But I am going to call you out on it, and if I do see you and I’m with people, I’m going to say, “That kid’s a Nazi.”
Good for you for saying something.
If anything else, that’s what my intention was. I know a lot of us might not even understand the graffiti, but for someone who does know, to let others know that this is a really scary thing that we shouldn’t let get out of hand. I think I did a pretty good job of that.
What do you make of what happened with the earrings?
To me, it was an obvious misunderstanding. The jewelry company isn’t anti-Semitic company at all, I think. I mean, I don’t know, but gut instinct says, “Tibetan good luck charm.” But I’m not surprised at all. There used to be stuff like that everywhere. White power t-shirts with the big iron cross with the circle around it. So the fact that there’s jewelry, it’s not surprising to me. I thought it was silly. I’m not surprised that it’s not there anymore. Obviously the shop owner didn’t understand. I didn’t think it was some vast Nazi conspiracy to do anything.
Well, I think people were surprised and disgusted to see it now, because some people might think that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist anymore.
It does. And that’s why I started the group.
Let’s also talk about Councilman Levin’s response. Politicians came down hard on this one jewelry shop, whose owner didn’t even know the significance, and right away. But, then, given the context, given that it was on Manhattan Avenue, in Greenpoint, which has a history of anti-Semitic graffiti, do you think it’s appropriate? How do you feel about the response?
For them to come down is totally appropriate. Way too much than is needed, and way too late also—like, there has been a lot of graffiti for a long time, kids walking around in white power t-shirts, and you’re coming down on a Korean lady who didn’t know anything. That’s silly to me.
People might look at this and dismiss it because the earrings weren’t intended to be anti-Semitic.
Well, yeah, but they’re part of a bigger problem.
What about the neighborhood moving forward? Do you see anti-Semitism as something that will continue?
I’m pretty sure it was just my final generation, so to speak. Like, the last of the natives, the immigrants to come here. Because it’s almost an unaffordable luxury now, this neighborhood. It used to be the cheapest place in the world to live, it wasn’t the worst neighborhood in the world, but I have fond memories of my dad chasing drug dealers off my street with a bat. That just doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t know my neighbors, there aren’t kids playing in the street. I don’t think it’s going to get passed on at all. I could be wrong, I don’t know.
There are a few grown men that were doing this, but I knew them, just because I used to know everyone in the neighborhood, like everyone else did. And they’re just high school dropouts, living on the block with their parents. I’m still living with mommy and daddy too, don’t get me wrong, but I have plans to move forward and eventually become my own person. They’re there. And that’s it for them. And yeah, it was grown men doing it, but not really men, you know what I mean. Grown boys, maybe. They’re not significant in the way the neighborhood works at all, or what we should be proud of as a neighborhood.
Follow Sydney Brownstone on Twitter @sydbrownstone