Swastika Earrings No Red Herring In History of Greenpoint Anti-Semitism

01/12/2012 12:16 PM |

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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

15 Comment

  • The shop owner does know the significance of the symbol. It’s mostly Westerners who only associate the swastika with Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists. I’m sure Councilman Levin means well but his actions are promoting cultural ignorance. Instead of trying to ban the swastika because of Hitler’s cultural misappropriation perhaps we should educate people about its original significance and reclaim the symbol.

  • I don’t think it should be banned in any legislative sense, but “reclaiming its original significance” doesn’t seem likely.

  • Well, there is a movement to do just that. I wish them success.

    http://reclaimtheswastika.com/

  • I’m with Jim. This symbols has NOTHING to do with Nazism other than a resemblance. So we should ban it? Should we imprison people who look like Charles Manson, crucify people who look like Jesus? It’s pure ignorance, and it’s sad these ignorant people are causing the destruction of a legitimate symbol FOR PEACE.

  • @Richard New
    No, we shouldn’t ban it, obviously (though I kind of like your hysterical slippery slope examples). Also, attributing “pure ignorance” to people who’re offended by the symbol (which is most of the non-neo Nazi western world) isn’t really helping your case.

  • Thank you for this article.

  • @ Richard New, what are you talking about? Your argument is preposterous: “This symbols has NOTHING to do with Nazism other than a resemblance.” That’s exactly what symbols are–semblances! That you can interpret symbols is re/semblance. Dear Lord. So the fact that they RE/SEMBLe Nazism has everything to do with it. Your argument is like, “This water has nothing to do with wetness because it is damp.” Dear Lord.

  • He’s attributing “pure ignorance” to people who condemn a Korean lady for selling what to her is a perfectly innocent thousand-year old Asian symbol. Which is completely legitimate. If the Khmer Rouge had adopted the Star of David, I’d like to see how Hikind would respond if someone told him he’s not allowed to use it anymore.

  • @yo-yo pa
    “He’s attributing “pure ignorance” to a Korean lady for selling what to her is a perfectly innocent thousand-year old Asian symbol, even though 99 percent of the people in her neighborhood understand it as a symbol of the greatest evil in human history.”

    Fixed.

  • @yo-yo pa: You legitimize symbols with force, implicit in a comparison of Khmer Rouge adopting the symbol of the Star of David. The “Korean lady’s” problem was not that of force, however–it was one of ignorance about ‘symbols.’ Richard New made it worse by willing it, and you have worsened it further by ‘legitimizing’ it. So please.

  • That’s cue for your upcoming ad hominem attack.

  • @johnny diamond – No. If you read what Richard New wrote, he clearly was not attributing pure ignorance to the Korean lady. If you are, then fine. She probably was ignorant of all of the trouble this would stir up for her.

    @dennissinned – No, you don’t have to legitimatize symbols with force.

  • That’s correct–you don’t have to legitimize symbols with force, but you did. In your hypothetical situation, Khmer Rouge adopting the Symbol of David is based on their ability to defy Hikind, which involves physical force–implicit at least. It’s not a situation that allows for symbolic interpretation involving intellectual and reasoned discussion, it only allows for seizure of the Star of David and defiance of anyone who disagrees. Which entirely misses the point here about Richard New: that there are competing histories, visions and realities for a symbol shared between two cultures inhabiting the same area. On one hand, New tells us it is “pure ignorance” to associate the symbol with Nazism because it is only a symbol, while in the next sentence affirming it with peace under the same grounds. You just can’t do that–who is Richard New to say the significance of peace in the symbol that he reads is less than the symbol of horror it has for in other readings? Don’t get me wrong, my personal conviction is closer to Jim Wickson’s–that of raising everyone’s consciousness about the valence the symbol has across all cultures. But you can’t dismiss symbols for being symbolic–that’s retarded, especially if you’re inconsistent and decide the symbol is in fact important when it matches the meaning you give to it.

  • A reasoned discussion weighs the import the symbol has for Jews and other victims of the Holocaust some 60 years ago–an import that many of the youth of Greenpoint know too well, as Joey Olszewski here tells us so eloquently. That cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand and a “bah! humbug.”

    That discussion will also weigh the import of the symbol for many other cultures inhabiting the area–thousands of years old and indeed imparting peace.

    Personally, in the crudest and most simplistic terms, I would opt to let the former prevail, because it is only fair. The “Korean lady” selling the earrings is not trying to impart peace to her customers insofar they are paying. Her tiny profit on this does not outweigh the symbol’s weight to others.

  • don’t be so blind and yes, ignorant. this swastika HAS NOTHING to do with nazizm. it has no Nazi context, and it even spins the wrong way. if you want you could see a swastica in many crossed branches of the tree, crumpled paper or probably in the clouds. nazi swastika is imprinted in your brain, thats what it is. besides, graphically it is a beautiful sign and a good luck sign in India and other cultures too, used in weddings as a decoration on the bride.
    you don’t like the earrings? don’t buy it. as simple as that. so get over it. stop whining. stop be so scared turning every corner. eat a carrot. be well.