My guilty-liberal response to a hate crime

When a nearby Jewish community was attacked, I responded with good intentions. I know in my heart: It wasn't enough

Published August 22, 2015 11:30PM (EDT)

A photo of the author's daughter, making signs.   (Ben Carlisle)
A photo of the author's daughter, making signs. (Ben Carlisle)

The first we knew of the trouble was a few mornings ago, around 8 a.m., as my husband got ready for work.  

“Our neighbor’s mailbox has been tagged,” he said, looking across the street. 

Graffiti is almost unheard of in Oak Meadow, our upscale San Antonio subdivision, but a red scrawl was painted on Joanna’s stone mailbox. (I’ve changed the names of some people in this story, to protect their privacy.) As we watched, an unmarked white van pulled up and a man with a professional-looking camera began filming.

“Seriously? This is news?” I asked. “Just ‘cause it happened in the nice neighborhood?” I’ve lived much of my life in neighborhoods where graffiti was not newsworthy. We got in the car and left; we went on with our day. 

It was not until that afternoon that I discovered the damage was far more grim. More than 30 cars and homes in our neighborhood and the Orthodox synagogue across the street had been defaced with anti-Semitic, racist and sexually obscene graffiti. They’d painted “Jew” on an SUV and thrown a rock through its window. They’d painted swastikas on a memorial at Rodfei Sholom; KKK on its gate; “nigger” on the congregation’s stately sign. They’d done the same in parts of our neighborhood, including defacing the north entrance with black swastikas. The graffiti on our street was barely legible and wasn’t specifically anti-Semitic or racist, and the victims were mostly not Jews and white, so there, the vandalism seemed random. Our house had been spared, but our next-door neighbor’s truck had been spray-painted.

The other acts of graffiti, however, weren’t random at all. When I heard what happened, I felt as if the core had fallen out of me. The news camera had been there not because of graffiti in a rich suburb, but because something powerfully disturbing had happened: Hate had come to my neighborhood in the middle of the night. Or, perhaps even worse — hate had been there all along, and finally reared its ugly head.


I often see my Orthodox neighbors walking to Shabbat services Friday evenings or Saturday morning. The men wear dark suits and black yarmulkes, the women wear long skirts and hats and the children are smaller versions of their parents, except sometimes the yarmulke is rainbow or sparkly. I see them in the winter, but also in the Texas summer, walking to services in their long sleeves in 105° weather. I always want to offer them a ride, but I never have, because I don’t want to offend them. I know they can’t drive during Shabbat, but can they accept rides? Can men accept rides from a woman? Would my offer itself be offensive, as if I didn’t think they could manage on their own? Jews have been in Texas since at least 1816 and there has been a Reform congregation in San Antonio since 1874. Surely they are used to the heat by now. Sometimes I worry for their safety too; they seem so vulnerable, walking targets for someone’s hate.

Watching my Orthodox neighbors walk to services doesn’t just make me worried for them, though, it also makes me happy. I understand that I might find a few of the beliefs of some Orthodox communities, particularly about the role of women, to be problematic. But in spite of that, it brings me joy to see them. My friend Brenda used to say that she danced at every Jewish wedding, because it was like dancing on Hitler’s grave: “Fuck you, Hitler,” she’d shout, demonstrating her dance, “we’re still here.” And so when I watch my neighbors in the clothing that marks them as Jews, I feel happy because they’re still here. F--- you, Hitler, and every other force that has sought to wipe them out. I’m not a knee-jerk patriot, but watching my Orthodox neighbors walk to Shul also makes me proud to be American. In my country, even here in South Texas, they can wear their Jewishness, their culture and faith, proudly. I take pride in the large Jewish community in my part of town, its three congregations, the sprawling Jewish Community Center, even if I myself am not a Jew. 

So, that afternoon, as we drove home, I thought: How could they? And then I thought: I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before. I was supremely angry. I wanted to kick the people who did this, although I recognized that as un-Christian. (On most days, I count myself as Christian.) I wanted to surround my neighbors with my arms, I wanted to put myself between them and this hate, but it was too late. And, besides, I didn’t know any of my Orthodox or black neighbors, not really. I’d realize later, that was part of the problem.

Then I had this vision: I imagined my whole neighborhood decked out in lawn signs. I could see it in my mind’s eye. Brightly colored lawn signs filled with messages of peace and love and tolerance. I’d invite everyone in the community over to make them. We’d line the roads entering our subdivision with colorful anti-hate signs. With balloons and streamers tied to them — colorful, happy things to counteract the stark hate of a swastika painted in black. After all, every year on the Fourth of July, our HOA lines our main road with American flags. We’d raised $25,000 to fix our neighborhood pool. Surely we could plaster our neighborhood with love signs. And through the signs, we’d restore the peace that had been taken away from us.

We stopped to buy a bunch of blank yard signs at Home Depot and multi-colored sharpies. I went on a couple of neighborhood Facebook pages to invite the community over to my house to make signs that evening. I’d even serve lemonade!

By the time my family and I got back home that afternoon, almost all of the graffiti had been removed. Not a soul was out on the street. It was as if nothing had happened. Part of me wished the graffiti hadn’t been painted over so quickly. Without the physical evidence, it would be too easy for those of us who were not Jews or who were white to minimize the crime, to pretend it hadn’t happened. We shouldn’t be allowed to ignore something like that. As hurtful as the vandalism was, I wondered if we shouldn’t have been made to live with it for a while.

That afternoon while I waited for our sign-making party to start, I read articles and message boards on the San Antonio Express News site and our independent paper,The Rivard Report. Most of the comments expressed outrage and sorrow. A few speculated it was the work of teenagers from outside the neighborhood. They seemed dismissive to me, as if we shouldn’t be as upset, because it was “just kids.” One woman complained that the newspaper had spent too much time covering the synagogue and not enough time covering her street, where the graffiti was not anti-Semitic, as if she were being slighted. As if property damage was the same as property damage plus the threat of violence inherent in a swastika, a thrown stone.

Local politicians had condemned the attacks and offered a reward for information. The FBI immediately launched an investigation. Two members of the synagogue board invited the perpetrators into their community so that they might learn more about the people they’d attacked. And then there was this beautiful quote from Rabbi Arnold Scheinberg of Rodfei Sholom: “There’s only one remedy for hatred and that’s love. That’s going to override and overpower the hatred that we have seen.” 

I tried to explain what had happened to Milly, my four-year-old.

“Some bad people wrote mean things on the wall about our neighbors. They said they hated them. So, we’re going to make signs that say hate is bad and that love is good. We’re going to have a party and color. We’re going to show our good neighbors that we love them.” 

“We’re going to say hate is bad and to not be mean. We’re going to say love is the best!” She got it. And she couldn’t wait for the party to start.

I wasn’t expecting many people to come make signs, realistically. It was 100° outside, and I’d only given two hours’ notice, and I didn’t know how many people would even seen my Facebook posts about the signs anyway. 

But my bubbly, super-involved-in-the-community neighbor, Genevieve, whose house had not been hit, came with her two small children. My husband, daughter and I were there. Beneath the shade of our pin oaks, the adults drew the bubble letters and the kids colored them in, carefully, in as many rainbow colors as they could cram in. The littlest girls drew impromptu hearts in crayons all over the signs. This was our message to the vandals and to our neighbors: “Love,” “No Hate,” “Spread Love,” “Shalom, Y’all” (borrowed from the Jewish Community Center’s t-shirts), “No Racism” and “Tolerance for anything but Intolerance” and “We love our neighbors.” Half-way through, our next-door-neighbor, Sue, whose truck had been vandalized, came over too. She is an older, gentle woman with a soft Texan drawl. Her yard is full of native plants, bird feeders and art. Her voice cracked a little as we talked about what had happened to her. Her sign was a picture of a globe: “Love makes the world go round right.”

We put our signs up in our yards; four in mine, one in Genevieve’s, one in Sue’s. It wasn’t my hippie-tastic vision, but it was something. Maybe, I hoped, it would comfort at least one person. Besides, surely people would find other ways to respond, to protest. All told, three houses out of 600 in our subdivision put up signs.

The next morning, Milly and I put two at the entrances to our community, one next to the Oak Meadow sign that had been vandalized, across the street from the entrance to Rodfei Sholom. On the side facing the street, I wrote “Hate not welcome,” on the side facing our community, I wrote “We love our neighbors. All races. All faiths.” I wanted our Orthodox neighbors to see that as they walked to Shul.

My daughter and I had made another sign: “Dear Congregation Rodfei Sholom: We are sorry this has happened to you. We value your presence in the community. With love and solidarity, your neighbors.” Milly colored an awesome crayon/glitter-marker heart, surrounded by extraneous alphabet letters, because that’s what she can do. We took it and a vase of flowers to the synagogue. When I explained to her what we were doing, she explained back, “We’re going to give the Jewish people flowers so they feel better.” Yes. Exactly. 

It was the first time I’d been inside the synagogue’s complex. My plan had been to put the sign and flowers in the park by the defaced memorial, but when I got there, planting a sign seemed intrusive, somehow, like another act of vandalism. So we drove to the synagogue itself, passing through its massive wooden security gates. Nothing there seemed out of the ordinary. Cars were parked in the parking lot. The air-conditioning hummed. Milly and I carried the sign and flowers to the entrance. Two orthodox men on their way to pick their kids up from camp passed us without saying a word. But I didn’t say anything either. Flowers had seemed like a good idea, but now, in front of the synagogue, it seemed like such an empty gesture. I felt embarrassed, stupid, naïve, but I still wanted to teach my little girl something. I wanted her to know that that when bad people hurt your neighbors, you take notice. You try to bring comfort. You speak out.

We left the flowers and the heart outside a glass door that sported a sign “All packages and bags may be inspected for security reasons.” I realized then, how under siege my Orthodox neighbors must feel, all the time. I’d seen their presence in my community as a shining example of America at its best. But they were probably just trying to get on with their lives in a world that would never be neutral towards them, that would never see them as “normal,” that would always notice them. That, even at its best, would exoticize them, as I—I realized then—had been exoticizing them.

The thing was, I’d wanted to tell my Orthodox neighbors that I cared about them, that I was sorry they’d been hurt. Leaving a note at the synagogue was the only way I knew how because I didn’t actually know any of my Orthodox neighbors. If my African-American neighbors had had a similar community center, I would have done the same thing for them. Because I didn’t know any of them either.

In my defense, I am a working mother and almost pathologically shy. I don’t know most of my neighbors; Genevieve is the only one I know well. But the lesson was not lost on me. The same yarmulkes and dark suits, long skirts and hats, that made me romanticize my neighbors’ daily lives had also prevented me from treating them as normal human beings, had stopped me from talking to them when I passed them on the street. The reason I couldn’t do anything more significant for them than making a sign was because I myself was prejudiced, even if only in a mild, bright-eyed-liberal kind of way.

I felt similarly disenchanted with our signs now. What were a few signs in the face of this particular episode of violence or the everyday, low-level prejudice that permeates our culture? Although individual community members had helped their victimized neighbors, and even though our HOA had issued a statement stating that it was working to assist those affected, there hadn’t been a very visible neighborhood reaction to the vandalism. No rally or candlelight vigil or special community meeting. The magnetic signs of our two neighborhood churches that so often contain spiritual or community-oriented messages remained blank. The three HOA community events signs said nothing. People hadn’t found other ways to respond or protest. There were just the few signs my neighbors and I had put up. Three houses.

That evening, our local ABC affiliate did a story on the “community response” to the hate crimes. My family and I weren’t home when the news crew came, so they interviewed Genevieve in front of our house, our cheery signs in the background. She’d tried to get hold of us to talk to them, but couldn’t. I was glad I hadn’t been interviewed, though, because I would have said what I was feeling in my heart. That signs weren’t enough. That I was profoundly disappointed in my community for its lack of response, even if, in my heart, I doubted there really could be any adequate response to the hate crime.

Late that night, as we watched the spot—the lead story on the 10 o’clock news—what upset me was the way it made it sound like the yard signs had been a community-wide effort, a community-wide response to the trauma, instead of a three-household response. The news had given us all a “happy ending.” People would think everything was OK because of cute handmade signs professing love. But nothing had ended and things weren’t OK. The perpetrators hadn’t even been caught; the prejudice that had spawned them was still out there. Blissfully ignorant, a lot of people in San Antonio and our neighborhood would go to sleep that night feeling better about the world.

But Milly didn’t see it that way. “Oh my goodness,” she said in her faux-big-girl way, “our signs are on TV!” She was so proud of us, and for a moment, I saw the signs through her eyes. We’d done something good; we’d shown our neighbors support. We’d told hate it wasn’t welcome. That was something.

My moment didn’t last long. On Facebook, fellow Oak Meadow residents, my own friends across the country and Genevieve’s, posted congratulatory messages on the news video we shared—“Love wins!” they said—but I couldn’t really join the bandwagon. We all wanted so badly to believe that nothing was really wrong in our community, and by extension, our society, because we’d done a little something to respond to the hate. Racism and anti-Semitism weren’t really normal in our society, we could believe, because one person had vandalized and a community of 600 had responded. But if you knew the truth and measured it in signs, it was more like 1:7. If there was more than one perpetrator, the ratio was worse.

I know a lot of people in our neighborhood spoke out against the crimes to each other. I know many had comforted those victimized, even if I didn’t witness it. They assisted the police and the FBI when interviewed. And I don’t know what kind of response would have made me prouder of our neighborhood, what kind of response would have truly made things better. Maybe I was just disappointed in my response. Maybe there is no adequate response possible to hate that comes in the night, that has its root in bias as old as history, that has centuries of genocide and violent persecution behind it, but which some idiot dealt out as casually and randomly as if he’d been throwing out candy off a float in a parade.

Here’s the truth, though, what I wish I could have said on TV, what I wish I could write to my friends on Facebook. Rabbi Scheinberg is right. Love can heal everything, conquer all, overcome fear and hate, make broken communities whole, save lives. That kind of love gets to know its neighbors, even when they dress differently, so that it can really help when the need arises. But there’s also a shallow kind of love that has its limits and it’s usually the feel-good love, like colorful signs and vases of flowers, the kind that makes the news. And when my neighbors were attacked, that’s all I had to offer.

By Kelly Grey Carlisle

Kelly Grey Carlisle is an assistant professor at Trinity University. Her essays appear in The Sun, New England Review, Ploughshares, and other journals.

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