Swastikas found in Dwight graffiti room

While on a nightly walk in The Dwight Lofts graffiti room Feb. 1, Walter Sorel noticed a series of swastikas, the infamous symbol of the Nazi Third Reich, drawn on the floor.

Sorel, a Jewish sophomore cinema and television arts major, was taken aback by the hateful symbol he witnessed in the room. The graffiti room, located on the 12th floor of The Dwight Lofts, 642 S. Clark St., was created to provide Columbia students the opportunity for artistic expression.

Sorel said he immediately emailed his resident assistant, but after realizing the urgency of the situation, knocked on her door. Another RA was in and documented the swastikas immediately, planning to cover them up as soon as possible.

“My biggest concern was that this was going to be unnoticed, and  just painted over and not talked about,” Sorel said. “The idea that someone would spew this kind of hate speech is rather disturbing living in the same building as that.”

Although he was impressed with the RA’s response and blue paint was covering the swastikas by morning on Feb. 2, Sorel said he still felt he needed to do more. His parents encouraged him to take the incident to the President’s Office.

After speaking with Executive Assistant to the President Yvonne Sode, Sorel said Sode’s compassion regarding the incident led him to speak with Dean of Students John Pelrine.

Pelrine said after hearing from Sorel, he instantly alerted Vice President of Student Affairs Sharon Wilson-Taylor and Director of Residence Life Mary Oakes. “I asked [Oakes] to get someone over to The Dwight right away to check it out because we needed to see it. We also like to document this stuff to keep a record of it,” Pelrine said.

The Dwight Management Office and Residence Life directed requests for comment to Oakes, who then directed all requests to Pelrine.

Although coincidental, Pelrine said the graffiti room is scheduled to be painted white each semester and was scheduled by Dwight management to be painted the weekend after the discovery.

“It’s unfortunately fairly common, so that’s why it’s important for Columbia and any other institution to push back,” Pelrine said. “Make it very clear that this is not acceptable. We’re not going to say this is normal because we don’t think it is.”

According to the FBI’s latest hate crime statistics report, the number of hate crimes committed on college campuses have spiked between the years of 2015 and 2016—8.3 percent of total crimes in 2015 to 9.9 percent in 2016.

Sorel said after speaking with Pelrine, they agreed a mass email should be sent out to Dwight residents in order to inform them of the swastikas, which was then sent Feb. 7.

However, after receiving the email, Sorel was disappointed with the vague language the email used when describing “offensive graffiti”  instead of specifying that swastikas were what was discovered.

“What this email insinuates is that there was offensive content in the graffiti room, which there’s a lot of offensive content on the graffiti room, that’s all the room is,” Sorel said. “Considering that I had such great talks with the President’s Office and [Pelrine], I’m very disappointed. But I’m optimistic that we’ll get to the bottom of it. I don’t want to throw [Pelrine] under the bus because it’s a very difficult thing that he has to do and I want to make that clear too.”

Monica Hirsch, senior cinema and television arts major and president of Hillel, an international Jewish student organization, said it is an extremely upsetting situation to hear of this happening at Columbia. Hirsch added that she felt the email informing residents was poorly handled.

“It’s fair to say this is anti-Semitic rhetoric and this is what’s wrong about it. Offensive graffiti anyone could have assumed anything,” Hillel said. “It’s misrepresenting the story to not say they were drawing swastikas and it feels like it’s another way to minimize anti-Semitism.”

Shira Cortez, a freshman theatre major, and Dwight resident, said she hung a Hanukkah sign on the outside of her door to commemorate the holiday during the fall semester. Cortez said her roommate found the sign broken into several pieces when she came home one day. While it is possible the sign could have fallen and gotten stepped on, Cortez said the possibility of it being a hate crime has crossed her mind.

“Growing up, I was confronted with a lot of anti-Semitism in casual ways and people would joke and draw swastikas,” Cortez said. “It’s obviously not funny and it’s not a joke. It just made me sad that this was continuing in Chicago, but then again we live in a time of hatred and it’s scary if you think about it.”

Hirsch said people need to be better educated about anti-Semitism and recognize it is still happening today.

Sorel added that although what happened does make him uneasy, he is not going to change his actions or live in fear.

“It makes me prouder of my identity and prouder of where I come from and prouder of my ancestors and my culture,” Sorel said. “Ultimately, we live in a world of hate and we need to be more conscious of that and be more appreciative of the people around us that love.”

Update 2/14/18 at 12:35 p.m.: A previous version of this story stated Dean of Students John Pelrine alerted Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations Shawn Wax of the graffiti found in the Dwight. It was actually Vice President of Student Affairs Sharon Wilson-Taylor who was alerted of the graffiti. The Chronicle regrets this error.