When a swastika was spray-painted on a shed outside of Concord Elementary School in Edina, it was far from a one-off. The incident was the sixth time in the past 12 months that a swastika was reported to Edina police – although just because they haven’t been reported doesn’t mean that they haven’t taken place.
The incidents are part of a wider trend of anti-Semitic incidents reported to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. So far in 2019, there have been 31 reported incidents, which is the highest number seen In recent years.
“We’re really working hard with police departments to makes sure the reporting is being done,” said Dan Plekkenpol, who is the JCRC’s first full-time security director, who is working with local police departments to make sure that bias-motivated crimes are reported to the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. “We’ve been trying to educate our community – and others.”
The swastikas are the majority – but not all – of the hate or bias crimes that have been showing up in Edina since last December. Several incidents of swastikas and anti-black slurs have been at Pamela Park, where Jessi Kingston lives. She had taken down her Hanukkah decorations an hour before she saw two large swastikas spray-painted on trees across the street from her house.
“While there has always been anti-Semitism, it’s been much more public than before,” said Kingston. “The Edina Police Department, in my entire experience, has not taken the issue seriously.”
Plekkenpol said he’s seeing the upward trend in anti-Semitism, but questions if there are actually more anti-Semitic acts, or if the rate is going up because issues are now reported. But some conflict may arise in the way incidents are reported.
“State statute mandates law enforcement to report bias-motivated crimes to the BCA,” he said. “But it comes down to the interpretation of people reading the reports. A swastika should be reported as such. If it’s on the side of a building or school and the public sees it, the crime could be damage to property. If it’s only in chalk and it could wash off easily, and you don’t want to be a victim, you may not report it. But it still would be a bias-motivated crime.”
In the case of Concord Elementary, the teenager who was picked up was not charged criminally because of no permanent damage.
In a statement, Edina City Manager Scott Neal said: “Nazi swastikas are offensive and not condoned in our community. Graffiti incidents such as these do not reflect the sentiments of the community. We must continue to work together to educate even our youngest residents and visitors about how Nazi swastikas and racist graffiti make people feel. We want Edina to be a welcoming community for all.”
Kingston said that part of her concern is about what is being called a hate crime.
“Edina has a history of not dealing with the issues to the fullest extent, and it is so hurtful to the communities that are impacted,” she said. “The fact is we have Jewish and black communities that are impacted by this and not getting the support we need from the city.”
State Rep. Frank Hornstein is working on an update to the state statute that would toughen hate crime laws. He is expecting it to be ready to go through the legislative process when the session begins in February.
“A number of prosecutors said it’s hard to work with the current statute,” he said. “This latest incident in Edina has raised issues because there are difficulties classifying that as a hate crime under the current statute. Prosecutors have to go with what’s in the statue. I’m hearing from county and city attorneys, that for a variety of reasons, the laws are limiting or difficult.”
Plekkenpol said police departments should look at this as a social issue that police departments need to put more energy towards.
“It’s upsetting to people. If something is going to make your phone ring, it’s these items,” he said. “Bias offenses take extra time, effort, and more questions need to be asked. The JCRC is poised and has the bandwidth to help with this. A lot of other faith organizations don’t have this. The experience we have aids us to spread the message and help educate.”
Kingston said that she hopes other faith organizations in Edina can help – starting at the church level.
“The issues we’re seeing in the city are bigger than what city government can address,” Kingston said. “There are larger cultural issues. I’ve asked that the JCRC meet with faith leaders in Edina to really start trying to get faith leaders to address hate and talk about it in their communities. Our elected officials can talk and make statements, but news articles aren’t stopping this from happening. When we see a lot of these churches filled, we really need to leverage the partnership and step in and help show how to treat people and respect others.”