Remember that racist vandalism at EMU? It’s Complicated

About this time last year, I posted here and here about what came to be called the “racist vandalism incidents,” which involved some spray-painting on the side of a building on campus (and some other writings in different places) the “N-word” and such. Well, now the police think they have their vandal, and it turns out to be an African-American man. He’s Eddie Curlin, he’s 29, he was a student at EMU from 2014 to 2016, and he’s currently in jail for something else. Here’s a link to the mLive article, though the Washington Post had probably a better article here.

Needless to say, this revelation complicates things.

As I wrote on Facebook, I guess it’s a good thing that the perpetrator isn’t a bent on violence and devoted white supremacist/hate group type of guy. Though when I think about it for a moment and consider some of the other racist incidents and such that have cropped up on college campuses around the country, crude graffiti hasn’t really been their M.O. It seems more common to see some variety of racist flyers or cards on campuses (we’ve had some of that at EMU and at U of M)– though I wouldn’t want to ignore the Richard Spenser-led/inspired gatherings/riots at UVa and the University of Florida recently. Scribbling “Go Home N-word!” on a wall or whatever seems more the actions of a a drunk frat boy or, in this case, some vandal seeking attention.

But as I also wrote on Facebook, I think it’s more complicated than what EMU police chief Robert Heighes said at the press conference for this. To quote:

“As far as motivation for this, it was totally self-serving,” Heighes said during a press conference Monday. “It was not driven by politics, it was not driven by race. It was an individual item done by one individual for all three of the major graffiti incidents on our campus.”

When asked what factors may have led to the acts of vandalism, Heighes said that information would come out eventually. He believes Curlin was the only perpetrator of the vandalism incidents.

“That will come out at the trial,” he said.

I don’t know Curlin’s motivations, obviously. Maybe he did this because of some deep-seated self-hatred; maybe he has the same sort of compulsions/mental illness that motivates arsonists; or maybe it’s some combination of all of the above (or, least we not presume guilt, maybe he didn’t do it).

But even if we don’t know Curlin’s motivations– even if Curlin didn’t know his motivations– Heighes is wrong that this was not about politics and race. And I don’t mean that in an academic way, as in “all language is about politics and race.” Curlin (or whoever) scrawled “Go Home N-word!” in a public space to provoke a reaction that is obviously rooted in politics and race. Curlin didn’t spray-paint “EMU sucks!” or “U of M sucks!” or “Eddie is great!” or anything else like that because he knew that no one would have cared. He picked his words carefully (well, carefully enough) to know his words and actions would get a reaction. He might not have anticipated the extent to which the EMU community reacted or the level of news coverage these incidents ended up receiving, but he knew it’d get noticed.

Worse yet is that the idea this graffiti was a “hoax” has blossomed all over the place– in the comments of the news stories I link to here, but also in predictably conservative to alt-right sorts of web sites (which I won’t be linking to here). The gist of these articles is “Here’s another example of racism that turns out to be fake news– what are these people complaining about?” As if we can all stop worrying about racism because all of these kinds of incidents have been hoaxes.

And let’s also not forget that the actual racist graffiti incidents were just the beginning of the disruptions on campus. Most notably, the EMU administration went way too far to punish students (notably black students) for protesting these racists incidents on campus. Here’s a post/video about this from early January 2017. So again, the impact and motivation of this graffiti wasn’t just self-serving, wasn’t devoid of politics and racism. It’s a lot more complicated, which might make getting past this incident all that much more difficult.

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