Racist message at Pamela Park in Edina

A racist message is shown on Aug. 29 scrawled in chalk on the ground outside the men’s restroom at Pamela Park in Edina. (Submitted photo)

Edina has been hit by a string of racist vandalism incidents dating back to October 2018, and Jessi Kingston, co-chair of the group that authored the city’s Race & Equity Initiative last year, wants the community to take notice.

After the most recent incident, which occurred Aug. 29, Kingston declared it was time for the city to take a stand. At the Sept. 4 Edina City Council meeting, Councilmember Kevin Staunton responded to that demand, displaying the photo of words scrawled in chalk on the ground outside a men’s restroom in a city park.

“Only niggers enter,” read the message, accompanied by an arrow pointing to the door.

“In the last week we got this image, and it’s not from Alabama, it’s not from Mississippi, it’s not from Minneapolis. This is from Edina, Minnesota. It’s from Pamela Park, and it’s disgusting,” Staunton said. “ … This is ridiculous. I’m beside myself about what it says about our community.”

Kingston, who co-chaired the Edina Race & Equity Task Force, sent the photo to officials including Staunton, the rest of the city council and City Manager Scott Neal on Aug. 29, the same day the racist message was discovered.

“We continue to have a serious problem with racist graffiti in our community,” wrote Kingston, a Jewish person of color. “In less than a year, both Arden Park and Pamela Park have been tagged with racist and anti-Jewish graffiti.”

Although Kingston had been logging the hate incidents since October, the Sept. 4 council meeting was one of the first times a representative of the city has called out the graffiti publicly.

“The city’s position has been pretty much, like, ‘We clean it up, and it’s done,’” Kingston told the Sun Current.

Out of four written announcements of $1,000 rewards the city has issued for information on a series of vandalism incidents on municipal property, one mentions racist graffiti: An announcement about graffiti at Bredesen Park mentions a swastika that was painted on a parking lot on or around Aug. 3.

Mayor Jim Hovland said there were three incidents of racist graffiti reported over the summer, but Kingston – alerted through either the Jewish Community Relations Council, the city’s SeeClickFix notifications system, or community members – has logged at least five incidents of racist graffiti dating back to last year.

It started on Oct. 25 with a swastika and n-word, of the hard “r” variety, painted on trees at Arden Park. Kingston laments that the graffiti, discovered two days before a massacre left 11 dead at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, remained visible as that horror unfolded 850 miles away.

Next, on Dec. 11, swastikas appeared on trees in Pamela Park, across the street from Kingston’s home, she noted. Kingston adds that a swastika was found etched into playground equipment at Strachauer Park July 26, followed by the Aug. 3 incident at Bredesen Park, in which a smashed watermelon accompanied the swastika mentioned in the city’s announcement.

Contributing to Kingston’s motivation to call out the racist imagery is Edina’s fraught history with race relations. A black family helped found the community before racial housing covenants gave the city a reputation of being unwelcome to Jewish and black people beginning in the early 20th century.

The Race & Equity Committee that Kingston co-chaired was created after a 2016 confrontation between two Edina Police officers and a black pedestrian on Xerxes Avenue near 66th Street. An uproar ensued – and broader conversations about race relations were prompted – when a video of the confrontation went viral on the internet. In its final 2018 report to the city, the Race & Equity Committee noted the subject of the stop was walking in the street because the sidewalk was under construction, although the city had determined the officer who initially stopped the man was following department policy.

As for the racist graffiti that has been noted over the past several months, Kingston leaves little room for benefit of the doubt in interpreting the underlying meaning of the actions, given the city’s history. She is also unmoved by speculation that the graffiti is the work of children who don’t know the meaning behind the words.

“Kids don’t just come up with this on their own. They’re learning it from adults,” she said.

No matter who committed the vandalism, Staunton was thinking about those who might come upon the racist words and images as he addressed the community earlier this month.

“Think for just a minute about being a person of color walking past this and think about how included or how welcome they might feel,” he said of the message scrawled outside the Pamela Park restroom.

In the cases from last year, Kingston is critical of the city for how long the graffiti remained visible. She says that when she contacted police about the swastikas near her home in December, she was told it was the parks department’s job to remove the imagery. However, she had made the report after work hours.

“So you’re telling me I have to go to sleep with swastikas painted across the street from my house?” she said.

City says rewards said to signal commitment

The fact that the city is offering rewards related to the hate crimes demonstrates how seriously it is taking the racist vandalism, Edina Communications Director Jennifer Bennerotte contends.

Graffiti usually doesn’t prompt a reward offer from the Edina Crime Prevention Fund, she noted. “That, coupled with Kevin Staunton’s comments, are reflective of the city’s commitment to its Race and Equity Initiative,” she said.

Of the four rewards related to vandalism of city property, only the announcement related to the Bredesen Park incident mentioned racist imagery. However, two of the other incidents for which rewards are being offered also included racist graffiti.

"The vandalism at Normandale Park had a plethora of graffiti including lewd images, offensive language, symbols, which included one swastika," Edina Police spokesperson Kaylin Eidsness wrote in an email to the Sun Current. "The 50th and France North ramp graffiti had multiple words and symbols, one of which being a swastika."

Kingston says that instead of the city notifying the community of the incidents' racist components, that job has been up to her. “Most of the (Race & Equity) Task Force members are now just hearing about it, and they’re hearing about it from me,” she said.

Kingston also dismisses the idea that publicizing the incidents is playing into the hands of the perpetrators. Perhaps that argument has merit, “except, everyone’s talking about it,” she said. “They’re talking about it on NextDoor. They’re talking to their friends about it. And instead of it going away, it’s getting worse.”

To better understand the potential consequences of publishing photos of the racist graffiti, the Sun Current reached out to Dan Plekkenpol, director of community security for the Jewish Community Relations Council. The photos help to illustrate the crime, Plekkenpol said. But he added, “It could be considered even by some groups to be a win, or that the message is being spread.”

The Sun Current is choosing to only publish the photo that was already displayed during the Sept. 4 council meeting.

Kingston was glad to see Staunton take a stand during that meeting, but notes that so far, it is simply words. “I’m like, OK great start, but what are you guys actually going to do?” she said.

Staunton admitted he doesn’t have an answer to that question. “I don’t have a solution. We’ve done a lot of good things to progress in this community, but we obviously haven’t done enough,” he said.

Staunton knows one thing, though: The racist imagery is not something to keep quiet about. “Everyone of us has an obligation to talk about this stuff, to make it clear to people that it’s unacceptable and to walk the walk,” he said.

Beyond talk, Kingston suggested the city install signs at its parks reminding people of the penalty for hate crimes and that Edina welcomes all.

The rest of the council briefly echoed Staunton’s condemnation of the hate speech. Hovland declared his belief that all of Edina is lamenting the racist messages.

“I’m sure everybody in our town joins us in the dismay and the disheartening nature of seeing this in any community, much less our own,” he said.

Kingston said the experience of the past several months has made her more weary when she’s out and about.

“I’m definitely, when I’m walking through the park, more diligent. I’m like, who’s there, are they watching me?” she said.

She wonders what could be next: “At what point does it escalate beyond just the spray-painting and the watermelon?”

– Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent

This story was updated after its initial posting to reflect more information about racist graffiti provided by the city of Edina.

Copyright © 2018 at Sun Newspapers/ APG Media of East Central Minnesota. Digital dissemination of this content without prior written consent is a violation of federal law and may be subject to legal action.

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