At least four swastikas have been painted at sites in Atwater over the past two weeks, leading some to believe it’s a response to the protests sparked by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two unarmed black men killed by white police officers.
“Somebody is making a statement because of the two black men that were killed,” said Atwater resident Fernando Echevarria, while pointing to a white swastika on the sidewalk. “They are basically saying that it’s OK, and they are glorifying it.”
The swastikas have appeared within a mile of one another, mostly near Olive Avenue. They are spray-painted on sidewalks, street corners and fences of properties mostly owned by minorities. One swastika on Olive Avenue and Winton Way is outlined by red paint, which Echevarria said represents a black man’s “blood being drawn” by a white person.
Echevarria, who made an unsuccessful run for City Council earlier this year, said his police academy training at Modesto Junior College taught him what the symbols and colors represent.
Two white thunderbolts are painted a few feet from the Olive Avenue swastika, which Echevarria said also represents the death of a black man by a white man. The symbol is often used by the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist gang.
The other swastikas have turned up in an alleyway behind the 1800 block of Olive Avenue and a sidewalk near Maple Street and Olive Avenue.
This isn’t the first time the city has had trouble with swastikas, Echevarria said. He claims someone painted the Nazi symbols around town last year, but police say this is the first they’re hearing about it.
“Atwater is made up of all minorities, and we haven’t had anything like this happen before,” said police Lt. Sam Joseph. “If we see a trend, our investigators will do research to see if it’s a hate group or just a bunch of kids.”
Joseph said he believes it’s the latter, adding that random markings don’t prove the existence of a hate crime or that the victims are being targeted. The city doesn’t have a high rate of hate crimes, he said.
“It’s probably little kids that are messing around,” Joseph said. Because the locations appear to be random and don’t target specific groups, he said, it doesn’t appear as if the culprits were trying to send a message.
Some business owners said the markings could stunt the city’s economic growth. Preet Singh, 24, the nephew of the owner of Olive Market, said the business is frequently hit with graffiti – but this is the first time he’s seen a swastika near his front door.
“It hurts our business because it makes other people not want to come here,” Singh told the Merced Sun-Star. “When people see those signs, no one wants to come here. The city needs to take some action to stop it.”
The city adopted a graffiti ordinance in April that requires property owners in “high-target” areas to remove graffiti on their property within three days. After that, the city will have the authority to remove it and charge the property owner.
Echevarria said he didn’t report the swastikas to police because he believes it won’t stop the problem. “I feel that there’s not going to be much done about it,” he said. “It’s just sad for Atwater.”
Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or email@example.com.