The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A black man is charged in racist graffiti incidents that shook Mich. campus, drew national attention

Last fall and in the spring, the otherwise quiet campus of Eastern Michigan University was hit by three ugly incidents of vandalism targeting blacks.

The first came in September, when “KKK” was sprayed in red, white and blue paint on the wall of a dormitory, along with a threat that used a racial slur and told blacks to “leave” the school in Ypsilanti, about 11 miles southeast of Ann Arbor.

Then, on Halloween, the same ominous hate message using the n-word and ordering blacks to leave showed up on another building, this one right next to the campus’s monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“It really has rocked our community,” Judith Kullberg, an EMU political scientist and president of the faculty senate, told The Washington Post. “In this whole context of a very tense presidential election, it has raised anxiety here considerably.”

In the spring, a third racist message was left in a men’s restroom stall.

Coming as other campuses were dealing with similar acts of what appeared to be hate vandalism, the incidents sparked protests and made national news.

On Tuesday, the university was shaken again when police announced that a 29-year-old black man, a former student, had been charged in all three crimes.

The suspect was identified as Eddie Curlin, a student at the school from 2014 to 2016, who is serving a one-to-five-year sentence on an unrelated charge of receiving and concealing stolen property, according to a university statement.

Curlin was arraigned in Washtenaw County District Court on charges of malicious destruction of property, identity theft and using computers to commit a crime. A preliminary hearing is set for Nov. 9.

EMU’s chief of police, Robert Heighes, did not offer any motive for the vandalism, except to say that “it was not driven by politics, and it was not driven by race. It was an individual item done by one individual,” Heighes told the campus newspaper, the Eastern Echo.

Campus police noted that they had committed more than 1,080 hours to investigating the incidents, with the help of the FBI and the Michigan State Police, among others.

“To know that it was a person of color is hurtful,” a black student, Jaiquae Rodwell, told the paper. “As a black student, to know that another black person is using the n-word in a negative way is embarrassing.”

EMU President James Smith said in a statement to the campus community that the vandalism “created significant pain, fear and distress among our students, faculty and staff” and that he had felt angry about them as well.

The incidents prompted strong reactions throughout the community, both on and off campus. The faculty senate condemned them and held a day-long teach-in about racism and diversity, and some professors held a vigil at one of the vandalized buildings, wearing black to show support for students of color. Student leaders, Ypsilanti city officials and NAACP members held a candlelight vigil. More than 100 students marched to the university president’s house, demanding action.

The school launched several efforts to combat what were seen as hateful attacks, including increased spending for security, additional lighting and cameras on campus, expanded diversity training for university leaders and others, and a presidential commission examining diversity and inclusion.

Despite the suspect being a black man, Smith said those efforts will continue. “These and other actions will continue to move forward with the focus, determination and importance with which they began,” he said.

There has been a lot of talk about this on campus, said EMU professor Ronald C. Woods, as well as online, in person and in meetings held by black student leaders. He said reactions include relief and questions about what this means.

“The arraignment definitely is positive,” said Woods, chair of the president’s commission on diversity and inclusion, “because the events last year and the unresolved nature of the crime has kept a sense of unrest and disquiet quite active. And so, yes, the fact that there has been an arrest will be very helpful. Not necessarily in calming the waters. It’s a reality check of where the cause is.”

Like Smith, he said efforts to unify the campus will continue.

Leaders of student government and the Black Student Union did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday morning.

The arrest was one of several in the country in the past year in which an apparent act of racism or anti-Semitism was traced not to a hate group but to a suspect belonging to the targeted minority.

In December, an African American member of a historic black church in Greenville, Miss., was charged with setting fire to it and writing “Vote Trump” on the exterior of the building.

Miss. black church fire was called a hate crime. Now parishioner has been arrested for it.

In March, an American Israeli Jewish man was arrested over bomb threats aimed at Jewish community centers in the United States and elsewhere.

To judge from news accounts at least, such cases are still relatively rare. Most arrests and convictions for hate-related crimes of violence or vandalism follow the traditional pattern.

Last month at EMU, a racist message was found scratched onto a bathroom stall at the student center.

The Black Student Union announced on social media that the message was “N—ers die.”

The incident is not connected to those from last year, Geoffrey Larcom, a spokesman for the university, said Tuesday; the suspect arraigned Monday was in prison at the time.

“We live in challenging times,” Woods said. “What we’re seeing here is just a replication of what we’re seeing so broadly in our society.”

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