SMITHFIELD, R.I. — On Jan. 15, Kim Ziegelmayer went for a stroll with a friend along the Stillwater Scenic Walkway – a one-mile trail on an old railroad bed that she considers “one of the many wonderful things” about her hometown of Smithfield.
But as they walked beneath the arch of the bridge carrying Route 116 (George Washington Highway) over the path, she saw that someone had spray-painted lewd images and racist words on the pillars — including the N word, “$5 Slaves,” and an obscene reference to George Floyd.
“I was so stunned and shocked,” Ziegelmayer told the Globe on Friday.
She immediately thought of her son – a 15-year-old Smithfield High School student whose father is Black. “There was no mention of his name, but this hatred was pointed directly at him and his father,” she said. “It is very, very personal to me.”
And then her friend told her that she had seen the graffiti there three days earlier.
“How could it still be here?” Ziegelmayer asked. “This is beyond, beyond the pale. Especially at the political and historical moment we are in.”
When she got home, she immediately wrote an email to town and school officials.
“I am struggling to understand how and why this awful display has been allowed to remain,” she wrote. “I want to believe that if any one of you were aware of it, you would address the situation immediately, first and foremost by asking the police to investigate the situation as quickly as possible, then painting over it as soon as possible.”
Ziegelmayer said Smithfield is a “nice community” that provides a good place for children to grow up.
“That said, Smithfield is also the place where my son Ray was called the N word in elementary, middle, and high school,” she wrote. “Racism and hatred are everywhere, even in lovely Smithfield.”
Smithfield is a town of 21,897 that is 92.4 percent white, 3.7 percent Latino, and 1.4 percent Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Ziegelmayer called on leaders in Smithfield to “publicly and repeatedly condemn” the racist graffiti as soon as possible.
“My hope is we use this awful, negative incident and turn it into something positive for the long term,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to talk about what we value in the community, what we expect of people in our community, and what we unequivocally reject.”
On Friday, Smithfield Police Chief Richard St. Sauveur confirmed that three juveniles have been charged with malicious damage and conspiracy in connection with the racist graffiti. The youths, whose names were not released, will be referred to the Juvenile Hearing Board, he said.
On Thursday night, Smithfield Town Council President Suzy Alba posted a statement on Facebook, saying the Town Council did not immediately make a public comment about the incident, but town officials immediately painted over the graffiti and began conversations about “how to address this horrible and hurtful act.”
“We wanted to be thoughtful in our words and actions before responding,” Alba wrote. “Since then, we have learned that three students in our town are responsible for this. Not only do we condemn this vandalism and act of racism, we will not tolerate it and will do all we can to prevent it from happening again.”
The Town Council is grateful to Ziegelmayer for reporting the graffiti, she said, and it plans to work with her to host a virtual community forum to discuss the incident and racism in the community. Also, the town has a new youth council, “and this would be a great topic for them to take up because their peers did this,” she said.
“As a Latina, a daughter of immigrants, a sister and aunt to Black women, I fully understand how hurtful something like this can be, and no one should have to live their life facing hatred and racism like this,” Alba said. “We are better than this. Those young people should be ashamed of themselves and they too, can and should do better.”
On Wednesday, state Representative Bernard Hawkins, a Smithfield Democrat, posted a statement on Facebook, calling the racist graffiti “alarming and saddening.”
“As the state representative serving Smithfield and Glocester, father of a Smithfield teenager and life-long resident of this wonderful town, I unequivocally condemn not only this spineless act of racism but any form of bigotry against another human being,” Hawkins wrote. “This sort of cowardly action completely contradicts the core values of Smithfield and its residents and will not be tolerated on any level.”
Hawkins thanked Town Manager Randy Rossi for ensuring that the graffiti was painted over, and he agreed that further steps are needed.
“In the coming days, months, and years of my current elected term, I vow to continue to engage with not only local officials but my colleagues on (Smith Hill), in investigating and passing common sense legislation against racism and bigotry,” Hawkins wrote. “We must do our best for a better Smithfield, Rhode Island, and United States.”
On Friday, state Senator Stephen R. Archambault, a Smithfield Democrat, issued a statement condemning the racist graffiti.
“It’s extremely upsetting and offensive to see this type of hatred in a town that prides itself on being welcoming and inclusive,” Archambault said. “This type of behavior is not to be tolerated in any way and is certainly not indicative of the people of Smithfield, who I am sure join me in condemning the graffiti.”
Archambault said the graffiti is “heart-wrenching” since it comes just as President Joe Biden is calling for national unity. “But it’s a stark reminder that hate still exists in the most unlikely places,” he said, “and we must stay vigilant in combating it with zero tolerance.”
Ziegelmayer is urging Smithfield officials to advocate for restorative justice in the case against the juveniles charged with the graffiti.
“Criminal justice is about punishment, which has the potential to radicalize individuals further,” she wrote in an email. “Restorative justice is about perpetrators facing their victims, and the community at large.”
Those who committed the crime need to hear from the community, especially from people at which their hate was directed, she said. “If we say as a community we believe in the power of education, then let’s educate,” she said.
Ziegelmayer noted the racist graffiti came soon after a mob that included white supremacists carrying Confederate flags stormed the US Capitol.
“It’s all of a piece,” she said. “It boils down to: If we don’t speak up and call out what is plainly wrong, then silence is complicity. Hate is never good. It never leads to good things, ever.”