PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Business and religious leaders whose shops and houses of worship were graffitied this week in a spate of hateful vandalism that outraged the Portsmouth community are pushing back this weekend, with events to promote unity, hope, and love.
At least 15 sites across the city’s downtown area were tagged very early Tuesday morning with swastikas and other symbols scrawled in reddish spray paint, in what appears to be a targeted undertaking by one person, according to Portsmouth police detective sergeant Kevin McCarthy.
The targets included a synagogue, minority-owned businesses, and storefronts with rainbow flags. Victims say the vandal sought to convey an anti-Semitic, anti-Black, and anti-LGBTQ message in the Seacoast community of 22,000 residents.
Assistant mayor Joanna Kelley, who owns a coffee shop that was targeted, said there’s a fairly clear reason why perpetrators picked Portsmouth for this hateful incident and others in recent memory.
“We’re a welcoming city,” she said. “We’re a progressive city. So I think that if you are trying to make a statement, you don’t go after the little guy, you go after the big guy. I think that’s what has made us a target.”
But this city won’t sit silent when confronted with flare-ups of hatred, Kelley said. To that end, she and other community leaders have planned events that invite the public to affirm values of inclusivity.
Donated flowers were available on Friday at Kelley’s shop, Cup of Joe Café and Bar on Market Street, for people to pick up and hand-deliver to other impacted businesses and houses of worship. The idea is to provide a visual symbol of community support for those who were targeted by symbols of hate, Kelley said.
On Sunday at 3:30 p.m., the public is invited to an hourlong interfaith “Community Gathering for Love” at Temple Israel on State Street, which was among the sites targeted. Organizers said the event will include an open mic for words, music, song, and prayer.
Kelley said she woke up Tuesday at about 6:30 a.m. to a text from one of her Cup of Joe employees who found the swastika on the cafe’s front windows. After checking in with her team, calling the police, and alerting other city officials, Kelley said the reality of the situation set in, along with a dilemma: “What do we do?”
Kelley, who is Black, said this wasn’t the first time she and her nearly 5-year-old business have faced racist attacks, but this was the biggest and most visible. That left her team with a choice: either quietly scrub the graffiti away and carry on, or call attention to it and risk amplifying its hateful message. Her team didn’t hesitate, so Kelley went public on Facebook that morning, with a photo of the graffiti and a message denouncing it.
“It’s easy to feel angry,” Kelley told the Globe. “But what I don’t want to ever incite is more anger in people, so I really tried to share my feelings but also share how I just practice life in general.”
The people who spread racist ideas online, in person, or with a can of spray paint won’t suddenly stop spewing their hatred, Kelley said.
“They’re never going to go away. They’re never going to be quiet,” she said. “So you have to be more omnipresent. You have to be louder.”
About an hour after Kelley learned that her business had been hit, Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman received a text message from Temple Israel’s synagogue administrator with similar bad news. Graffiti was found both on the brick face of the sanctuary building and the asphalt outside the main entrance.
“I thought it was just us who had been targeted,” Stern-Kaufman said. “My first response was, ‘Well, I’m not surprised,’ given the climate in this country regarding antisemitism.”
Stern-Kaufman said it’s important to recognize that this week’s vandalism wasn’t an isolated incident. A rising tide of extremism has had Jewish communities, and others, on heightened alert for years. Temple Israel used to keep its doors unlocked during services and throughout the day. Then a shooting in 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh left 11 dead and seven more wounded. Now the synagogue doors in Portsmouth remain locked.
Research by the Anti-Defamation League has found that anti-Semitic attitudes are widespread among Americans and likely on the rise. Meanwhile, white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups are growing and making themselves more visible across New England and the nation.
This week’s vandalism also had a religious component that’s been overlooked by some, Stern-Kaufman said. The person who spray-painted Temple Israel’s property paired two symbols together: with each swastika, there was also a cross.
“I take that as a symbol of white Christian nationalism,” she said. “That is a particular ideological statement from a very particular type of hate group that exists in our country.”
Local, state, and federal officials were quick to denounce the vandalism, with Republican and Democratic leaders alike calling for a thorough investigation.
“Tragically,” said State Senator Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, a Democrat from Portsmouth, “such bigoted and hateful acts are now not uncommon, in this nation or in New Hampshire; these acts are a direct consequence of unchecked hate speech and rhetoric on the national stage that has gone on for far too long.”
New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella said his office will work with state and federal partners to find and prosecute whoever is responsible for the “hateful and threatening criminal activity.” That promise comes a month after Formella’s office announced civil charges against the neo-Nazi Nationalist Social Club (NSC-131), its founder, and another man, who were accused of hanging a “Keep New England White” banner from a Portsmouth overpass in 2022.
Members of the same group staged an anti-LGBTQ demonstration at a Portsmouth theater in 2021, ostensibly to protest a family-friendly drag show. They also targeted a business owner in Franklin, N.H., with an onslaught of fake reviews in 2022 after she denounced their activity. Other hate groups, including the Proud Boys, have similarly made their presence known in New Hampshire and throughout the region.
Detective McCarthy said on Thursday that investigators had not identified evidence that links this week’s graffiti to a particular group, though multiple suspects have been identified. The investigation is ongoing, McCarthy said. The messages scrawled on buildings this week included swastikas, crosses, X’s, a Star of David, and the word “Victory” on the side of a parking garage, he said.
Peggy Shukur, interim director for ADL’s New England region, said the graffiti in Portsmouth “has alarmed an already on-edge Jewish community.” Furthermore, communities should be extra vigilant this weekend, Shukur said, since extremist groups have reportedly designated Saturday as a “day of hate.”
“The good news is that the entire Portsmouth community has come together to reject this hate,” Shukur said. “It is encouraging to see so many expressions of support from civic and faith leaders, public officials and community members, demonstrating the collective outrage to these instances of antisemitism.”
About an hour after Stern-Kaufman learned that the synagogue had been targeted, James Moller Wulfe received a text message notifying him that his business, Grim North Tattoo on High Street, had been hit as well.
Moller Wulfe, who co-owns the tattoo shop with his wife, said the vandal drew swastikas on their building and placed X’s over a rainbow sign in the window. The graffiti’s message was clearly a rejection of inclusivity, he said.
While he respects those who prefer a quieter response, Moller Wulfe said he feels compelled to be vocal and clear about the hateful messages coming from the fringes of society
“I feel like we should speak up about it and let the community know that there are those among us, or those certainly close enough within the area, that have these kind of ideas,” he said. “We need to be aware that this exists and this is going on, so we can stop it and stand up and say this isn’t welcome in our community.”
Stern-Kaufman said her perspective shifted on Tuesday when she learned that others throughout the area had been vandalized as well.
“It was as if the whole town was targeted,” she said.
Her initial grief morphed into anger. But then, as word of the crime spread, people began to reach out.
“The wider community started to respond and pour into us all kinds of messages of love, and support, and allyship,” she said. “And that’s where the story changes. It becomes instead the story of one individual in the dark of night with a can of paint, provoking an entire community, … provoking an outpouring of love, provoking an outpouring of support, and fraternity, and brotherhood and sisterhood amongst strangers that otherwise were not normally interacting with one another.”
That outpouring was on display this week in ways obvious and subtle. There was the vase of flowers that came to Stern-Kaufman’s office with a note of encouragement; the neighboring business owner who stopped Kelley on the sidewalk for an overdue introduction; the Christian minister who bought coffee from Cup of Joe on Ash Wednesday, as she collaborated with her Jewish counterpart on Sunday’s ad hoc gathering; and more.
Stern-Kaufman, who’s part of a local interfaith clergy group, said moments of provocation like this week prod people to act in recognition of their interdependence on one another.
“There’s a lot more that we share in common as one humanity,” she said, “than the differences that divide us.”
Steven Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @reporterporter.