Photo circulating on social media of the defaced Spirit Rock on James Madison University’s campus in Harrisonburg, Va. As seen in the top image, members of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity had painted the rock in honor of Jeffrey Matthews, a recently deceased member, only to find it quickly repainted in support of presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Instagram

Are you a neo-Nazi or are you a Dallas Cowboys fan? There is actually a difference (all jokes aside), but expressing support for Nazism or the Cowboys can be a tricky situation if you’re a sports fan, ignorant or racist.

Millions of Americans know that Michael Irvin, the Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, wore the number 88 throughout his career, and tons of people wear that number in his honor. However, several hundred thousand Americans wear 88 for an entirely different reason. Eighty-eight is also an abbreviation for the Nazi salute (“H” is the eighth letter in the alphabet, so 88 stands for “Heil Hitler’’). So when it’s a bunch of white guys wearing 88 at a sports bar, it’s about football, but if it’s a bunch of white guys wearing 88 at a biker bar, it’s probably about Hitler. Context is everything.

Advertisement

The same thing can be said for the name “Trump,” which has two unmistakable meanings. When someone wears a “Trump” hat, it’s political support; when someone spray-paints “Trump” over a campus memorial for an Omega Psi Phi Fraternity member who recently died, that’s a physical threat. And it’s about time Americans started being honest about both meanings.

Last week Jeffrey Allan Matthews Jr., a 2015 graduate of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., passed away. On Saturday friends, classmates and fraternity brothers spent seven hours creating a memorial for him on “Spirit Rock,” a large stone in the middle of campus used as a communal space for campus events, rallies and activities. When they woke up Sunday morning, they found that someone had defaced the memorial by spray-painting over it with the words “#TrumpTrain” and “Trump 2016.”

James Madison University released a feckless statement saying in part the following:

While we have no reason to believe that the repainting of Spirit Rock was anything more than an expression of support for a political candidate, we recognize that, for some, it only adds insult to injury during this time of loss.

This was either blatant cowardice or a lie on the part of the university. The political events of the last few months have shown the world that Trump’s supporters have weaponized his name and used it as a code word to threaten minorities.

Advertisement

On Feb. 25 in Iowa, students from the mostly white Dallas Center-Grimes Community High School shouted, “Trump, Trump, Trump” and “USA” at the visiting Perry High School basketball team. The Perry team is one of the most diverse in the area, with African-American, Latino and Native American students on the squad. On March 12 a white man attacked two Wichita State students (who were Muslim and Hispanic) at a gas station. Security cameras caught him yelling, “Trump, Trump, Trump” while punching and kicking the students before riding off on his motorcycle. Last month at Emory University in Atlanta, the words “Trump” and “Trump 2016” were chalked all over campus. The majority of the chalkings were near the student union where Muslim, Latino and African-American campus groups have meetings.

And personally, when I was in downtown Des Moines for the Iowa caucus, a group of white high school kids drove past me in their car screaming “Trump” at me. I’m pretty sure they weren’t trying to get my vote, and that is essentially the point. At no point in any of these instances was there any attempt to “raise awareness” or campaign on behalf of Trump. His name was being used to threaten and intimidate.

Donald Trump has actively encouraged supporters to use physical violence against those who disagree with him. For James Madison University to suggest that “Trump” sprayed over a memorial for a dead black man is “politics” is akin to suggesting that a cross burning is an elaborate invitation to a community barbecue. The university should investigate who spray-painted the rock with “Trump 2016” and why. “Free speech” alarmists out there know full well that there is a huge chasm between banning political expression and investigating a potential threat. And so does James Madison University.

Trump doesn’t just make people uncomfortable or express unpopular opinions. His supporters have carried out acts of violence in his name. So when his name appears to be targeted at minorities, outside of any reasonable political or campaign context, there is every reason to be concerned about violence or harassment.

Free speech is not an immunity token protecting one from responsibility, and election season is not an excuse to let white racists on campus threaten and deface remembrances of African-American students. Of course, not all Trump supporters are violent racists, but some are, and their acts of violence can’t be tolerated under the guise of “free speech.” Sometimes you have to acknowledge and take responsibility for the fact that names and symbols can have dual meanings, whether you’re a Cowboys fan, a neo-Nazi or a Trump supporter. 

Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.