Charlottesville Police say they will not be investigating an incident in which a popular white supremacist slogan, “It’s Okay to Be White” was tagged over a Zeta Phi Beta mural at the University of Virginia. According to the historically black sorority, members of the UVA chapter of Zeta Phi Beta painted the mural on Beta Bridge, a city-owned University landmark, to honor their Founder’s Day on Jan. 16. By the next morning, the mural was vandalized.
UVA’s student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, reports the bridge, which is frequently painted on by students, was defaced at about 1 a.m. on Thursday morning. The paper also reported that Charlottesville police are not investigating the graffiti.
Markiana Smith, president of UVA’s undergraduate chapter of Zeta Phi Beta, says she and her sorority sisters were “stunned” when they heard about the hateful message.
“It’s a strange place to be when you feel the place that you’ve called home the last few years wanted to stifle you, didn’t want you to speak. Didn’t want you to take up space,” Smith, a fourth-year African American studies major, told The Root.
She was particularly struck by the fact that the vandals didn’t just paint over the mural—noting that murals on the Beta Bridge are frequently painted over. Whoever vandalized the bridge wanted to keep the Black Greek Letter Organization’s (BGLO) name up there, with the white supremacist slogan superimposed on top, she said.
The phrase, “It’s Okay to Be White,” first appeared on the online discussion board 4chan, and has since become popular among a number of alt-right and white supremacist groups in the U.S. and abroad. The phrase has popped up at other college campuses, including the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. In Australia, police are investigating an incident where three men unveiled an “It’s Okay to Be White” banner at a cricket match on Thursday.
UVA’s Dean of Students Allen Groves sent an email to the campus community on Friday condemning the graffiti, calling the incident “racially motivated.”
Groves also emphasized his support for Zeta Phi Beta. “We are very glad Zeta Phi Beta is part of the UVA Greek community and this institution is better for their presence here,” he wrote.
As the Daily Cavalier points out, it’s far from the first time a racist incident has happened on the bridge, let alone the UVA campus, which received international attention in 2017 as the site of the deadly Unite the Right rally.
Zeta Phi Beta International President, Valerie Hollingsworth Baker, says she doesn’t understand why Charlottesville police aren’t investigating the racist vandalism, considering UVA’s history and the spike in hate crimes across the country. The Root has reached out to the Charlottesville Police Department about the incident at the Beta Bridge and will update this story if they respond.
“You become worried because you don’t know where this is going, how far this is going to ramp up, and what are going to be the next steps,” she told The Root.
Baker added that she wants to see UVA do more than offer an apology.
“An apology is a first step. But what happens afterwards to say that this will not happen again?” Baker asked. She said she plans on visiting the campus soon so she can talk to BGLO members and UVA administration about the incident, and what they can do to ensure the safety of the campus’ black students.
Both Baker and Smith confirmed that the UVA had reached out to their organizations directly, but Smith points out that, while it was her sorority that was targeted, the hateful message was directed to all black students.
“It hit us all,” she said.
Conversations among UVA’s black students lately have centered on finding spaces where they don’t feel as though they’re “transgressing on somebody else’s space” she says.
And while Smith says she still feels physically safe on campus, she also has a deep sense of sadness knowing that the person or people behind the racist graffiti “could have been anybody” she goes to school with.
“When I wake up and go to class, I wonder if the person that’s sitting next to me, or the person behind me in line at the dining hall, is somebody who would have done that to the mural, to our Founder’s Day mural,” she said. “That’s a little bit disheartening.”
Updated Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, at 5:30 pm EST: In a statement made to The Root, Charlottesville police said they’re not investigating the racist slogan on the Beta Bridge because it technically counts as protected speech.
“Since the 1920s, the city of Charlottesville has permitted the UVA community to paint on the Beta Bridge to express their views and opinions as protected by freedom of speech under the First Amendment,” Charlottesville Police Public Information Officer Tyler Hawn told The Root.
While Hawn said the message may be offensive or “racially motivated,” Charlottesville PD classified it as protected speech and not as an explicit threat.
According to Charlottesville police, the message wasn’t reported to police until later—following news reports that the department was not investigating the incident. Hawn also clarified that racial slurs would also be considered protected speech by the department and not necessarily qualify as direct threats.
“If the threshold for a crime, such as threats of death, or bodily injury to a person or family member, or threats to commit serious bodily harm to persons on school property were met, then an investigation would be opened,” said Hawn.