Prosecutors in Highland Park, New Jersey charged the suspect accused of vandalizing a mural of a Muslim woman in a hijab with a hate crime Friday.
It took just 48 hours after the completion of the mural for it to be defaced. The work celebrates local refugee and asylum resettlements efforts, according to New Jersey 101.5.
The artist collective that helped support the artwork spoke up about the meaning of the art and revealed that the artist was racially harassed three times while painting.
On April 30, in a Facebook post, coLAB Arts stated, “As the team behind the Shelter project, which sponsored the recently-completed mural ‘Home is Where We Make It,’ in Highland Park, we write to affirm the intentions behind the artwork and to condemn the acts of bigotry surrounding it… The main theme illustrated in the piece is ‘radical hospitality’ – a willingness to challenge one’s own comfort for the sake of another’s – an idea that we’ve seen practiced by those who serve these particular communities, and that we believe is a value held by Highland Park as a whole.”
The collective continued, “The letters “USA” and two Stars of David placed over a depiction of a girl wearing hijab communicate exclusion and hate.”
54-year-old Highland Park native Thomas Santo faces one count of bias intimidation, a fourth-degree crime, as well as criminal mischief, reports Patch. Police say Santo first vandalized the mural on the morning of Friday, April 29 by spray-painting “USA” across the woman’s face. He then returned later in the day to vandalize the mural again by adding two Stars of David. The two other figures in the mural remained untouched.
In a press release, the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, condemned the incident.
“We must make those who harbor anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry feel uncomfortable and unwelcomed in our presence,” said CAIR director Selaedin Maksut. “Hate must be condemned publicly and privately.”
“Local interfaith leadership and community members in Highland Park have worked hard to make their town welcoming and inclusive of people of all faiths,” he continued. “Vandals wish to erode the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood built among the diverse local communities through New Jersey. But they will not succeed. We will not let them. Together, our local communities will condemn and overcome this display of ignorance and hate for the sake of a better world.”
According to Patch, Police Chief Abrams said, “Highland Park prides itself on its diversity and acceptance of all, and this act struck at the heart of what we stand for.”
“The Highland Park Police Department is resolute in its condemnation of this vandalism and all acts of bias and hatred. We will continue to work with our community and borough partners to ensure the safety of all.”
In a new press release, CAIR welcomed the hate crime charges.
“We thank law enforcement authorities for their swift action in this case,” said Maksut. “The residents of Highland Park have demonstrated clearly that they will not tolerate anti-Muslim bigotry and hate in their community.”
CAIR received its highest ever number of civil rights complaints in 2021, including 104 complaints of incidents against Muslims in New Jersey, as reported by North Jersey News.
“This is an alarming sign that Islamophobia is persistent and systemic in society and government policy,” said Nihad Awad, the council’s executive director, to North Jersey News.
“While we recognize that we’ve made progress as a society in terms of addressing social injustices, our report shows that Islamophobia continues to pose the biggest threat American Muslims are facing.”
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