SWANTON VILLAGE — On Friday morning, Swanton’s art walls – already the center of a conversation around race and art – were found with references to the white-nationalist organization Patriot Front painted over existing works currently on the boards.
According to a statement shared by Swanton police chief Leonard “Joey” Stell over the Swanton Police Department’s social media, a member of the community who had “faced criticisms for painting over the black power fist” previously on the walls had already painted over the group’s logos by midmorning.
“He stated to me that he would paint over anything that he views as hatred,” Stell wrote.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the Patriot Front is “an image-obsessed organization” that levies patriotic images to promote white supremacy and fascist ideology, often through anonymous postings and propaganda.
The SPLC lists the Patriot Front, a spinoff of a larger neo-Nazi organization, as one of two hate groups active in Vermont.
Swanton’s art walls, maintained by the Swanton Arts Council, had recently become the centerpiece of a conversation around race and art after several local artists painted clenched fists on the walls as a display of solidarity with national protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.
While some community members supported the works and used them as a means to begin a conversation around race in Swanton, others criticized the murals as offensive, due to the clenched fist’s perceived relationship with the controversial Black Panther Party from the 1960s.
In a follow-up message with the Messenger, Stell said the department would not be investigating the paintings referencing the Patriot Front as a vandalism complaint due to the Swanton Arts Council’s policies of allowing anyone to paint over existing art on the murals.
Stell also said the police department “was not aware of the Patriot Front having a group in the Swanton area.”
“What we do know is that groups like this want media attention and the fact the art boards have been getting a lot of media attention over the last week,” Stell wrote to the Messenger. “That could have attracted persons from other areas to come to our community to tag the boards.”
Still, in his message over the police department’s social media, Stell appeared to strongly condemn the Patriot Front’s logo appearing on Swanton’s art walls.
“We have no place for this level of hatred in our Town,” Stell wrote. “With the ongoing unrest in this country around racial inequity and the loss of so many jobs because of COVID-19, we must unite to forge a path forward.”
The board’s contents were also widely condemned by Swanton residents over social media and, in a follow-up social media post from the Swanton Arts Council, the council applauded those who had already had the Patriot Front’s logo repainted by Friday morning.
“Thank you to the wonderful citizens who have rushed out to paint over the hateful white supremacy symbols painted on our art walls today,” the Swanton Arts Council wrote. “Swanton should be a place where everyone feels welcome.”