The vandalized sign on Poors Mill Road in Waldo (Photos by Ethan Andrews)
The vandalized sign on Poors Mill Road in Waldo (Photos by Ethan Andrews)
Early last month someone spray-painted a red swastika on a hand-painted Black Lives Matter sign in front of Louisa Carl’s home on Poors Mill Road in Waldo. Carl’s two sons are biracial. She has Jewish ancestry. And then there’s the national mood.

The story of the swastika in Waldo was reported by local television and print media. The perpetrator was unknown, as was the motive, though a person can infer a lot from a swastika.

Those stories now account for about half of the results of a Google search of “Maine swastika.” The other half are from June, when a group of teenagers painted the symbol on the pavement outside Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Bangor. The perpetrators were spotted in the act, and the synagogue quickly painted over the symbol.

Carl didn’t paint over the swastika outside her home. She wanted passing cars to see what someone had done.

She did paint over some crude slash marks on the other side of the sign, covering it with a red heart. “I don’t know if there were two people here when this happened and one of them really didn’t know how to do spray paint,” she said. “But this one, whoever did this,” she said, pointing to the swastika, “I think they had done it before. Like, they knew how to quickly spray-paint a swastika.”

Carl doesn’t know who did it or what exactly was meant, but in a broad sense she chalks it up to the divisive mood of the current moment and lays some blame on the doorstep of the president.

The morning after the sign was defaced, Carl was talking with a State Police officer at her home when another car pulled into the driveway. The driver turned out to live up the road.

“He was wearing a MAGA hat, no mask, he got out of his car, and I sort of walked down to see what he wanted.”

The man said he was upset by the vandalism and offered to repaint the sign. Carl wasn’t sure what to make of it.

“It was just really weird timing because, like, literally the cop pulled in the driveway and like a minute later, this guy showed up. So that was weird. It was almost like he was trying to make a point of saying to the police, I don’t condone this.

“My interpretation was that he knew that Trump has been stirring up this kind of energy in the country, this sort of hateful energy.”

Connecting the president to a scrawled swastika in a racist context isn’t as far fetched as it once was. Donald Trump has openly encouraged White nationalism during his time as president and waved along antisemitic conspiracy theories. In his re-election campaign, he has played aggressively to the racist and nationalist leanings of the American electorate with anti-immigration rhetoric and calls for “law and order.” Perhaps most relevant to Carl, he has vilified the Black Lives Matter movement. But was the Waldo swastika a Trump swastika? That is, was it a sign of the times, or the latest dispatch from the ugly fringes of society?

For as much as Trump has brought the far-right to the table, swastikas and hate crimes in Maine may be going down. A chart included in an April memo from the Maine State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights showed a significant decline in hate crimes from 2007 to 2017 (the most recent year of available FBI data), from 72 in 2007 to 32 in 2017, decreasing more or less steadily over the 10 years. The majority of cases involved race, followed by sexual orientation, both of which declined more-or-less consistently with the overall trend.

Southern Poverty Law Center currently lists one active hate group in Maine — Patriot Front, a White nationalist hate group founded after the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia (think tiki torches). The organization lists another 10 that have been active in one form or another over the last 20 years. SPLC’s 2019 report describes White nationalism as becoming decentralized: “[A]s organizational loyalty has dwindled and the internet has become white nationalism’s organizing principle, the ideology is best understood as a loose coalition of social networks orbiting online propaganda hubs and forums.”

Carl visited her Trump supporter neighbor later to talk about the sign and explain that she wasn’t taking it down. “I didn’t want to gloss over it immediately. And he’s very much with it. So I told him, I would let him know when we were ready to paint it over. And you know, it’s possible this weekend, I might go and ask him if he wants to help us.”

She asked him why he thought someone would paint a swastika on a Black Lives Matter sign. He said he didn’t know. Recounting the talk, she wondered if that were the case.

“I don’t know. I find it very interesting that people find it so controversial. Black lives matter. Why is that threatening to White America? I don’t get it.”

Maine State Museum contacted Carl about borrowing the sign for an exhibition on recent hate crimes in Maine in coordination with Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine in Augusta.

As of August 30, the sign was still up. The swastika still visible from a great distance along the straight stretch of road from Morrill to Belfast. Carl was considering replacing it over the weekend.

“I’m pretty sure anybody who drove by it put two and two together. That’s what that was about. But at this point, I’m tired of seeing it. I want to go back to getting people to think about the basic concept of Black Lives Matter.”