Hate crimes are not limited to violent or physical attacks. Hateful symbols can also create pain and fear within vulnerable communities. In New York, some hate-motivated symbols can result in hate crime charges in addition to the underlying committed crime.
New York State Penal Law defines hate crimes as criminal acts that are motivated in whole or substantial part by an offender’s identification of a person, group, place, or property with a particular “race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, gender identity or expression, religion, religious practice, age, disability, or sexual orientation.”
New York law also provides that anyone who “etches, paints, draws upon or otherwise places a swastika or noose,” or “sets a cross on fire in public view” can be charged with first-degree aggravated harassment. Anyone who displays such symbols with the “intent to damage property of another person” can be charged with criminal mischief, which falls underneath New York State’s list of designated hate crimes.
The swastika has been used by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains for millennia as a symbol of well-being. However, Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler, an anti-Semitic nationalist and fascist, appropriated the swastika for the Nazi Party in Germany and designed the Nazi swastika flag in 1910. Hitler’s rise would lead to the deaths of millions of people, including the genocide of over 6 million Jews.
Hitler wrote in his autobiography: “[We see] in the swastika the mission of struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work, which as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic.” On September 15, 1935, Hitler marked the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, which included a law proclaiming the swastika flag the sole state flag of Germany, as well as a law that deprived individuals of citizenship who were not of "German or cognate blood."
Today, the swastika is widely seen as a hate symbol that promotes white supremacy and genocide. Displaying a swastika is a criminal offense punishable by New York State law, as it provokes fear and distress in Jewish and other historically targeted communities.
Learn more about the swastika as a symbol of hate:
Nooses as hate symbols are connected to the United States history of lynching. The NAACP estimates that more than 4,700 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968 in the United States, the vast majority of whom were Black. Most of these racially motivated lynchings took place in the South, where many Black men and women were dismembered, beaten to death, and strung from trees for any number of alleged minor crimes. In Turner v. Commonwealth of Virginia, the Court of Appeals of Virginia ruled that displaying a noose hanging a Black, life-size mannequin on one’s own property violated a state law criminalizing the display of a noose on public property with an intent to intimidate others. Today, displaying a noose in a public space is considered to be an anti-Black, racist hate symbol.
Crosses were burned by the Ku Klux Klan, a group identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group that advocates white nationalism, at lynchings but were also generally used to terrorize Blacks, Roman Catholics, Jews, and others groups. In Virginia v. Black, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that burning a cross with the intent to intimidate or terrorize is not protected free speech. In New York State, cross-burning is considered a hate crime.
Learn more about the noose as a symbol of hate:
Swastikas and nooses are the most common hate symbols seen in the U.S. today, but there are a number of other hate symbols.
In order to create a safe and democratic society, it is important to call out instances of anti-Semitism, racism, and all other forms of bigotry and hate, including swastikas and nooses.
The New York Police Department keeps track of such incidents so that it can identify any patterns and address illegal activity, and support those who are targeted. The City of New York can also provide individuals and communities targeted or impacted by hate with physical and mental health services or financial support.
If you see a swastika, noose, or other imagery you believe might be hateful, call 911 or your local precinct to report it. If possible, take a photograph of the symbol, noting the exact address or cross streets to help with the investigation.