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Since the finale of Steve James’ America to Me aired Oct. 28, the Chicago-area high school where the Starz docuseries was set has experienced a rash of incidents including racist graffiti and — during a Friday assembly to honor alumni — an image of a swastika sent to attendees’ phones.
The first incident happened on Friday, Nov. 2, when a message was found scrawled on a shed on the Oak Park and River Forest High School campus reading “Fuck that dancing n—er Anthony Clark. White power,” alongside two swastikas.
Clark, a special education teacher at the school, was featured in the docuseries, which followed 12 racially diverse students through the 2015-16 academic year at OPRF as a means to examine the gap in academic achievement between black and white students that has persisted for decades at the affluent school in the western Chicago suburb of Oak Park. Clark, who also founded the school’s hip-hop club, is shown in one scene dancing with students.
An outspoken community activist and founder of the Suburban Unity Alliance, Clark shared a picture of the graffiti on Facebook alongside a call to action: “While I appreciate it, I don’t need sympathy, I don’t need apologies, I don’t need for you to express your anger & shock online. I need you to understand that acts of hate like this & worse than this are part of the fabrics of even the most ‘progressive’ commUNITYs. … It’s past time that we all utilize & sacrifice whatever privilege we may have to directly attack White Supremacy.” (Full disclosure: I grew up in Oak Park and attended OPRF. I interviewed Clark in September about his activism and involvement in the project.)
Then on Monday, Nov. 5 — following a Sunday town hall hosted by The New York Times and featuring panels with America to Me filmmakers discussing the series along with school faculty and administrators — another racist and anti-Semitic message, alongside another swastika, was discovered inside a girls’ restroom: “All n—ers must die. White power. Death to blacks, Muslims. Gas the Jews.”
The school superintendent reached out to parents on Tuesday, Nov. 6, in an email that read, in part: “We want to assure you that we take any incident of hate speech or hate crime on campus with the utmost seriousness. We immediately reported these incidents to the police and launched our own investigations. We have security cameras inside and outside the building and are reviewing hours of footage to try to identify the perpetrators.” The school held an all-student assembly Tuesday, followed by a town hall meeting Wednesday, co-sponsored by Clark’s organization, to address community concerns about the graffiti.
(In another, possibly related incident, an Oak Park woman had her car spray-painted with obscenities and the words “Go Trump,” according to a Nov. 3 Facebook post.)
Then on Friday morning, during a “Tradition of Excellence” assembly honoring alumni, yet another drawing of a swastika was sent to attendees using Apple’s AirDrop feature. In another email to parents, Karin Sullivan, the school’s communications director, said the image had been sent by someone inside the auditorium. “Administration and security are aware and are in full investigation mode,” she wrote. A few hours later, Oak Park police announced that they had identified a juvenile as a person of interest in the electronic dissemination of the swastika, and hoped to question them.
Said interim chief of police LaDon Reynolds: “Students, parents and high school staff are understandably on edge given these incidents. I want to assure them and the entire community that the Oak Park Police and our network of law enforcement agencies across the region are focused on bringing such troubling incidents to an end.”
“When the first [piece of graffiti] appeared I was hoping it was somebody coming in from outside Oak Park, but it’s clear now that that’s not the case,” James — who is also an Oak Park resident — tells The Hollywood Reporter. When asked if he views the string of incidents as connected to his series, he points to the image of Clark dancing in one episode. “Yes it’s connected to the series, and it’s particularly connected to the ramped-up activism that has come out as a result of the series and has really escalated as the series has come to an end — and it’s activism that I fully support. Students of color have really become much more assertive in saying ‘it’s time for things to really change here.'”
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