The mural at the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza in downtown State College was defaced on Friday with the name and logo of the same white supremacist group whose name appeared on vandalism in the borough and in Bellefonte earlier this year.
A photo posted to Twitter by a resident calling it to the borough’s attention showed the logo of the hate group Patriot Front had been spray painted over an image of King on the mural, which depicts photos from the civil rights leader’s 1965 visit to Penn State.
State College police are investigating the incident as a hate crime, which under Pennsylvania law is called ethnic intimidation, according to a statement from the department on Friday evening. They are offering a $1,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.
“I can assure the community that the SCPD is utilizing every tool available to identify and hold accountable the persons who committed this hate crime.” State College Assistant Police Chief Matt Wilson said.
A public works crew quickly worked to clean the graffiti from the mural at 131 S. Fraser St. once the borough was notified at about 2 p.m., assistant to the borough manager Douglas Shontz said. The graffiti was removed by 4 p.m.
“The State College NAACP strongly condemn acts of hate,” Lorraine Jones, the chapter’s president, said in a statement. “We are not surprised at the cowardly behaviors of those that are responsible for this act of hate. We are not intimidated or moved to stop the important work we are doing in the community. Their actions only motivate us to mobilize and build a stronger organization locally. We are grateful for those that swiftly came out to restore MLK plaza.”
The Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza was dedicated in 2017 to be an enduring tribute to King and his message, as well as a place to foster gatherings and unity.
“The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza and mural is a cherished memorial and a symbol for the State College community that Dr. King’s fight for social justice lives on in our community,” Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said. “To deface that mural is an attack on the pillars of our community, including our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Shontz, who cited a number of efforts by borough and community members to make State College a welcoming place, said the mural being targeted is upsetting.
“It’s a symbol to say that we not only respect Dr. King’s vision but we also want to keep it alive in State College,” Shontz said. “To see it placed there, speaking for myself personally, it’s just so defeating and so sad to see such a pointed attack toward something that is cherished amongst our community.”
In January, stickers bearing messages from Patriot Front, a white supremacist group that calls for American fascism and white nationalism, were found in more than 30 locations around State College. They were discovered the same week in Bellefonte, where a pride mural was defaced with the same group’s name and website. The mural was restored the next day by community members.
The group, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group, formed after breaking away from a similar organization, Vanguard America, following the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In 2019, ProPublica called Patriot Front “perhaps the most active white supremacist group in the nation.” Its organization occurs largely in private Internet communications. Its most common public-facing activities include placing stickers with messages and the group’s website around towns and college campuses. The group’s leader, Thomas Rousseau, and two others were arrested last August in Texas for placing the stickers on Parker County property.
State College Police Chief John Gardner said in January that the graffiti appeared to be “a sort of a recruitment drive,” for the group, adding that local police learned a similar incident occurred on the Penn State Altoona campus in December.
Police issued surveillance images in January to ask for the public’s help identifying two suspects they believe were involved in that incident, though no further update was provided and it is not clear if the suspects were identified.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.