DES MOINES, Iowa – The resident of a house next to a Des Moines elementary school displayed a painting of a swastika Tuesday, sparking outrage on social media and action from Des Moines Public Schools.
William Stark displayed six wooden pallets painted as various flags in front of his home. One was a “German war flag” with the swastika on it. Others included Confederate flags, a “back the blue” flag supporting law enforcement officers, an American flag and a combination U.S.-Confederate flag.
Vandalism calling the man “Nazi scum” was found Wednesday at a home.
Stark wore a hat with Confederate flags on it Tuesday when he said he hadn’t painted the flags out of prejudice. He’s not racist or a white supremacist, he said, adding that he would paint any flag if asked.
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He has sold the swastika flag, which featured the swastika in the center in front of perpendicular black bars and a red background. The buyer had dared him to display it in front of the house.
“The guy that wanted me to make him a swastika one (said), ‘Bet you won’t put that out there …’ ” Stark said.
Stark’s house shares a property line with Morris Elementary School and sits within eyesight of the school’s front entrance. A playground at the school borders the side of Stark’s home.
Spray-painted graffiti covered several pallets in Stark’s yard Wednesday afternoon. A vandal wrote “Nazi scum” on a trailer and a pickup truck, as well.
In a statement provided by spokesman Phil Roeder, the school district said it has worked with the Des Moines Police Department to ban Stark from school property because of “numerous conflicts” he and other residents at the home have had with the district.
“We should all be sickened that someone would promote the hatred espoused by Confederates and Nazis within sight of the front doors of an elementary school,” the school district’s statement read. “At Morris Elementary School, where more than 60% of the students educated are children of color, students see these symbols of hate when they arrive and leave school, or are simply on the playground.”
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Roeder said school officials “have recently notified (residents of the home) that DMPS has worked with the Des Moines Police Department to have a criminal trespass advisory issued against them. The police will be notified if they are on school property.”
Several drivers on the street slowed to look at the painted flags Tuesday afternoon. One woman watched from a doorway inside the school.
A Des Moines city spokesman said Stark was within his rights to display the flags.
“While the city may find these signs inappropriate and repugnant, particularly when displayed near an elementary school attended by students of diverse backgrounds, it must be noted that these residents have First Amendment rights protecting their freedom of speech, especially in and around their homes,” said Al Setka, communications manager for the city. “As ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court, ‘such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.’ ”
‘I don’t mean nothing by it’
The Anti Defamation League classifies both the swastika and the Confederate flag as hate symbols, saying the swastika, in particular, “has served as the most significant and notorious of hate symbols, anti-Semitism and white supremacy for most of the world outside of Asia.”
Stark blamed “society today” for the complaints over the flags. He said the swastika flag is historical because it was what the Germans painted on their airplanes during World War II. He thought it was in “better taste” than the standard Nazi flag that contains just the swastika.
When asked what he would say to a hypothetical Holocaust survivor who has concerns about the pallets, Stark said: “I’m sorry for their luck, but I don’t mean nothing by it. I don’t judge you. Only person that’s supposed to judge me is the Lord, you know what I mean? I don’t judge nobody else, don’t judge me.”
Contributing: Philip Joens, Des Moines Register
Follow reporter Austin Cannon on Twitter: @Cannon_Online
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