'Hate has no home in Sylvan Park': As neighbors come together, some fear white supremacists are 'emboldened'

Sunday's spray painting of five Sylvan Park neighborhood homes with swastikas and hate messages is another antisemitic incident that has put the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville on edge.

Homes on Westlawn Drive and on Nebraska, Colorado and Idaho Avenues were spray painted with hate messages. The Ring camera at one of targeted homes captured the suspects when they arrived shortly before 1:30 a.m. Sunday, according to police.

Barbara Dab, editor of The Observer for the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville, said that while none of the homes targeted were owned by Jewish people, Sunday's vandalism is an escalation of recent antisemitic threats.

Dab said unlike recent incidents, where an antisemitic banner was hung from the Chestnut Street Bridge in March and antisemitic flyers were left near homes last August, Sunday's vandalism represents the next step in threatening communities in Nashville.

The banner draped over the Chestnut Street Bridge had a picture of Tennessee with a swastika and messaging that read "we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."

"It's very ugly," Dab said of Sunday's vandalism. "It's very upsetting, and frankly, the scary thing is that now it's escalating ... now they're getting emboldened. Now they're actually trespassing and vandalizing. So what comes next?"

In 2021 Patriot Front, a white nationalist group, marched in downtown Nashville. In February, the group painted a message on a retaining wall along I-65 in Brentwood. The Tennessee Department of Transportation painted over the message.

'I don't want vengeance, I want justice'

Kristin Braaksma, the homeowner whose house was vandalized in the video, has been a part of the Sylvan Park community for two decades. She lives in the home with her husband, Steve Braaksma, and their 10-year-old son, Robert Braaksma.

According to Kristin, the attack was especially unsettling to Robert, as he is old enough to understand the meanings of swastikas and their roots in antisemitism. Nonetheless, she is proud of what his response has been.

"I just respect my friends who are of a different color or of a different background so much. I can't imagine having that much hate in my heart," he said.

Together, the family is working toward moving forward. Kristin said that while the incident has left them feeling afraid, it is important to show bravery and to stand up against injustice.

"I don't want vengeance, I want justice ... We should find that balance of speaking out against hate but also praying for these people to come to know love and to recognize that there are consequences for their actions," she said.

Nashville neighborhood reaction includes sadness, anger as well as action

Jenny Komoll, president of the Sylvan Park Neighborhood Association, said what happened Sunday night garnered strong reactions including disgust, sadness and anger.

Following the incident, there was an outpouring of support for those whose homes were targeted.

Immediately, news of the incident was shared through Nextdoor, Facebook, and the Sylvan Park Neighborhood Association email list. Hundreds of supportive social media posts were shared and neighbors quickly offered to lend a helping hand with support as well as clean up efforts.

Komoll said that the turnout was amazing, although not surprising.

"We anticipate that the reaction to these ugly actions will lead to an even stronger demonstration of solidarity with neighbors, promoting an environment of neighborhood inclusion," she said.

Many of the homes which were attacked had signs or flags celebrating diversity or expressing solidarity with citizens of other countries.

Eighteen years ago, Kristin visited Kyiv, Ukraine while on a mission trip. During her trip, she spent time working with locals and fondly remembers the perseverance and hopefulness of the people of Ukraine.

Impacted by her experience and the war taking place, Kristin wanted to show her family's solidarity and decided to fly a Ukrainian flag.

Although Kristin's flag and many others were destroyed and stolen, the neighborhood has plans of replacing them and adding more.

Sylvan Park has no plans of slowing down on their demonstration of support for other communities. Plans are already underway to create "Hate has no home in Sylvan Park" yard signs.

"Our residents are proud to voice their beliefs, and they won't let these hateful actions silence community expression of love and inclusion," said Komoll.

Neighborhood on alert after hate messages

As the investigations continues, Dab said there is uncertainty with the increase in hate messages.

"But why Sylvan Park? I don't know," Dab said. "Part of it may be opportunity, because it's a more visible neighborhood ... they probably felt like they could find targets easier."

In response to Sunday's vandalism, Metro Police Chief John Drake ordered an increased police patrol for Sylvan Park.

MNPD is continuing to investigate whether the vandalism will be prosecuted with the hate crime escalator, which would carry a harsher penalty if convicted.

Kristin Mumford, a spokesperson with MNPD said crimes with hate crime escalators have increased in Nashville.

Hate crimes in Nashville

In 2021, MNPD handled five hate crimes, three were racially motivated assaults against two Black people and another was against a white person. There was one religious harassment crime and one gender-based crime involving vandalism.

Six hate crimes were investigated in 2022, Mumford said.

Two of them were religious-based and included a vandalism incident and an assault. There were three race-related incidents, two against Hispanics including assault and vandalism and one assault of a Middle Eastern person.

There was one assault on a homosexual male, according to MNPD's records.

In 2023, there is one hate crime verified to date after an investigation into intimidation of a Black-owned business.

The Jewish Federation takes complaint reports from the public and then turns them to authorities for investigation if necessary.

Between 2021 and 2022, Dab said the Jewish Federation received 111 antisemitism complaints, they included the following:

  • White supremacist propaganda: 79

  • White supremacist harassment: 12

  • Terrorist attack/plot: 1

  • Extremist murder: 1

  • White supremacist events: 11

  • Antisemitic vandalism: 7

Hate crimes are defined by the FBI as criminal offenses motivated in or whole in part by a defender's bias against race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender and gender identity.

While not all hate messages, banners and flyers are considered hate crimes, depending on who lives at the Sylvan Park neighborhood homes, Mumford said charges could escalate to hate crimes.

As antisemitism has increased, Dab said the Jewish Federation formed a community-wide security committee to discuss issues and invested $200,000 to purchase security-related hardware for every facility-based Jewish organization.

Doing more to denounce hate

Communities are speaking out against recent vandalism and hate messages.

Dab said Metro police is working with the Jewish Federation and federal agencies, but is calling for more community leaders to denounce the rise in hate messages.

Dab did say Mayor John Cooper has always been responsive when hate messages are spread throughout Nashville.

Cooper posted on social media to say Nashville stands against the hate and bigotry Sunday's incident represents.

The Human Rights Campaign condemned the recent incidents. "In Tennessee and across the country, we are facing a rising tide of hate, division, and violence fueled by racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and antisemitism," the group said in a statement.

Tequila Johnson, CEO of The Equity Alliance, said hope is escalating in the Black community to counter hate.

"But we can not let them divide us; we can not let them use fear to keep us from standing up for what we know is right and speaking truth to power even when our voices shake. Our responsibility is to fight for a better Tennessee for our children, a Tennessee where everyone can thrive, live their desired quality of life, and have equitable access to the American dream," Johnson said.

Reach reporter Craig Shoup by email at cshoup@gannett.com and on Twitter @Craig_Shoup. To support his work, sign up for a digital subscription to www.tennessean.com.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Was Sylvan Park vandalism a hate crime and what it means for Nashville