Cornell police are currently investigating an incident of vandalism on the Arts Quad in which nearly 200 of 250 flags in an Cornell Amnesty International display were stolen and scattered around North Campus, as recounted in a statement by the club.
The exhibit was part of the Week of Action — which aims to raise awareness about the obstacles refugees face — and was erected on the quad Wednesday, featuring flags from Palestine, Syria, Sudan, Iraq and Somalia.
The vandalism likely took place Wednesday night, according to Christopher Hanna ’18, co-president of Amnesty International. Hanna added that most of the flags removed were from Palestine, Iraq and Syria.
“I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but the countries that were targeted were the three ‘Arab’ countries in the ‘Middle East,” he said. “[These countries] are the same ones whose residents and expatriates often bear the brunt of racist sentiment in the U.S., which leads me to believe that there is a connection between this incident and the larger atmosphere of xenophobia accompanying the refugee crisis. ”
Hanna said he believes the vandalism was motivated by a desire “to obstruct and silence political dialogue” at Cornell.
“In light of toxic anti-refugee sentiment across the country, it’s difficult not to think that Islamophobia and racism motivated the perpetrator to damage the exhibit,” Hanna said.
A similar incident occurred in Oct. 2014, when signs publicizing the Israel-Palestine conflict — placed on the Arts Quad by Students for Justice in Palestine — were repeatedly removed, according to a representative of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action.
Incidents like these “create an unsafe and hostile environment on this campus,” the COLA representative said.
Several campus organizations — including COLA, Asian Pacific Americans for Action, the Arab Student Association and the Islamic Alliance for Justice — have posted messages of solidarity on Facebook.
IAJ President Saim Chaudhary ’17 said the organizations involved in the Week of Action will use the vandalism as incentive to continue their activities “with greater conviction, motivation and intensity.”
“We cannot argue, reason or debate with a person or a group that believes in suppression of free speech, vandalism and defacement of flags of other countries,” Chaudhary said. “Those who are against [our] activities need to start looking beyond the ethnicity, faith and nationality of the refugees.”
Salma Shitia ’18, president of ASA, added that she hopes the Cornell community will remember the Amnesty International display’s original goal.
“We want nothing negative such as this theft to detract attention from the humanitarian crisis at hand, as well as the Week of Action’s effort to raise awareness and support,” Shitia said.
Amnesty International will also avoid granting the vandalism additional publicity, according to the organization’s statement.
“We want to reiterate the focus of our efforts — which is to spread awareness about the refugee crisis and to raise funds for displaced persons,” the statement said. “Now more than ever, it’s important that we #StandWithSyrianRefugees and support each other in our efforts to resolve the refugee crisis.”
Josh Girsky ’19 contributed reporting to this article.