What Does Vandalism Look Like?  

Vandalism can take different forms. 

Atlah’s Facebook page. 

Justice has to be blind—that’s the only intellectual frame in which I can comprehend the news that the NYPD is treating the recent vandalism of Harlem’s Atlah World Missionary Church “Jesus Would Stone The Homos” sign as a hate crime.

In case you haven’t been following this story, a quick synopsis: Back in February, Atlah’s (locally infamous) pastor, James D. Manning, broadcast this Christian message to the neighborhood: “Obama has released the homo demons on the black man. Look out black women. A white homo may take your man.” Great stuff. A few weeks later, the pastor doubled-down with “Jesus would stone homos. Stoning is still the law.” Lovely. Then, over this past weekend, a community member decided to offer a response, removing the letters of the sign and spray-painting it with the observation “God is Gay.”

I am, of course, partial to this last missive. But the method of its sharing is technically illegal, and given that the victim of the crime (resisting the urge to scare quote every other word here) is technically a church, I guess I’m glad the police are applying hate crime statutes even-handedly.

That said, can we talk for a minute about what “vandalism” actually looks like? As someone who grew up in the South, I am no stranger to the tacky plastic church sign or interstate billboard laced with a dubiously interpreted “clobber verse”—while troubling, these are at least impersonal and fairly easily ignored. Manning’s message, on the other hand, is aggressively direct. In an interview with Vocativ, the spiritual leader and former convict clarified his views on stoning:

Should we demonstrate some constraint if a person is repentive [sic], if a person is willing to leave that lifestyle? Absolutely. However, I do think that anyone who promotes that as a lifestyle and tries to make it a national and international event and create warfare upon everybody else, then the appropriate response would be to stone them back to the Stone Age, or stone them back to hell.               

Manning’s commitment to barbarism makes Jennifer Louise Lopez, a local lesbian resident, all the more impressive in her recent confrontation with the church during which she offered herself up for stoning. Her protest is perhaps more legally conscionable than the sign-hacking, but both actions are a response to the true vandalism that’s going on here—that of the wellbeing of Harlem’s LGBTQ community.

As a multiyear resident of West Harlem, I count myself among that group, and I’ll be honest, the fear that I might be attacked by Manning or one of his followers as I walk around my neighborhood has become an unwelcome part of my life. How could it not, with statements like the following being taken seriously by some faction of my neighbors?

The white homo who now lives in the community—and there are a lot of them that moved up here—they brought their restaurants, they brought some of their lifestyle, they brought their Starbucks coffee with them … and like anybody else, they prey on black men, they convert black men.

And this from a man who thinks gays are the “most intolerant of all people.” I guess Manning thinks we should be willing to tolerate direct threats on our physical safety as well as bizarre assaults on our character? No thanks. While I am compelled to hope that Atlah receives fair compensation under the law for the vandalism it has endured, I don’t think Manning and his ilk will ever be able to make up for the psychic damage their hate has inflicted on many in Harlem—a community they claim to be defending.