Department of Public Safety officers responded to reports of a vendor on Trousdale Parkway selling shirts and albums with swastika symbols Wednesday afternoon.
About 50 students gathered in front of the vendor’s booth and demanded for him to leave campus, according to DPS Assistant Chief David Carlisle. The vendor had obtained the proper permits to sell at USC and agreed to leave peacefully. There were no fights and no arrests were made, Carlisle said.
“The merchandise the vendor was selling did not meet community standards, per USC guidelines for vendors,” according to a statement from the University sent in an email to the Daily Trojan.
Ilana Spiegel, a junior majoring in communication, first noticed a graphic T-shirt with the words “Friends of the Swastika” along with the symbol on her way to class. Spiegel said she confronted the vendor, Gordon McGinnis, who explained that it was a “reclaiming of the symbol.” According to Spiegel, McGinnis told her to have “tough skin” and said the swastika has deep historical roots in Asian culture.
“I’m very disappointed that this man was allowed to sell this T-shirt and these albums with swastikas on them,” Spiegel said. “I told him, ‘I’m mixed-race Chinese and Jewish,’ but I know there is no way to erase the connotations of evil, destruction and death.”
McGinnis said he curates most of the items carried in his shop. According to McGinnis, the intention of putting out the items was to educate people about the origins of the symbol.
“I didn’t set out to promote racism — my intention was to promote anti-racism,” McGinnis said. “I didn’t mean to offend so many people. As soon as the student said she was offended, I took the T-shirt down. I hate racism. I’m black and white.”
Carlisle said that despite the vendor’s intentions, DPS responded to the scene because its first priority was to keep students safe.
“In a situation like this … we are going to keep the peace, and we want to make sure that any conflicts between students and anyone else on campus are peaceful,” Carlisle said. “It is our job to enforce University policy, [and] in this case no enforcement action was taken. It was cooperation on behalf of both the student and the vendor.”
Claire Hill, a student studying anthropology, defended McGinnis’ business and said she did not see a problem with the shirt being sold because “it’s a free country.”
“It’s really quite disgusting that anyone would go so far out of their way to cause an issue for this man and affect his business based on something that offended them,” Hill said.
Hill also said that differences of opinion should be “celebrated” and “encouraged” on college campuses, adding that any student who felt offended by the shirt could just walk away.
“It’s really depressing that we cannot have equal representation of ideas and beliefs,” Hill said. “I might not agree with what they’re saying, but I will defend to death their right to say it.”
Zach Larkin, a senior majoring in history, said the swastika could not be reclaimed, as it still an emblem of the Neo-Nazi movement in America and Europe. According to Larkin, he and other students will refuse to defend McGinnis’ products.
“I think freedom of speech is incredibly important, if not one of the most fundamental threats to civil liberties under fire right now in our country,” Larkin said. “That’s why we need to have precise conversations to understand what those are. [The incident today] is not that form.”
Henry Levy, the prior of the majority-Jewish fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, said that this incident “hit close to home.” He said his great uncle had been in an internment camp during the Holocaust.
“A lot of our members were deeply offended by it,” Levy said. “It’s best to approach the subject with peace, just because the entire goal of eliminating the symbol itself is to create peace among everyone.”
The executive director of USC Hillel, Bailey London, also sent out a memorandum to the members of the organization regarding the incident. The memorandum said that items like the ones being sold “have no place on our campus.”
“These items are anti-Semitic and trivialize the Holocaust, an incredibly dark period in history in which more than 6 million Jews perished,” the memo said.
McGinnis typically sells records and clothing at a booth on Trousdale Parkway. He said that in order to use the space at the University, he had to pay dues and present proof of insurance. McGinnis said he also went through a process to obtain a permit from the University.
“I’m so sorry about this incident,” McGinnis said. “If I had known about the commotion this would cause, I would not have promoted it in the first place.”
Porshad Elie, Alina Abidi and Diana Kruzman contributed to this report.