Person of interest identified in vandalism of Muslim Students Association’s bridge panel

The Council on American-Islamic Relations-Minnesota is urging law enforcement to investigate the incident as a hate crime.

The University of Minnesota Police Department released an image of a person of interest in the Nov. 3 defacing of the Muslim Students Association's Washington Avenue Bridge mural.

Photo courtesy of UMPD

The University of Minnesota Police Department released an image of a person of interest in the Nov. 3 defacing of the Muslim Students Association’s Washington Avenue Bridge mural.

Religious and political communities at the University of Minnesota are offering support to the school’s Muslim students, condemning two incidents from last week as hate speech.

The Muslim Students Association’s Washington Avenue Bridge panel was spray-painted with the word “ISIS” late Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. In another incident Tuesday, posters were distributed on campus alleging that Students for Justice in Palestine were linked to Hamas — a militant Palestinian group. The flyers also labeled the group as anti-Semitic.

The bridge panel vandalism was the second in the last month.

In a Thursday press release, Council on American-Islamic Relations-Minnesota (CAIR) urged local law enforcement to investigate the defacement as a hate crime. CAIR-Minnesota Executive Director Jaylani Hussein said he alerted local FBI officials to the incident.

The University of Minnesota Police Department is investigating a person of interest in the vandalism caught on cameras at 3:45 a.m. that night. UMPD released two images of a person of interest in the case on its Facebook page on Friday morning.

In a statement Thursday, the Muslim Students Association blamed the spray-painting for “twist[ing] the image and mission of MSA.”

“The vandalism that occurred and flyers posted fallaciously associated Muslims on campus with terrorism, something that should never be tolerated at an academic institution,” the statement read.

The Muslim Students Association, Al-Madinah Cultural Center and CAIR held an impromptu meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss the incident.

Muslim Students Association President Sidhra Musani said Muslim University students are distressed by the vandalism.

“[I was] shocked, hurt … a lot of distress for everyone, all the Muslims who saw it,” she said. “A lot of support came through, which we appreciate.”

The group has since painted over the panel and will re-paint their design next week with the support of other cultural and religious organizations, Musani said.

Hussein said he’s concerned for the safety of University Muslim students, calling the vandalism a well-known tactic for Islamophobes.

“By labeling the Muslim Students Association as ISIS is exactly what Islamophobes intend to do nationally and even locally,” Hussein said.

Posters labeling SJP as “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish” have been distributed across 18 campuses nationwide by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative, pro-Israel student advocacy group, founder David Horowitz said.

Horowitz said he does not know who was behind the vandalism. The center is asking the University to defund SJP.

“You have a hate group, Students for Justice in Palestine, which conducts propaganda for a terrorist organization, Hamas, [and] receives money from Hamas,” Horowitz said.

The Muslim Students Association reported the vandalism to school officials. University President Eric Kaler and Vice Provost for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Danita Brown Young sent a campus-wide email and issued statement Thursday, calling both incidents “abhorrent” and “hateful.”

In the statement, Kaler said the Office of Student Affairs and the University’s police met with students impacted by both incidents and will meet with the University’s student government to determine next steps.

“When our students are targeted and made to feel fearful, we as a community suffer,” he said in the email. “Repugnant actions like these must strengthen our resolve to ensure our campus is safe, welcoming, and respectful for all. We all must speak out against hate when we see it.”

Brown-Young condemned the Horowitz Center’s campaign.

“This repulsive action weighs heavily on us,” she said in the statement. “We must continue to find ways to discuss these issues, to find ways to come together to fight racism, hate and bias on our campus and in our communities.”

Both Kaler and Brown Young told students to use the University’s mental health resources for help.

But school officials could be doing more than distributing resources, said Multifaith Student Council President Hannah Bender.

“I’m hoping that this can be a unifying moment for everyone to come together and say that this is our campus and this kind of language is not welcome here,” she said.

The Muslim Students Association asked the University in its statement to take “tangible steps in being proactive about preventing such actions.”

Student Body President Abeer Syedah offered her support in a tweet to her followers.

“Affirming my love in these increasingly hostile times to our entire student body, including those affected by recent acts. Actions to come,” she said in the tweet.

The Muslim Students Association held its general meeting as planned Wednesday, where leaders said they plan to bring a list of recommendations to the University.

The vandalism comes after another Washington Avenue Bridge panel — a pro-Donald Trump mural with the words “Build the Wall” painted by the University’s College Republicans group — was defaced in October.

Nick Wicker contributed reporting.

This story was originally published at 3:54 p.m. on Nov. 3, but has been updated to reflect recent news developments.