Racist graffiti case spurs spirited debate at EMU

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

When former Eastern Michigan University student Eddie Curlin was charged with painting racially charged graffiti across the campus, he said he couldn’t believe it.


The first incident he was charged with occurred in the fall of 2016, and included the red, white and blue spray-painting of “KKK” and the n-word, along with “leave” on the side of King Hall.

In another incident, on Devil’s Night, a message was painted on an outside wall of Ford Hall, near the campus monument to Martin Luther King Jr., telling blacks to go home.

Racist graffiti also was found inside a men’s restroom stall inside Sherzer Hall, near McKenny Hall.

While some on EMU’s campus suspected a white supremacist was responsible for the crimes, Curlin is black.

He recently spoke to The Detroit News by telephone from prison and insisted that he did not commit the crimes.

“I am being used as a scapegoat,” said Curlin, who is incarcerated at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility, between Lansing and Grand Rapids, for receiving stolen property. “I am a black, African-American male. ... What goal would that be for me to actually to say that about my own race? They are accusing a black man of writing racist graffiti, something that I myself have had to deal with throughout my life.”

“That makes zero sense,” added Curlin, who’s from Flint.

Curlin’s peers on campus were stunned by the charges, too. Because he is African-American, the charges have spawned a provocative conversation on EMU’s campus about race and crime.

But the person who painted the graffiti was not motivated by politics or race, EMU Police Chief Robert Heighes said.

“It was self-serving, meaning that he was looking for something in exchange,” Heighes said. He declined to elaborate.

Curlin, scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Thursday, is charged with three counts of malicious destruction of property, four counts of identity theft and one count of using computers to commit a crime stemming from vandalism.

He began serving a sentence of 11/2 years to a maximum of five in August for participating in a 2015 Kalamazoo Township home invasion. The stolen electronics, mostly gaming systems, were sold on Craigslist and from Curlin’s home, according to Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The malicious destruction of property charges against Curlin come as colleges locally and nationally grapple with hate speech on or near campus.

Besides EMU, the University of Michigan has coped with numerous racially tinged crimes in recent months, including one in which a swastika was found in a restrooom on campus, and several other incidents, including the painting of slurs directed at the Latino community on UM’s iconic rock near campus this fall and racist fliers posted on campus last year.

Across the country, incidents have been reported at Cornell University, Drake University, Cabrini University and more.

At EMU, students are mixed on Curlin being charged. Some said they are glad that the incidents have stopped, but other aren’t convinced that a black man is the one responsible.

Asia Lindsey, a Saline high school senior who’s in the early college program at EMU, said it was a shock when she learned an African-American had been charged.

“Knowing the diversity on campus, I thought it was very crazy,” said Lindsey, 17. “A lot of people were shocked and thought: ‘Why would a person do that?’ ”

Asia Lindsey, who’s in the early college program at EMU, said, ‘Why would a person do that?’ ”

Alex Buckle, a 22-year-old sophomore from Detroit who’s studying neuroscience, is among those who don’t think Curlin did it.

“It’s going against your own race,” Buckle said. “That’s why I will wait until he is proven guilty. I don’t believe he did it.”

Buckle said black men like himself are always suspect, no matter who they are.

“It’s very hard for an African-American male to go into society without being blamed,” he said. ‘Even I am suspect when I go into a store. ... That’s the type of world we live in. It’s very cruel.”

Yeliani Valdez, a 21-year-old EMU senior who grew up in California and graduated from high school in Wayland, Michigan, said she initially thought a white man was responsible for the graffiti.

When Curlin was charged, some whites on social media lashed back and said, “ha, ha, it’s not us,” Valdez said.

“A lot of people blamed self-hatred within the black community,” said Valdez, adding that happens in the Latino community, too. “Sometimes we hate ourselves and try to disassociate from our communities to try and fit in.”

But Valdez added that she doesn’t know Curlin, was disappointed when she heard he was charged and doesn’t know whether he is proud of his heritage.

“You can tell within your own community,” she said. “I can tell who is prideful in the Latino community.”

Others, however, say they wondered all along if a white person might not be the culprit.

Simon Gensterblum, a 16-year-old early college student taking classes at EMU, first considered that it might not be a white person when one of his instructors discussed the incidents in class and told students to keep an open mind.

His reaction to learning a black man had been charged with painting the graffiti?

“It seems like he might have been trying to stir things up, and get people to join a cause, like Black Lives Matter,” said Gensterblum, who attends high school in Ypsilanti. “Everyone thought it might be a white supremacist. ... It’s annoying because he is making it seem like Ypsi is a racist place, and it’s not.”

Curlin, who studied psychology and marketing at EMU before transferring to Kalamazoo Valley Community College to save on costs, disagreed. He said racism has not died down or gone away in our society.

“We’re dealing with the same things our grandparents and parents had to deal with before,” Curlin said. “The fact that someone was bold enough to actually do that and say those things on campus ... and somebody would write that means that someone still believes in those thoughts.”

He also said the EMU investigation took months and that police were under pressure to find someone to charge.

Curlin insisted there will come a time when the charges against him will be dropped.

“There is no basis to any of this being true,” he said.