Corey Fleischer volunteers most of his time to removing hateful graffiti. (photo from Corey Fleischer)
When Montrealer Corey Fleischer finished university, he was unsure of what career path to take. In the interim, to pay the rent, so to speak, he started Provincial Power Washing.
Reflecting back on those days, Fleischer said, “I hated what I was doing – washing a lot of trucks, houses, decks, residential and commercial – zero substance. I’m a person who thrives off substance.”
One day, while heading to a job, Fleischer happened to spot antisemitic graffiti out of the corner of his eye.
“I was driving downtown here, in Montreal, and I saw a swastika on a cinderblock in a very busy part of town,” he said. “I had the equipment needed to remove it, so I got out of the truck and did just that. I got back in my truck, not thinking anything of it.”
From that day on, whenever Fleischer came across such graffiti, he would stop and remove it. As well, in the evening, after returning home from work, he would grab a bite to eat, shower and go out to look for racist, antisemitic and homophobic graffiti to remove.
“I would scour the city for hate crimes – back alleys, on walls, anywhere,” said Fleischer. “I found another one (swastika) and then another one. And then I started noticing, as the graffiti-removal side of my business began growing … I realized this was a real problem around town. It became my pastime. I quit hockey and softball and everything. It’s what I spent all my time doing. It fulfilled my life.”
For the first several years, it was only Fleischer’s parents and close friends who knew what he was doing. Then, he received a call from the local B’nai Brith Canada office to confirm his address, as they wanted to include him in a community newsletter mailing. While Fleischer refused to give out his address, he told the BBC that he had pictures of 40 swastikas that he had removed over the past five years, if that was of interest.
The BBC representative, said Fleischer, “literally couldn’t understand what was coming out of my mouth. She couldn’t believe that’s how I was spending my time. So, I sent her the pictures. They sent out a blogger to come and follow me, to do a story on what I was doing.
“Lo and behold, my life at that moment completely changed. People started seeing what I was doing and wanted to get involved. It went from removing 40 to 50 hate crimes in five years … [to] a couple hundred last year alone. The increase was pretty crazy.”
Fleischer now has thousands of followers wanting to get involved, so he has many more reports coming in, asking for free hate-graffiti removal. He said he has gone from spending about 10% of his company time removing hate graffiti to 95%. And, thanks to social media, the movement Fleischer started has gone global.
“People are calling me from all over the world, trying to figure out how to remove hate crimes in their area,” said Fleischer. “And, I basically put it together and have the removal done – wherever the people are calling from – with a local company.
“For most people dealing with hate crimes, it’s not a comfortable situation. People don’t know what to do with them or how to act when they see them. I happen to thrive in uncomfortable situations. I’ll go and organize. If I can’t find a local company to remove it, I’ll contact the local government, mayors, statesman, whoever, to get it done.
“For example, there was an attack on a Jewish cemetery in New York state. Their whole cemetery was defaced with swastikas and hate symbols. And somebody called me up from the town, saying they’d seen my videos and they’d been staring at these swastikas on their cemetery for two weeks – right around Yom Kippur. So, they called me to find out what could be done.”
After Fleischer hung up the phone, he began calling power washers. As it was a small town, it was hard to find someone, so Fleischer called the mayor and the local government. Within two days, all the graffiti was gone.
“When people figure out who I am and what I’m doing, they tend to spring into action quicker than if it was another situation,” said Fleischer. “Although I started the movement, it’s not just me getting it done. It’s people in the community, that I like to call ‘my army.’ I’m just a tool that was given to these people in order to remove these hate crimes. I’m just the instrument.”
While removing the hateful graffiti is, of course, good, Fleischer pointed out that it does not deal with the root of the problem. So, he decided to collaborate with Montreal-based Overture with the Arts, a not-for-profit that provides mainly after-school art classes to high school students. One of its programs is targeted at educating students about the Holocaust through a series of spoken word workshops about Anne Frank. OWTA opted to include a talk by Fleischer in the program.
“Instead of thinking about the actual guys who are putting on the hate crime, I had to find another way to make a difference in our society and in our communities,” said Fleischer of his speaking role. “I had to think of a way to make another difference by educating our youth, our future.
“When I was growing up and was going to high school, I was never taught about the Holocaust. I was never taught about the biggest massacre, the biggest tragedy, in human history.
“Before I started this whole movement, I didn’t even fully understand…. I knew what a swastika was, I knew it was bad, but I didn’t understand everything that was going behind it.”
The first two schools at which Fleischer spoke were classroom-sized talks, but this quickly expanded into full auditoriums. Schools now flood him with requests to come and speak.
“I had two calls this morning from schools calling me, out of the blue, trying to figure out how I can come to their schools,” said Fleischer in his interview with the Jewish Independent. “The school tour is called Erasing Hate.”
Fleischer received a peace medal last year from the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) for his efforts with Erasing Hate, along with 30 Auschwitz survivors.
“To think I’m even in the same bubble with people like that, with something I started doing as a pastime, because I followed my heart, is mind-blowing. It’s really something else,” he said.
“Hopefully, we won’t, in the future, be ignoring hate crimes on the street and the future – our kids, the kids in schools – will understand that you don’t need to be silent. You can wake up, open your mouth and you can make a difference. That’s what this has turned into.”
For more information, Fleischer is on Instagram (@ErasingHate) and Facebook.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.