An El Sobrante man built a huge swastika in his yard, irking his neighbors
Ground view: image
Ground view with Steve Johnson in front: image
Aerial view 1: image
Aerial view 2: image
Steve Johnson, a retired welder, said he wanted to get rid of his weedy front yard in El Sobrante and replace it with a nice new driveway to park his three vehicles. He said he chose a design he liked, bought about $800 worth of concrete, and lumber and started framing and pouring concrete strips and blocks.
But neighbors weren’t nearly as enamored of the design. When it began to emerge about three weeks later, and especially when Johnson painted the center black, it became obvious that it was a swastika — one of the world’s most offensive and recognized hate symbols.
While Johnson told a TV news crew it was a Tibetan symbol, he told The Chronicle he realized it was a symbol of Nazism and racial intolerance but insisted he has no such feelings or political leanings. He said he has a similar design in tile on a bathroom wall.
“I’m not against anybody,” Johnson said in an interview on his front porch. “I just thought it was a cool design.”
The swastika, about 20 feet by 20 feet, has attracted camera crews and TV helicopters to the quiet El Sobrante neighborhood that’s a blend of suburban and country.
Some neighbors on Lindell Drive have told Johnson they don’t approve, and one called a TV station. That coverage prompted even more reporting as well as luring lookie-loos and threats of possible protests.
“I don’t like it,” said Joni Arndt, 46, who’s lived across the street and down the corner for 25 years. “I’m concerned for my children. When they want to go outside, I feel like I have to be outside.”
Renee Schultz, a 52-year-old neighbor who has lived across the street from Johnson for 27 years, said she doesn’t think he’s a Nazi or a threat to anyone.
“He’s not a bad guy,” she said. “He’s harmless. I just don’t think he’s very intelligent. I don’t think he understands the depth of it. I think he just thinks it’s cool.”
Schultz, who is Jewish, told Johnson she didn’t like the swastika.
“I’ve made my opinion known,” she said, adding that she’s concerned the swastika could draw protesters, and perhaps violence, to the neighborhood.
Schultz also worries about the impact on her property value. She and her husband are considering selling their home and buying another, and their real estate agent told them they would need to disclose the neighborhood swastika as “a public nuisance” to potential buyers.
Johnson said he didn’t build the swastika — and four vertical concrete strips on the top and bottom — to get attention for himself or Nazism, or to upset his neighbors.
“I ain’t got nothing against them. I ain’t got nothing against anyone,” Johnson said. “I just want to park my cars. I’m not prejudiced. I’m not a Nazi. I didn’t do this to piss off the whole neighborhood.”
Yet, it seems he has.
On Thursday morning, one neighbor parked a car in front of his house and boomed a song with the lyrics “F— Donald Trump” for about 90 minutes.
Johnson said he didn’t anticipate the reaction to his construction project.
“Why are all these people so upset?” he asked. “That stuff happened 80 years ago.”
Were Johnson starting the project now, knowing the reaction it would engender, he would not include a swastika in the design, he said. But he said he can’t afford to rip it all out and start over.
Contra Costa sheriff’s deputies, who patrol the area, have had no complaints about the swastika, said spokesman Jimmy Lee. Officers couldn’t do anything even if they had, he said, “as no laws have been broken.”
Johnson’s display may be offensive to many, but it is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.
“As a general matter, there is no exception to the First Amendment for hate speech,” he said. “Speech that is profoundly offensive to large numbers of people is protected under the First Amendment.”