Activist turning the hose on hate
Montreal’s Corey Fleischer has made it his life’s work to remove hate graffiti
MONTREAL— Corey Fleischer was driving between jobs in a truck that holds his power-washing tools and various jugs of chemicals when he spotted two swastikas and the letters ‘KKK’ spray-painted along the side of a Montreal fruit company’s delivery van.
Others in his situation might have driven on, if they had even noticed the graffiti at all. He had done just that for most of his life.
But on this day, more than two years ago, Fleischer pulled over and asked if he could remove the offensive symbols, which had appeared a few weeks earlier. The owner was reluctant and said he would do it himself — but later.
Fleischer, who is tall, thick with muscle and has a bald head, asked a few questions and learned there was a delivery planned to houses in the predominately Jewish neighbourhood of Hampstead. That is when he had heard enough.
“I took my truck and barricaded him in. I wasn’t happy. I said ‘Now you’re going nowhere,’ ” he recounted.
Fleischer explained to the driver that what he was about to do was free-of-charge. Ten minutes later, the graffiti was gone.
On Dec. 5, 2014, he posted the before-and-after pictures of the van to his Facebook and Instagram accounts. More significantly, it was one of the first times he had gone public with his growing obsession.
Before then, removing hateful graffiti was a secret hobby. Since then, however, he estimates having erased many hundreds of markings.
They have targeted gay people and racial minorities, they have denigrated Muslims and their religion. He has even removed one vandal’s declaration — in French — that “God is Dead” from the side of a historic Catholic church in the city.
But he says 90 per cent of his efforts involved the removal of swastikas and other anti-Semitic or Nazi-type graffiti from the walls, bridges, back alleys, telephone poles, delivery vans, apartment buildings and parks of Montreal.
“I’m getting up in the morning and I’m eating hate crimes for breakfast. I’m eating them for lunch. I eat hate crimes for dinner,” he said. “When I go to bed I’m dreaming about swastikas,” he said.
His profile has grown in Quebec to the point that he receives nods and handshakes when he pulls up in his white Provincial Power Washing truck, swings open the back doors and pulls out a length of blue highpressure hose that is connected to the 650-gallon water tank inside.
He has been profiled by local media, received community service awards and was even called in to brief the Montreal Police Hate Crimes unit, after it was created last spring.
Now he says he is hoping to expand what he calls his “Erasing Hate” movement to Toronto by taking in reports of hateful graffiti in Canada’s largest city and ensuring one way or another that it is removed promptly.
What drives Fleischer? He is Jewish, but not particularly religious. He pursued a women’s studies degree at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., but admits his real passion was playing varsity hockey.
But he does seem to have a singular sense of outrage when people are picked on or singled out for their faith, sexuality or skin colour.
Since leaving school, he said he had been searching for a larger purpose and it came to him the day that he spotted a swastika on a roadside cinder block. He cut out of a paying contract cleaning a driveway to go back and remove it.
“It’s a euphoric feeling. It gives you goose bumps,” he said. “The feeling that I got removing that hate crime was one I’ve been searching for my whole life.”
And like all successful brands, Fleischer’s offering fills a gap. The Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith Canada has been documenting antiSemitic incidents across Canada for decades and the Toronto police force is among those that publish yearly statistics on hate-crime activity, noting for example that 67 of the 145 crimes reported in 2016 involved vandalism and graffiti to property.
But there is often little urgency to remove the offending marks even though a number of companies offer free removal for hate graffiti. The city of Toronto has a plan stating that hate and gang-related graffiti is to be removed from city-owned property within 24 hours of a report. But private property owners are left on their own.
“It’s really a matter of him. I don’t know that many communities that have someone that’s willing to get out there and do this. I’ve seen him go as far as filling cement into a swastika that was in a sidewalk . . . He’s really a one-man show,” said Joshua Wolfe, assistant director of government relations in Quebec with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. This week, the one-man show pulled up in his truck to a path running alongside a commuter train line that connects Montreal and its northern suburb, Laval. About 100 yards along the path, there was a large concrete block that had on it two stencilled images in red paint: one, a swastika with thick, sharp, red lines; the other, the words ‘STOP ISLAM’ beneath the shape of a hand.
Fleischer applied a white-and-yellow sludge of his own special blend of chemicals to the graffiti with a paint brush. While waiting for the chemicals to take effect, the paint had already started to dissolve. A few closequarter blasts from the power washer was all it took for all of the graffiti to disappear.
All the while, Fleischer was counting how many people passed by on foot and on bicycle, hoping they would see what he was doing and be spurred to think and act in their own lives against what he said were cowardly bigots and racists leaving their messages under the cover of night.