City Island hate mail cartoon has origins in notorious ‘WAR’ white supremacist group

the outside of the restaurant Caliente's
A cartoon sent to City Island businesses has origins in a white supremacist group and had the wrong artist’s signature on it.
Photo Aliya Schneider

Antisemitic and racist hate mail cartoons received by multiple City Island businesses in recent weeks were attributed to the wrong artist and actually originate from an infamous white supremacist group, the Bronx Times has learned.

In late October and early this month, Caliente’s, Seafood Kingz 2, Archie’s Tap and Table and Little Frida’s Eatery, all restaurants on City Island in the east Bronx, received the same cartoon in the mail postmarked from New Jersey. The cartoon, which has the n-word on it, depicts a racist caricature of a Black man holding a gun and an antisemitic caricature of a Jewish man holding a rent hike notice and says the two demographics are “bad news.” Caliente’s and Seafood Kingz both have Black owners, while the owner of Archie’s is Jewish and the owner of Little Frida’s is Mexican.

a cartoon depicting racist and antisemitic caricatures of a Black man and Jewish man
The same racist and antisemitic cartoon was sent to various City Island businesses, with the wrong artist’s signature on it. Photo courtesy Seafood Kingz

Seafood Kingz on Nov. 10 received a second piece of mail from the Garden State with the same handwriting as the envelope containing the cartoon, this time in the form of a hand written note that scolded Seafood Kingz for its role in informing the media about the letters. The restaurant organized a press conference on Saturday to denounce the hate mail, which was attended by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“You decided to call the news,” the letter read, in part. “ … The Nazi party has resurrected. We have agents everywhere.”

Decorated with a swastika, the letter hurled expletives at the restaurant, called the owners “subhuman” and hailed Adolf Hitler.

letter sent to Seafood Kingz with a swastika on it
A second letter was sent to Seafood Kingz with the same handwriting as the addresses on the first letters. Photo courtesy Seafood Kingz

While the cartoon sent to the restaurants had Montana-based cartoonist Ben Garrison’s signature on it, the drawing is actually the years-old work of another artist called A. Wyatt Mann (“a white man”) who drew bigoted cartoons for a newspaper published by Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance (WAR) group. Metzger was a white supremacist, neo-Nazi and Klansman who died in 2020, and archived versions of the supremacist group’s website described WAR as a network of “highly motivated White Racists.” Garrison’s name was pasted on the cartoon as part of a years-ago smear campaign against him.

Mann is known for creating the “Happy Merchant” antisemitic caricature, which has been replicated countless times through antisemitic memes, as reported by Buzzfeed News in an article that revealed filmmaker Nick Bougas as the man behind the Mann pen name. Though the Jewish man depicted in the cartoon disseminated on City Island isn’t exactly the “Happy Merchant,” it mirrors the style of Mann’s many bigoted drawings.

The exact cartoon sent to City Island businesses can be found on archived versions of the WAR website’s “Racist Cartoons” page as early as October 2005 (minus the fake Garrison signature).

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Center on Extremism who has been following extremism for 28 years, confirmed the Bronx Times’ research that determined the cartoon was drawn by Mann.

“Something that makes A. Wyatt Mann’s cartoon infamous is the grotesque racist and antisemitic imagery,” Pitcavage told the Bronx Times. “There is no level of crudity that would stop him. He was willing to go as low as you could possibly get. And that’s why the worst racists and antisemites love his work. It really appeals to the worst aspects of those people’s nature.”

According to Pitcavage, the cartoon that ended up on City Island was likely first drawn for the supremacist group’s tabloid in the 1990s.

Though the WAR website in its current form no longer has a cartoons page, Mann drawings were regularly uploaded over the years, categorized by slurs for different demographic groups. At one point, the offensive images were simply sorted into three categories: Mexican Americans, Jewish Americans and African Americans, the very identities targeted on City Island.

The flyer sent to Bronx businesses can be found in different corners of the internet, with Ben Garrison’s signature pasted on it in some cases, and different elements altered in others, like the faces on the caricatures. Garrison told the Bronx Times he became the subject of a trolling campaign more than a decade ago when neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin and his followers disseminated altered versions of Garrison’s cartoons that spliced his work with Mann’s, as reported by Wired in 2017, or simply put his name on Mann’s work.

“He directed his ‘troll army’ to attack me personally and ‘make me into a Nazi,'” Garrison wrote in an email to the Bronx Times. “Soon, my name was pasted on all the cartoons Nick Bougas had drawn. Each and every cartoon I drew was vandalized and converted into racism or anti-Semitism.”

Garrison, a libertarian who describes his work as “politically incorrect” and offers a subscription service to “feel at ease with MAGA friends and family” doesn’t have a clean record when it comes to his actual drawings, with the ADL denouncing a cartoon of his as antisemitic that depicted the Rothschilds and George Soros (who have been the topic of antisemitic conspiracy theories) as puppeteers. But Garrison sued the ADL for defamation and the artist claims it was settled amicably — the ADL took down the post criticizing the drawing.

Another drawing of Garrison’s comparing Michelle Obama and Melania Trump was criticized as racist and sexist (he denies it was racist but admits it was a “cheap shot”). But still, much of the offensive work attached to his name wasn’t actually drawn by him, but rather, the infamous Mann.

Another east Bronx incident

West of City Island, an orthodox synagogue was defaced around the same time the hateful cartoons landed in islanders’ mailboxes.

On Nov. 4 — just a day after Seafood Kingz received the cartoon — the welcome sign at Bronx Jewish Center at Pelham Parkway, formerly called Young Israel of Pelham Parkway, was vandalized.

“Blacks are the real Jews!” and “Kanye is right.” was scrawled in black marker. The remarks seem to reference antisemitic sentiments expressed by basketball star Kyrie Irving and rapper Kanye West.

But the content of the graffiti wasn’t the point for Saavia Pewzner, the synagogue’s rabbi. The hate directed at the synagogue only confirmed the concerns he has always had about the congregation being a target.

a defaced sign outside a synogogue
The vandalized sign has since been cleaned. Photo courtesy Christian Amato

“The particulars don’t really matter to me, it’s more about just a general atmosphere,” he told the Bronx Times. “Antisemitism will always exist, crazies will always exist. It’s a question of how are we going to react. Are we going to get adequate protections?”

The ADL reported 2,717 antisemitic incidents in the U.S. in 2021, a higher figure than any other year since the organization began its tracking in 1979, and a 34% increase from 2020. Attacks against synogogues and Jewish centers increased 61% and incidents at K-12 schools and college campuses increased 106% and 21%, respectively, according to ADL data.

The FBI tracked a 6% increase in hate crimes overall in 2020, the highest number in more than a decade, and anti-Black hate crimes peaked at their highest since 2008, with 2,871 victims. This data comes from the federal agency’s most recently released hate crime report, which only incorporates criminal offenses, while the ADL’s data includes non-criminal instances. (For context, the FBI tracked 683 anti-Jewish crimes in 2020, a 28% decrease from 2019, while the ADL reported 2,024 antisemitic incidents in 2020, a 4% decrease from 2019.)

Hate toward both groups at times intersect, like in the case of Payton Gendron, who killed 10 people in his violent rampage of a grocery store targeting a Black neighborhood in May in Buffalo, New York. In his manifesto, he cited the white supremacist and antisemitic great replacement theory.

Pewzner sees similarities between his congregation and the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was terrorized by a shooter in 2018 who killed 11 congregants. He believes the synogogue needs more of a police presence, particularly a patrol car outside for four hours during Saturday morning services. But the 49th Precinct claimed it doesn’t have the resources to comply with his request, according to Pewzner. 

The NYPD said no arrests have been made for the sign vandalism and that the investigation is ongoing but did not comment on Pewzner’s request.

The NYPD also said its Hate Crimes Task Force is investigating multiple incidents surrounding the City Island hate mail in conjunction with state and federal agencies, and wouldn’t confirm whether there is a suspect.

Alex Pertsovsky, the Jewish owner of Archie’s Tap and Table, said he and his sous chef felt like the cartoon mailed to the restaurant wasn’t worth addressing at first, saying the hate was “so far beneath” them. But after more thought and finding out his business hadn’t been the only one targeted, he decided to file a police report with the 45th Precinct.

Pertsovsky, who said his parents immigrated to the U.S. after fleeing religious persecution in Belarus, said it was the first time he received hate mail aimed at his heritage and some of his employees, and he was surprised by it.

As was Little Frida’s Eatery co-owner Jose Hernandez-Vazquez, who is Mexican and told the Bronx Times he wasn’t sure why his family’s restaurant, which just opened in September, was targeted.

“What do these people in New Jersey have to do with our business, or how’d they find out we were here?” he said, referring to the postmark.

But amid the hate, Derell L’elie, the general manager of Seafood Kingz, told the Bronx Times the restaurant has felt support from community members, politicians and religious leaders.

“We have a right to be where we’re at,” he said. “We love serving the community no matter the race, creed or gender. We’re not going anywhere, but we’re also going to spread positive energy. We’re going to spread love, and we also want to let the public know that we are here to serve them, first and foremost.”

Though Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson honored Seafood Kingz for being the first Black-owned restaurant on City Island in February, Caliente’s and the City Island Juice Bar, now called the Hip-Hop Cafe, are both Black-owned and had already been serving food on the island.

Caliente’s and the Hip-Hop Cafe could not be reached this week.

— Camille Botello contributed to this report.

Reach Aliya Schneider at [email protected] or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes