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Orange County

Sensitivity Is Back in Fashion

Activism: Newport Harbor High students persuade Costa Mesa clothing maker to retire its Nazi-like double-S company logo.

June 24, 2002|MILTON CARRERO GALARZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eric Weller was walking out of his English class at Newport Harbor High one day when he noticed a classmate wearing a T-shirt featuring two red Ss in the form of lighting bolts.

"I was astonished," the high school junior said. "I couldn't believe that he was allowed to wear this at school."

To Weller and several friends, the letters conjured up one image: Hitler's notorious SS police.

After cruising the Internet and flipping through books and encyclopedias to research the symbol, Weller, Brandon Marshall and Weston Pohlmann decided to take on the Silver Star Casting Co., a Costa Mesa-based maker of clothing and jewelry.

They designed stickers and passed out fliers, urging classmates at the Newport Beach high school to stop wearing Silver Star shirts, a popular item with students. They met with school administrators, asking them to enforce the campus dress code which bans offensive symbols.

To their surprise, Luke Burrett, the owner of the company, agreed to dump its double-S logo and discard about $7,000 of inventory.

"We did not want to attack the company," Weller said.

"They can sell it around America if they want; we just don't want it in our school."

Burrett said that long before his company hit it big with students, it catered mostly to bikers and others with an eye for the iron cross and similar icons that appear on Silver Star gear. "I wanted it to be a tough-looking shirt and it has turned into a media circus," Burrett said.

Since the company now caters to younger customers, Burrett said it made good business sense to eliminate the lightning-bolt Ss from the Silver Star logo. However, Burrett said he is drawing the line there. He won't eliminate the iron cross, which he considers a symbol of bravery, as a design element.

Weller and his friends said that although the iron cross and the swastika had less poisonous connotations long ago, the Nazis and World War II forever changed the meaning of those symbols.

"If you're going to use a symbol, you have to use it with all of the aspects of its history," Marshall said. "You can't choose only some parts of its meaning."

Marshall said many of the students wore the shirts as of a fashion trend. But since the trio began distributing information about the symbols late in the school year, many classmates stripped stickers with the logos from their backpacks and stopped wearing the shirts to school.

The three activists said they are surprised at the attention they've drawn.

One day last week, Weller--with a cell phone pressed against his ear--walked around campus with friends, waving at other students. "You guys want to know who I was talking on the phone with?" he asked, smiling. "The Anti-Defamation League."

Their crash course in activism has had an ugly side too.

"There hasn't been one day since we started passing out fliers that we haven't been yelled at," said Weller, who continued his campaign even after Silver Star retired the logo.

Pohlmann said one day he was pushed up against a bank of lockers by a classmate who disapproved of his efforts. Weller said some students chanted "white power" when he asked for their support.

Weller, Marshall and Pohlmann say the harassment has made them cautious, yet resolved to continue their campaign.

Phil D'Agostino, a teacher and a moderator of the school's Student Political Action Committee, said he encouraged the activists to speak up, despite the reaction. "These kids are trying to make others aware about what people believe to be symbols of hate," he said. "And they deserve to be heard."

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