Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sun Burn, Part 2

I just settled into my seat on a packed train heading back to Ottawa. The day feels like a Tom Waits song: an invitation to the blues...and neon pinks maybe?

Its a good day to address the other main issue that the recent Ottawa Sun article brought up. Due to issues of space, I was unable to address more than one issue in the Letter to the Editor I wrote in response (unpublished as of yet).

Blog followers will be interested in knowing that The Ottawa Citizen published a similar story, but it at least acknowledged the lack of legal spaces in the city for writers to work. They unfortunately also assume that because calls to the city complaining about graffiti have increased, that this is a sign graffiti is increasing in the city. While it may indicate that more attention is being brought to the City's concerns, it does NOT indicate 'increases' in graffiti.

The Metro questioned the value of the Paint it Up murals, without providing any context what so ever. It's probably not surprising to most of us that the silly unrepresentative poll running in the Sun reflect a high level of support to 'scrap' the municipal funding to the Ottawa Police Services supported program. I am confident this terrible poll will have little impact though, but it does reflect the 'knee jerk' reactions inspired by crappy journalism.

Graffiti is the kind of issue that lends itself to be framed by newspapers as a kind of morality play.

Researchers who focus on crime and news media tell us newspapers (like the Citizen and Sun) habitually make it look like we are a society 'going to hell in a hand basket', consistently misrepresenting issues of crime and on subcultures related to 'youth'. This holds true when newspapers  portray 'public' opinion on these issues.

While they may have different explanations for "why",  the folks who have been researching this for decades are unanimous about newspaper portrayals of 'youth': its rude, skewed and full of fools.

Think of these news accounts as simplified tales about 'kinds' of people in our society (stereotypes, even). There is usually a good guy, a bad guy, and some moral issue over which the forces of good and bad will struggle over.

Rarely is real life that simple, though. And that is the problem.

The idea that news making about 'youth' is problematic, is certainly NOT Watch this clip about the Mods & Rockers in the late 1960s. The key idea to pull from this clip - for the purpose of this blog - is that if there was ANYTHING else going on in the city that day (or in the country), the first clash would not have even been reported! The media was at least in part responsible for escalating the response to the first fairly uneventful incident.

The counsellors are not quoted in ANY of these articles calling graffiti writers 'punks' or 'vandals'. The newspaper made an editorial decision to use those adjectives. Vandalism is a by-law infraction, but not all the people who do graffiti do it illegally. The distinction is important for this article.

The language of war is also prevalent. This, terminology, CAN be traced back at least in part to then Counsellor Alex Cullen. His use of the terminology did little to foster positive relations between the early graffiti subculture and the City of Ottawa: Alex Cullen announced via every media imaginable that the city was at "war with graffiti," writers from Ottawa responded with a campaign of their own. After many tedious hours of production, hundreds of stickers were affixed to numerous surfaces in the down-town core. The stickers asked "What war?" (excerpt from Barthels, 2001)
As I stated in an earlier post, the story of graffiti in Ottawa is being framed by both news papers as well as municipal policy as a war (biological warfare) on  'vandals'.

If we, as constituents, understand the issue of graffiti as 'War', it fosters a culture of support for 'Bush-style' approaches to the Enemy, who is presented as a non-citizen. This is simply not true! Many writers have 'regular' jobs in our city, they are students in university, some are younger teens too but they come from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds. Most are intelligent! Some tag illegally, but not all do.

Just because the paper presents it as a 'nonsense crime', that doesn't mean it is.

And on a final note: to call the City's response to graffiti as a 'war' trivializes the horror and atrocities of real wars. Are things so slow in this town that this issue requires such a strong response?
I always play Russian Roulette in my head
It's seventeen black and twenty-nine red
How far from the gutter; how far from the pew

(I Never Talk to Strangers, T. Waits)

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