Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tough Debates Easy Targets

As I was picking my anklebiters from the world's best baby-sitter, I was greeted by a chorus of kids telling me that I was in a magazine! Ah, and as it turns out, today is the day my response to the questions "Should we get Tough on Graffiti" came out in the Costco magazine, Connection. I had no idea how the page would be framed or who was going to be arguing the 'yes' part of the question, so I was intrigued to see how it all came together.

Costco Connections (page 16).
Overall, I am happy with the outcome. There is only so much one can say in a 400 word essay. I do like that the graffiti writer is painting a peace sign!! The people at Costco in contact with me were kindly receptive to many of the ideas (I dare say 'enthusiastic'). I would be happy to talk with them again.

This debate serve as a drama, if you will, of what is 'sayable' about contemporary graffiti today in mainstream discourse. It highlights the assumptions about the problem, and provides a polarizing 'snapshot' of views. In reading over the article tonight, I noticed the difference between how opinions differ in this polarization play.

Notice how those who like graffiti do not make claims to any kind of 'knowlege' outside of their preference for how something looks. If any expertise is claimed by the "yes" side, its attributed to the genius of the writers (I was a bit weirded out with being bestowed the 'expert' label, admittedly ). The "no" side, however, attempts to make claims about the harm caused by graffiti ,and herein lies one of the largest problems of logic with arguing "yes" to the question of getting 'tough' without any evidence that it will do what you assume you want it to. 

Mayor Rouleau speak about the 'get tough' policies his community of Dorval has implemented to deal with graffiti outside of the regular 'vandalism' bylaws. Dorval policies, though, are arguably less harsh responses than what the City of Ottawa currently implements or the City of London Ontario, which has recently implemented a ban on the sale of "tools of graffiti" to minors (given that most young people have access to the internet, I suspect the only person being hurt here is... surprise: businesses!)

So what doe's "tougher" mean, anyways? 

I understand that Mayor Rouleau, as well as other municipal  governments in Canada, wish to address those who vote them into power. This power, however, should not be to assume that the squeaky wheel is always right. The "yes" side assumes that graffiti makes an area look like it is decline. Here's a stroller that went up in price once it got a little graffiti added to it. Where is the evidence for this 'feeling' of urban decline?  

Here is where municipalities can truly show powerful leadership. 
Address these feelings without turning to the law. Period.
Simply put: creating unproven policy (and implied enforcement) is an expensive way to make people feel safer (and really...does it even do that? My guess would be 'no')

As I wandered around my town this weekend, I was lucky enough to see what happens when different social groups take up the same few blocks of a city.  As local writers recreated the only visible legal wall in Ottawa, the gay pride parade made its way around the same block, 90s dance music booming paraders along. The same thing seems to happen every year in Montreal as Gay Pride weekend and Under Pressure co-exist within the same neighborhood. 

There is plenty of evidence that increasing policing strategies only make the situation worse.If you were interested in what most of the research says about 'get tough' approaches to crime, you will find that it overwhelmingly finds it expensive and unhelpful. It does nothing but create larger disparities between social groups. It's popular, sure: so is Britney Spears. We can do better. 

Rightly, the Mayor knows that these are not violent acts; therefor enacting policy that encourages violence directed at writers by 'heroes' (what writers call  vigilantes who try to take the law into their own hands) defies logic. I know of one writer who was threatened at the legal graffiti wall by such a hero. Not good.

 There is an ugly underbelly to "getting tougher" that most people would find unreasonable.

"Graffiti writers" tend to be easy targets in these days of "Tough on Crime" agendas. There is something more here worth considering, if one was only willing to look past all the assumptions. Municipalities bear this obligation to consider more than most. 

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