The War on Graffiti is a War on The New Class

An Analysis of the Strategy and Tactics of the War on Graffiti in Philadelphia
By Zener and Praez of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union

October 1998 -Draft- I


There have been fundamental changes taking place in the economy in recent
years. Changes in the production process (how things are made) are changing
the social order (how we relate to each other). Since the 70's, new
technologies such as robotics and computers have led to vastly increased
productivity (meaning they can produce more stuff with less work). This
enormous productivity could mean that we could all work less, and still have
everything we need. Instead, the profits from this increased productivity are
going directly to the owners of these companies, while more and more of us
forced out of work, sometimes permanently. Every MAC machine you see used to
be three bank teller jobs. Those scanners they have at the grocery store mean
that the lines move faster, so they can hire less people to work the
registers. This is happening all across the country, in many different

This has lead to the birth of a new class. Many of us have been shut out of
work by the decisions of the owners of these companies in response to the new
technologies. Instead of sharing the benefits of this new technology, some
people are getting massively enriched and others are simply being thrown out.
When we can't get work, we can't get paid to buy food, clothing and shelter.
We are forced to fight for our very survival. This is the new class.

A lot of anger and frustration has been created by these new conditions. One
example of this is the uprising in LA a few years ago. While the corporate
media portrayed it as a race war, it was really a bread riot. The items most
stolen from shops were not TVs and VCRs, but canned foods and baby diapers.
People were reacting to the conditions under which they are being forced to
live. The owning class (those who own the companies and run the government)
want to hold on to what they have. They are making billions of dollars from
these recent changes in the economy. They are afraid that the people will get
organized and demand that they share the wealth that we all have produced
fairly. So, they are instituting new means of social control to keep people in

II. Strategy

The old means of social control of the new class- the welfare state, is
eroding every day. The strategy of the owning class is to replace the welfare
state with the police state as a means of social control. The "War on
Graffiti" is a major tactic of the strategy.

The graffiti artists represent the youth of the new class who are organized
into an independent protest activity- namely, writing graffiti. The owning
class is terrified of that organization because it is organized against them
and their interests. The War on Graffiti is an attempt to destroy that
organization through building the police state.

Strategically, The War on Graffiti has two elements. The first is to build the
social and political basis for the police state. The owning class is in
hegemony. They are very clear about their agenda to build the police state.
However, numerically, they are in the minority. They need the support of the
community leaders to implement their policies effectively. One way they do
this is through public-private partnerships: partnerships between community
organizations and business. A report from the Pew Charitable Trust states this
quite clearly.

Many of the Philadelphia neighborhood-based organizations started as
advocacy groups with a strong adversarial relationship with the city and
local administration. Some groups still use those tactics. But while the
adversarial organization plays a role in community development, the more
successful groups have moved from that confrontational stance to a more
businesslike approach, building relationships with corporate leaders…
some of the original founders have remained with their organizations, but…
those leaders evolved into seeking pragmatic solutions to the problems of
their neighborhoods. As the leaders changed, so did their groups. ("A Matter
of Vision," Pew, Sept. 1988)

PhilaPride, the organization that sponsored the "Greater Philadelphia Graffiti
Vandalism Symposium" is one example. PhilaPride is a partnership between the
Greater Philadelphia First Corporation and the City of Philadelphia. The issue
of graffiti is being used to organize the community groups around the agenda
of the owning class.

The second element of the strategy of the War on Graffiti is to divert public
attention away from the issues of economics, poverty and homelessness. Why do
we have poverty and homelessness? The owning class cannot answer this
question. This is why the tactics of the Kinsington Welfare Rights Union have
been so effective- the owning class has no answer for homelessness amidst
plenty. So, the War on Graffiti diverts people's attention away from these
fundamental issues and onto an issue that the owning class does have an answer
to. Thus, the question becomes graffiti and the answer becomes a police state.
Thus, we are not talking about economics, poverty, welfare cuts, or layoffs.
Instead we are talking about weather to ban spray paint in the city or not. No
one talks about the reality of life for graffiti artists- that they have no
recreational facilities, no public spaces, very little prospects for
employment, and little access to education. Instead, they talk about how to
best put them in jail. The War on Graffiti is estimated to cost 7 billion
dollars a year nationwide. No one talks about how we could spend that money in
our own interests

III. Tactics


On May 2, 1995 Mayor Ed Rendell announced a major campaign for "zero
tolerance" of graffiti in the city.

Mayor Rendell said: "One of the worst problems facing this city… is graffiti…
While it is true that graffiti can't kill or main… graffiti is-a more
insidious Problem… It can kill morale…" (Daily News, 5/3/95)

The city now spends $3 million dollars a year on this campaign, up from $1.5
million a year ago.

The mayor has declared three zero-tolerance zones:

1. The Empowerment Zones
2. Broad Street
3. The Rec Department properties

"Zero Tolerance" means that all graffiti that goes up will come down within 24
hours. This has already been achieved in areas of other cities, including LA.

The mayor uses the power of the bully pulpit to advocate for tougher anti-
graffiti measures throughout the city.


There have been 3 major legislative reforms to the criminal code regarding
graffiti in the last year:

1. Prior to 1995, graffiti was a summary offence whose maximum penalty was 90
days and $300 in fines unless they could prove an offender did over $5,000
worth of damage to property. Unsatisfied with this, the laws were changed. A
new law called "Possessing instrument of crime" was created.

The law "Prohibits the possession of instrument of crime with intent to employ
it criminally; 'instrument of crime' is anything used for criminal purposes,
under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for lawful uses it may have"
(18 Pa C.S. 907). It is a first-degree misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 5
years or $10,000 fine. Indelible markers and cans of spray paint are now
"instruments of crime" under the law.

2. Laws that hold parents liable for damages (up to $600) from their
children's graffiti have been passed.

3. Laws that penalize property owners for not cleaning up their property have
been passed.

In addition, enforcement of existing curfew ordinances is being explored. In
Norwalk, CA, they send out a patty wagon every night to collect all the youth.
On the way to the police station, they pick up the youth's parents. Norwalk
has reported a 40% decrease in graffiti. Suspension of driver's licenses for
offenders is also being explored.

In addition to criminal laws, the "victim" of graffiti may sue for damages in
civil court. In another recent legislative reform, insurance companies can now
be victims of graffiti. This was not advocated for by the insurance companies,
but by the anti-graffiti legislators. They hope this will result in many more
lawsuits against graffiti artists and their parents.

Councilwoman Happy Fernandez, Councilman Frank DiCicco and Councilman Michael
Nutter are anti-graffiti leaders in City Council.


At the May 2, 1995 press conference which kicked off the current anti-graffiti
campaign, "District Attorney Lynne Abraham pledged to prosecute…and Municipal
Judge Seamus McCaffey vowed to sentence the culprits to community service,
including graffiti-cleanup duty" Abraham said: "We are going after all the
taggers…We have to tag the taggers." (Daily News, 5/3/95).

John Delaney, Deputy, Juvenile Division, District Attorney's Office, City of
Philadelphia says that they will "find you guilty in a fair trial" and
promises that every youth in juvenile court will be forced into a "community
service army to repaint graffiti" (6/18/96 Graffiti Symposium).

A special Graffiti Court has been instituted with two full-time graffiti
judges. "All graffiti misdemeanor cases will go to two judges who have shown
an inclination to both give tough sentences and to force graffiti vandals to
work on cleaning up not only their own mess, but that of others," Rendell said
(Inquirer, 5/23/96).

Seamus McCaffrey and William Meehan 3d are graffiti judges. An ex-cop of 20
years, McCaffrey promises to "aggressively take control of these individuals"
with "very serious penalties for repeat offenders" (6/18/96 Graffiti
Symposium). Penalties include community service in graffiti removal (ranging
from 100-300 hours) for first time offenders and jail sentences for repeat

McCaffrey has also promised "a virtual army of convicted criminals that will
be doing community cleanup" of graffiti (Inquirer 5/3/95).

McCaffrey bemoans the fact that although the maximum on the books is now 5
years, legislated sentencing guidelines make the maximum he is actually
allowed to give 2 1/2 years. They are hoping to change that soon.

Law Enforcement

Currently, the Philadelphia Police have 11 Anti-Graffiti Squads of two police
each, which they hope to expand soon with new Federal money. They are on an
aggressive campaign to arrest as many graffiti artists as possible. There is
coordination between SEPTA police, School police, and University police around
the war on graffiti.

The tactics of the Philadelphia Police Anti-Graffiti Squads include:

1. Surveillance All graffiti is recorded with photo or video records and

2. Computers Long-term computerized tracking of tags, which are indexed to
real names and photos of graffiti artists.

3. Stings Paint a wall clean and either stake it out or set up a hidden video
camera to catch graffiti artists.

4. "Bounty Hunter Programs" Offer $250 bribe for people who snitch on graffiti

When graffiti artists are arrested, they are presented with their whole
history of photo evidence of their tags, and an attempt is made to force them
to confess to the whole history of vandalism. Without a confession, the police
cannot prosecute you for more than you are actually caught for (because
someone else could have painted the same tag).

Police monitor the entire graffiti sub-culture, all of the magazines and
underground videos, as well as all graffiti discussion on the Internet. They
also employ sociologists to study the culture (see "Colleges and

Police also monitor the political content of graffiti very carefully.
Political graffiti is very rare; say police, but they are alarmed by a recent
increase in political graffiti.

Community Organizations

A new organization has been formed: "Philadelphians Against Graffiti" (PAG).
PAG's mission is to organize every neighborhood and community organization in
Philadelphia on an anti-graffiti platform. It is directed by Dan McGowen,
formerly in real estate. They are very well funded and receive support from
all of the other organizations here.

The Paint Industry

M.A.B. Paints has voluntarily removed all spray paint from its city stores.

The paint industry is worried about what they consider "product misuse", and
obviously want to do everything they can to offer solutions to the graffiti
problem other than banning spray-paint. They keep a national database of
solutions that different cities all over the country have tried and assist in
there networking with each other. They have also been involved with campaigns
to stop companies such as MTV and others from advertising with graffiti. The
paint industry and others are toying with the idea of product boycotts of
those companies who advertise with images of graffiti.

Graffiti Clean-up

The city has 8 mobile anti-graffiti squads. In addition, the graffiti court
has promised to provide an "army" of convicted youth to clean up and the
school district has pledged their students in the clean-up efforts. Community
organizations are being equipped with graffiti removal supplies. These will be
supplemented by laws forcing property owners to clean up their properties.
And, the National Guard will join the graffiti clean-up in the Empowerment
Zone this summer.


Zack Stalberg, editor, Philadelphia Daily News says that his paper is "active
in supporting anti-graffiti." Not only editorially- the Daily News is
committed to producing more personal interest stories on the horrible effects
of graffiti, as well as stories on "anti-graffiti heroes". Reporter Kevin
Hanley is very active in what Stalberg calls :covering it in the right way".
This means that graffiti is portrayed in a consistently negative light, and
care is taken not to give graffiti artists any fame or notoriety by showing
their tags in the paper. Stalberg says " I'm an editor who tends to see them
as vandals, not artists" (6/16/96 Graffiti Symposium)

The Philadelphia Inquirer also has ties with the Greater Philadelphia First
Corporation. The Inquirer and Daily News coordinate their anti-graffiti
editorials, stories, features and letters with other war-on-graffiti events in
the city, such as "zero tolerance day". The Daily News heralds zero-tolerance
day with apocalyptic rhetoric: "Graffiti bombs are bursting with increasing
frequency and intensity…The explosion threatens the city's tenuous hold on its
dignity and economic future…It is time for everyone weary of the expanding web
of spray paint to declare war" (4/25/96). In the same period prior to zero-
tolerance day, Philadelphia Inquirer devoted their Feature section to the war
on graffiti: WAKE UP PHILADELPHIA. Your city is getting bombed day and night,
is being mauled and insulted and scarred like never before, and the long-term
damage is enormous…the fate of the city is tied to weather the graffiti
writers can be controlled" (4/14/96).


The goat of the anti-graffiti propaganda is to push through these new police
state measures with as much public support as possible. This means first
convincing people that the interests of the owning class are their interests
as well. Thus, we are told that graffiti is destroying "the city"-as if the
interests of everyone living in the city are the same. Graffiti's danger to
"economic well-being" is often raised. The question is, who's economic well-
being is at stake here?

The second aspect of the anti-graffiti propaganda is to blame the poor for the
problems of the city. Graffiti is the great scapegoat of the day. We are told
that graffiti is the cause of urban decay-that graffiti causes everything
from illegal dumping to prostitution to murder. Is graffiti the cause of urban
decay, or is it a symptom? The implications of the anti-graffiti propaganda
are that the poor have caused urban decay through their apathy and self-
destructive behavior.

This scapegoating propaganda is part of a larger, nation-wide campaign by the
major media to vilify youth-particularly poor youth. Time magazine reports on
the growing teenage population as "A Teenage Time Bomb", and say that
teenagers are "temporary sociopaths" (1/15/96). The LA Times says, "More male
teenagers, more crime. Period" (5/2/96). Newsweek says that adolescents are
"wild in the streets" (8/2/92). Readers Digest says that teens everywhere are
"killer kids" (6/93). A Gallup Poll found that Americans have "a greatly
inflated view of the amount of crime committed by people under the age of 18"
with the single biggest reason being "news coverage of violent crime committed
by juveniles" (Gallup Poll Monthly, 9/94), (See "Wild in Deceit: Why "Teen
Violence" is Poverty Violence in Disguise", Extral, March/April 1996).

What is never mentioned in these stories is poverty. According to a UNICEF
report issued on 6/11/96, among the world's rich industrial nations, American
children have the highest poverty rate: "With more than one in five of it's
children below the (poverty) line. The United States easily heads the child
poverty league", the UNICEF report says. "The United States has failed to help
its poorest children. It has basically turned its back on them, which is
particularly irresponsible when you realize it's a country of such
extraordinary wealth", UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy, said in an
interview (LA Times, 6/13/96). Instead of looking at the root causes of the
problems in the city-namely, poverty, the youth are the scapegoated. This
scare campaign to vilify our nation's youth is an attempt to get people
excited to prosecute youth and welcome the increasing police state measures
against them. Some of the ways the anti-graffiti propaganda does this is to
consistently identify graffiti with gangs, drugs, and violence, as well as to
ignore the multi-racial nature of graffiti.

Colleges & Universities

Broken Windows Theory

Harvard Criminologist James Q. Wilson has produced the "Broken Windows
Theory". This theory predicts that if graffiti is tolerated in a community, it
sends a signal that the people living there do not care about their community
(because, of course, everyone should hate graffiti). If allowed, graffiti
inevitably leads to increased illegal dumping, which leads to an increase in
abandoned vehicles, which leads to prostitution which leads to burglary, etc.
etc. Thus, Harvard has legitimated the "war on graffiti" by "proving" that
graffiti is the cause of prostitution and burglary and other crime in the
community. This theory serves to justify the "war on graffiti" as a war on the
root of crime. The roots of crime are conveniently identified as community
apathy, and not grinding poverty.

Police Commissioner Richard Neil: "This kind of blight breeds criminal
activity. It makes it appear that there's apathy in the community, and
criminals feel that they can act in this apathy"(5/3/95).

"Graffiti is the number-one thing, behind crime, that's making people leave
the city", said Police Officer Kevin Hall, sending his partner Gary Gathers
into a litany: "The graffiti, comes the trash, comes the prostitution, comes
the abandoned cars, comes the exodus from the city"(Inquirer 11/18/95).

School District of Philadelphia

Judith Williams, Executive Assistant, Office of the Superintendent, School
District of Philadelphia says that "We have 207,000 students and 99.9% of them
don't do graffiti. We have a responsibility to change the thinking of those
who do. Students should be appalled and offended by graffiti" (6/18/96
Graffiti Symposium).

The School District has a two-year program to fight graffiti. The first year,
which has just ended, was meant to raise awareness of the problem of graffiti
with staff, family and students. The second year will involve changes to the
curriculum to include anti-graffiti propaganda and mandatory active anti-
graffiti student engagement (including anti-graffiti poster drives, and
students doing actual graffiti clean up).

The school has purchased surveillance cameras to catch graffiti artists in the
act. They are instituting permanent changes in the social studies curriculum
to include anti-graffiti propaganda. They are revising the school district
policies to lay out specific penalties for graffiti. They are identifying
school psychologists to work with graffiti artists who have been caught. And,
they are instituting a program whereby the school will provide its own
transportation to take students from school to jail, because the police can no
longer keep up with the demand.

The School District of Philadelphia has begun publishing its own anti-graffiti
newsletter called "Zero Tolerance" in April 1996.


Police employ sociologists to study what they call the "hip hop subculture".
They know everything. They know all the language (we had a sociologist named
Victoria Wilson from the Suffolk County Graffiti Task Force in Long Island
tell us the difference between a tag, a throw-up, and a piece, and the
difference between a toy, a cave-man, a king, and an all-city (6/18/96
Graffiti Symposium), all the forms of organization, the codes of behavior, the
clothing styles. Etc. They study and report on the motivations of graffiti
artists. All of this is reported to police so that graffiti artists may be
more efficiently caught and prosecuted.

Hey, that's it. Thanks for reading this. Please send your comments to
Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia (Box 50678, Philadelphia PA
19132 USA).