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
Background: 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 industries. 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 line. 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 Executive 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. Legislative
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. Judicial 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 offenders. 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 analyzed. 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 artists. 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 Universities").
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. Media 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).
Propaganda 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. Sociologists
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