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Thursday, August 27, 2020

Policing Graffiti

When the police remove graffiti, it is not about beautifying the neighborhood. It is not even really about crime, either. It is about control.

It is remarkable how often the NYPD publicizes its graffiti cleanups, and troubling how disappointingly ugly the results often turn out. My first reaction is to feel like that is a petty complaint. They are volunteering their time, after all, to do something for the community, right? The thing is, what they are doing is trying to maintain their control over the neighborhood.

Graffiti is a crime and removing the traces of crime makes the neighborhood feel more safe, so the story goes. Often they will throw in the fear of gangs, too. Yet when they remove the graffiti, they often do not actually remove the traces of "crime."

Consider these photos recently tweeted by the NYPD:

Crudely covering over the tags leaves the walls with a mangy appearance. It is still "unsightly," and anybody who glances at it can plainly see that somebody's tags have been covered over. There is a two-part dynamic in these unsightly displays: it symbolically demonstrates the power of the police to remove competing claims to public space, and it preserves a sense of disorder that justifies the need for strong policing. Ugliness is a tool to produce fear, and the police use it to foster a sense of dependence on them for protection.

If there is any doubt that the effect is to exercise control, rather than to create an environment that communicates respect for the law, consider this tweet:
In both sets of photos, there were illegally parked NYPD vehicles blocking the fire hydrant and the crosswalk. What these images show is that they have little concern about the actual safety or appearance of the law. Instead, they just show that they removed a challenge to their power.

The NYPD has even gone as far as removing a legal mural when they did not like the way they were being portrayed. They called that censorship "broken windows policing," too.

So it really is not surprising that the "Blue Lives Matter" teenager who traveled across state lines to confront protesters, and murdered two of them, was out removing anti-police graffiti before he went on his killing spree.

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