The writing on the wall

A year or so ago, I said that it was time for white people to stop explaining things to black people. Yes, I know, civic engagement and shared struggles and maybe the First Amendment, but stop. If you wish to discuss the race question with other white people, go ahead. But probably, after six centuries (at least) of defining the narrative, maybe white people should stop and listen.

I can say this with confidence because I know my readers are overwhelmingly white. Hello, white people! Let’s get together and eat cheese!

For instance: The lame response to “Black Lives Matter” by lots of white people — “hey, all lives matter.” Well, of course they do. That’s not what the slogan means at all. More like: “There are places in this country where black lives don’t matter. You are living in one of those places.”


Consider the coverage of the recent BLM protest on the Bay Bridge. We got lots of data about details of the skirmish — how the demonstration was planned, what the cops did, what one protester said, what jail they were taken to, what the sentencing process is likely to involve.  And once that underbrush was cleared, it was on to the real story: the inconvenienced commuters.

This woman says she doesn’t mind because the cause is worthy. That man says he minds very much and asks: What if there were sick people caught in the jam? A third person doesn’t mind demonstrations (“hell, I marched against the war”) but wonders why must traffic be halted. “We need to get on with the business of living.”

Within 12 hours, that’s all the media was talking about: Traffic-disrupting protests: Justified by social justice concerns, or counterproductive? Perhaps these protesters should work within the system. After all, here in the Bay Area, we are inclusive. We haven’t experienced police violence personally, but we are deeply sympathetic to those who have. Come work with us, and together we will build a new world. As Dr. King said…

Oh, stop it. Black people have been trying to work within the system for 150 years. They’ve become doctors and judges and legislators and business moguls. Some of the superstructure of oppression has been torn down. But still: Percentage of blacks in poverty: 27.4 per cent; whites 8.8 per cent. White people will, on average, live four years longer than black people. Here’s a good one: Five times as many whites are using drugs as African- Americans, yet African-Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites.


So how’s that working within the system thing going? How’s the integration boogie going? Maybe something needs to change. Maybe we need to get their attention. What keeps the megalopolis going? Transportation! Let’s fuck up the transportation system and see what happens.

The people in Black Lives Matter are not stupid. (That’s an unspoken assumption in too much coverage.) They know that there will be blowback from disrupting traffic. They’re willing to take that chance, because frankly they’re out of options. They’re screwed from birth. The very system that they’re supposed to work within is heavily privileged towards white people, particularly rich white people.  Rich white people like things the way they are.

Rich white people made the rules, and they own the game. The Supreme Court recently gutted the Voting Rights Act. Does that give you some kind of clue?

So it would be real good if white people stopped giving black people tactical advice. White people should band together and await instructions. Let people who know what they’re talking about come up with a  battle plan.

You know the on-campus wars going on, pitting people who wish to ban hate speech against people who value free speech? It’s a really interesting problem. I have ideas about the problem. But it has to work itself out. There are free speech absolutists in the black community too, and they will speak up — probably quicker if we just butt out. Let the debate rage; let’s debate freely about free speech. Debate is good; turmoil is good; trying not to be the voice that drowns out others: also good.

I know it feels terrible not to have your opinions front and center. But try anyway. It’s a spiritual exercise.

So then there’s this: Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius wrote a piece celebrating first six figure fine — $217,831.64, to be precise — against a tagger. This “notorious” tagger (COZE or variants) has hit innocent walls, newspaper boxes, driveway doors, you name it. Nevius has been on the graffiti beat for some time; I’m sure he sees this as a turning point.

(A necessary disclaimer: I know Chuck Nevius. He’s a fine reporter and tireless worker and a good clubhouse guy, as they say. I have no quarrel with him. But that C.W. Nevius guy — I argued with him when I was at the paper, and it seems foolish to stop now).

Certainly, the property-owning class does not like taggers. Those who appreciate a calm, orderly city do not like scrawls on their walls. It’s ugly, yes it is. Or, to say it another way, I think it’s ugly. Other people think it’s necessary, or cool, or both. Other people think that disrupting the orderly calm of a commercial monolith might be as good idea.

So it might be useful to ask why tagging exists. I’m not talking about elaborate murals here — everybody loves those, or at least they do now. I am talking about the uncharming, unwhimsical statements of identity that you’ll find on freeway overpasses, bridge abutments and park benches.  The things that say: I’m me, and I’m here.

There are two kinds of tagging. One is gang-related. Deep in the inner city, where government has failed and the police are the enemy, gangs make and enforce the rules. Gangs provide organization for the most wretched of the poor — the strung out, the disabled, the babies having babies, and the babies themselves.

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Humans are social, and social creatures require organizations to survive. The gangs are the only organizations that work in those situations. It’s too bad there’s such a high turnover rate in the hierarchy, but it’s better than nothing. Why should this be true? That might be the real story.

Other tags are recreational, usually boys trying to impress members of their crews. That’s a boy thing. (Hispanics are more deeply into tagging even than blacks). People with multiple recreational opportunities usually don’t tag, because tagging is dangerous and illegal. There just aren’t that many white kids involved in tagging. Let us ponder why for a second.

Or just ask: How many hapless apartment dwellers have taggers kicked out of their homes? How many backroom deals have they made with polluters and high volume traders? How many students have they shot in the back? Maybe we should be saving our six-figure firepower — and our already overworked police officers — for crimes that actually, what’s the word I want, matter.

I understand that graffiti is a blight on the landscape. So are hunger, poverty, infant mortality and addiction. Let’s figure out which we hate more.


Photography by Tracy Johnston

General blog-related usefulness by Michelle Mizera

27 thoughts on “The writing on the wall

    1. When the young black man walks as slowly as humanly possible in the crosswalk, staring me in the eye as I wait for him to cross in front of me, I could respond in anger or I can try to understand that by taking his sweet time crossing the street and delaying me and the cars behind me may be, in this lopsided society of ours, the only opportunity he has to assert some power, to empower himself. Society has held him down; he responds by holding me back. It makes me think, “what can I do to make some change in this unbalance of power. That is good. And if holding up the traffic on the Bay Bridge makes some commuters stop and think about the injustice in our society, then that too is good.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I hope that being white doesn’t disqualify me from asking how disrupting the lives of a bunch of commuters will lead to more understanding. What’s the mechanism by which this will lead to a reduction in the racism in our society? I had similar questions to ask of BAMN. How do they expect what they do to lead to better conditions? What is the concrete result that we’re working for?

    Rosa Parks didn’t just decide she’d had enough one day on the way home from work. She, and the group of which she was a member, and which planned that amazing piece of agitprop that set off the Montgomery bus boycott, forced the city to give blacks equal rights in public transportation. The Selma to Montgomery marches were planned like D-Day and resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And when Dr. King went to Memphis in support of the sanitation workers, it cost him his life, but it got union protections for the strikers.

    When I read about the BLM demonstrations I can never figure out that the objective is and how the demonstration will aid in accomplishing it. Same with BAMN. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m not hearing any concrete goals, nor do I see what these particular demonstrations are intended to accomplish. If it’s simply, “we’re angry and will keep making your lives miserable until you………”, then you’d better fill in the blank.


    1. Yes, Rik, you are missing something. Perhaps it’s time to bring some introspection to your faulty analysis. You could use this paragraph for those moments of guided meditation: “The people in Black Lives Matter are not stupid. (That’s an unspoken assumption in too much coverage.) They know that there will be blowback from disrupting traffic. They’re willing to take that chance, because frankly they’re out of options. They’re screwed from birth. The very system that they’re supposed to work within is heavily privileged towards white people….” When you have come to reasonable terms with your own white privilege I think you’ll be embarrassed that you didn’t get it before.


      1. This is what I get from your post, sir.

        1) I’m missing something
        2) My analysis is faulty and i need to introspect.
        3) Black people have reasons to be unhappy and are OK with making enemies.
        4) I should be embarrassed that I don’t get it.

        Is there anything I’ve missed? Besides the fact that you have not addressed a single point that I made in a post that I took considerable time to think about, and even more to write it.

        So let me ask again. What is the mechanism by which making the lives of people – people whose approval you need if you’re going to make any social progress – miserable? How does that translate to action? What specific actions are the BLM demonstrations designed to promote?


    2. Rik, I think it’s mostly a matter of them being able to come up with any other way to make their voices heard. The whole movement is pretty unfocused — so is Occupy — but they are getting attention. Occupy did, after all, bring income equality into the national dialogue, even if as lot of their sweeping “demands” never got answered.


  2. Tagging is a trivial crime that nevertheless demonstrates that the perpetrator is a sociopath. There are a bunch like this. Monetary penalties are pointless, six-figure ones especially so. These people have a mental disease, and it’s not clear it can be cured.


  3. Well said, Jon – though Rik Elawit makes a valid point too. Spontaneity isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, though it’s not clear to me if spontaneity is actually what we see with things like the bridge protest. Just the physical logistics of stopping those cars exactly abreast of each other and rigging up the chain must have taken some considerable amount of planning. As to graffiti, I think you’re right in a way, but it’s also a fact that it makes the environment we all live in uglier than it already was – in some cases, of course, that’s an accomplishment of a sort – and that’s bad for morale.


  4. I’m reminded of how AIDS activists disrupted the opera opening in, what, the early 1990s? to similar criticism.


  5. Certainly incarceration rates are shamefully skewed against blacks, but “five times as many whites as blacks use drugs” doesn’t further the argument since there are five times as many whites as blacks. Better to say that with about the same percentage of drug users, there is ten times the incarceration rate for blacks versus whites.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It is, of course, a point worth making that blacks aren’t a bunch of addicts. It is interesting that the rates are about the same, since it suggests that addiction is perhaps nature instead of nurture and that poverty/culture/etc. is not so much a factor.


  6. As one of your white readers, I will agree with the first part and, as suggested, be quiet. On fines for bankers [substitute rich felons of your choice] instead of taggers – it’s also more likely that the rich felons can actually pay the fine, and so everybody would win. Seems we should stop fining people who can never pay. Unless the graffiti maker was a drug dealer, I don’t know where they would get 6 figures.


  7. I doubt anybody involved believes that tagger will ever be able to pay off such a huge fine — which may well dog him for the rest of his life, thus ensuring that he’ll never be able to straighten out and become a “productive member of society,” as the saying goes. If I read Nevius’ piece right, that monster fine is meant as a message to the rest of the tagging community that the gloves are now officially off, and tagging will be a much more hazardous endeavor from this point on. Maybe that message will sink in for some, but others will ignore it and suffer the consequences. I’m not sure there will be any winners here.

    Gang-tagging certainly has a purpose (to mark territory, among other things), and thus won’t stop until those gangs are gone — which probably means never. Thrill tagging — the “I’m here” boys — will doubtless continue as well, since most of those taggers are young men, a demographic not known for exhibiting good judgement. That said,very little else the city tries seems to work, so maybe it’s time for that Big Fat Fine. It may be doomed to failure, but I don’t see how levying a hopelessly large fine against a tagger will interfere with the city’s efforts to fight hunger, poverty, infant mortality or addiction.

    And how about the other victim in the Nevius column, the elderly, fixed-income woman who keeps receiving increasingly dire warnings from the city to clean the graffiti off her home, or else — with the threat that failure to comply could eventually cost her the house. But the taggers keep coming back, spray cans in hand, no matter what she does. So what about her?

    Other than putting a cop on the every street corner of the city 24/7 — a notion as unaffordable as it is unworkable — I have no solutions. And neither, it seems, does anyone else. So we levy a humongous fine against a young fool and hope for the best…


    1. It strikes me that the city is to blame for the woman’s problems. Who would kick somebody put of a house because they could not clean up someone else’s vandalism? That’s terrible, a lot worse than the tagging.

      And I agree: Big fines for tagging will not be paid, and he’ll be in default, and he won’t be able to get a job and so forth. It’s just like the barriers we put up for felons trying lead a clean life — we punish them, and then we punish them again.


      1. Regarding that fixed-income homeowner –n a way, the city is acting like the biggest, baddest gang of all: do what we say, no matter how impossible it may be, or we’ll put you out on the street.

        But what I’m really wondering is why WordPress says I wrote my earlier response at 6:31 a.m. My brain doesn’t function well enough to operate a keyboard at such an hour — I posted it last night around 9:30 p.m. Oh, the mysteries of life…


  8. So I’m not white so here goes. Sort of agree about BLM. Would have rather they had descended on Flint MI and still a little unclear on the focus of the demonstration. But kudos for well-executed non violent protest.

    Grafitti is another issue. In my working class neighborhood there are absentee landlords who don’t clean up the mess leaving it to the neighbors. The City does not clean up grafitti on private property and going through Code Compliance is useless because they don’t have the sfaff to deal with it.

    Grafitti is a major blight for less than affluent neighborhoods. Graffiti and dumping really destroy a neighborhood. No one has a right to spray paint someone’s house, car, warehouse, whatever. Taggers don’t care what they deface. Kids created a sweet mural up the street to cover graffiti and in six months it was destroyed by tagging. Not a fan of grafitti or taggers and they can never be fined enough IMHO.


    1. Not sure about that, but I never did intend to defend graffiti. I was talking about the media and the convenient things it picks to cover and have opinions about. And welcome.


  9. Thanks for the welcome. Grafitti makes some of us in the flats a little nutty. Wait until you do something on fireworks…lol


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