From buildings, to parks, to museums, cities have erected monuments, statues, and memorials in public spaces.
These structures vary in size; they can be as big as a building, or as small as a plaque.
They force people to interchangeably honor, celebrate, commemorate, and/or remember incidents and people who were at one point in time deemed important in the history of that place and space. But history marches on, people change, and so does the culture.
There is no universal law that suggests that public statutes and memorials must remain in perpetuity where they were erected, or exist at all. Objects placed in our public spaces can change with time, citizen preferences, economic conditions, and cultural shifts. In fact, most cities in post industrialized democracies recognize this situation. That is why there is usually a branch of government, such as a department of public works, that overseas public monuments, and sometimes there is a committee that represents different constituencies that reviews these sorts of things. The process, however, gets into trouble when it is out of sync with contemporary culture and current history.
At the center of the current controversy facing our nation and others, are statutes of racists, colonizers, individuals who led campaigns of genocide, and symbols thereof (e.g., the confederate flag).
The recent (May/June 2020) protests against the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis highlighted the pervasive racial injustice that has persisted throughout the 200 year history of the United States. This sentiment has prompted an upsurge in graffiti and street art placed on monuments, and in some cases the tearing down of controversial statutes throughout the world. The result has been copious news and social media attention and city, state, and federal governments spending lots of resources (either abating the graffiti and street art, or paying law enforcement salaries to protect the memorials).
Opposition to these statues and memorials did not start in the last three weeks. This process has been being playing out since the erection of the monuments. Opposition ebbs and flows, due to lots of factors including burn out by different political actors.
The reality of the day, however, is that we have come to a crescendo of opposition and social condemnation of the flagrant display that seems to celebrate the worst individuals and chapters in our collective history. Committees that review requests for erecting and mothballing statutes etc. and city councils (and county executives) can wait no longer. It is time for them to act, and to act fast before we recreate the storming of the bastille scenarios we have recently witnessed, where activists, bystanders, and public safety get hurt in the melees that are appearing in these contexts.
There are lots of things to love about The Wizard of OZ. One of my favorite parts is when the munchkins sing and dance to the song, “Ding Dong the witch is dead.” Just listening, watching and remembering the performance fills me with hope. I got that same feeling when I hear activists, scholars, and politicians advocating either the abolishment or defunding of police departments throughout the country. It sounds great and hopeful, but is it?
There is no question that police department budgets make up a ridiculous share of municipal and county budgets. There is undoubtedly a lot of fat to trim, and forcing people and organizations to do more with less, or in this case to do less with less, can often times lead to creative solutions. But as with most things; it isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are numerous unintended consequences that should be considered upfront. In other words, just taking money away is not the entire story. Folks need to also think about what happens to that excess funds (if any) and where do they end up?.
Many of us agree that there’s way too much reliance on the police to deal with many of society’s most intractable problems such as drug addiction, homelessness, domestic violence, among others and that bringing an armed officer, who is not trained to deal with these issues and situations they produce, may increase police violence against citizens. And I’m all for massive reforms in how communities traditionally respond to deviance, crime and people who run afoul of the law. But, we have been here before, perhaps not like this, and there have been numerous times when we tried to reform police policies and practices much in the way it is being proposed today.
So it is important to remind us of some historical lessons. Putting aside temporarily the concerns of both naysayers and experts who wonder who or what agency is going to respond to crime (if police departments were abolished completely), and how are law enforcement agencies going to be able to fight crime and pay for Department of Justice consent mandated reforms when their budgets are cut, taking funds away from the police means that this money will have to be allocated elsewhere – but who decides where?
The real problem in my mind is that once police department budgets have been reduced, as of now there are no guarantees in place that the savings to be accrued will be spent on the kinds of things that activists and other reformers want. Are our elected municipal and county executives going to channel the resources into improved counseling services for the mentally ill, or better public schools, public health services, and libraries?
In the past most municipal and county politicians were generally happy to pony up money for public safety because they did not want to appear to be soft on crime. However, now that this pressure is off, they have been given the green light to do something different. Barring the unique timing and legal constraints of each municipality and county with respect to shifting around money around in their budgets, here is what might happen when we defund the police:
To begin with, the cost savings to be incurred may be used to cover up deficits elsewhere- so this would be the first time in the history of the municipality or county where these entities no longer have to be run in deficit mode. Municipal and county politicians may decide that instead of shifting money to other needed city services, they would do the responsible thing and balance the city or county budget.
Alternatively, there may not be any money to realistically reappropriate. The current COVID-19 crisis has meant that city retail sales tax revenue has decreased, some businesses that pay taxes have gone bankrupt, and that increased tax-payer dollars have been spent on city services such as testing, fire and ambulance services, not to mention overtime expenditures for public safety responding to the protests in connection with the death of George Floyd.
Let’s say, however, that defunding leaves a real pot of money to spend. Where exactly will it be spent? Indeed, you might argue that it is now up to the police and public safety activists to insure that their elected officials allocate the money in the manner that advances the cause of racial and social justice, but this is not a given. For this to occur, activists and others must consult a city budget or spread sheet and demand that appropriate intensive process and outcome evaluations be done on these prosocial programs and services that they champion. At first glance, those wanting change might not have the tool kit to carry this to the end, although of course they can ally with folks who can.
Moreover, right now I’m confident that well-meaning (and some fly by night operators) are lining up at the doors (virtually) of countless municipal and county executives trying to convince them to fund largely non-evidence based pet projects. Some of these programs will be based on empirically tested social scientific research, while others will be chosen because of their originators best hopes and dreams.
Finally, few activists and commentators have mentioned the long and recent history of municipal corruption that has plagued the United States. Cities such as Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York, for example, have been epicenters for this kind of activity. It is also possible that the money will be spent on projects that financially benefit municipal and county executives, including their families and friends, through no bid contracts, and sham organizations.
These are sobering possibilities that must be taken into consideration alongside efforts to defund the police if meaningful change is expected.
It’s great that there is now an increased sense of purpose to reexamine how much money we spend on policing, and how it has not produced the outcomes we desire.
It’s also helpful to examine where our tax dollars go, but also to be careful of what you ask for, as you may end up getting it.
Shortly after George Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer (May 25, 2020), many graffiti and street artists responded. Tags, throw-ups, and memorial style work appeared throughout the country honoring Floyd’s memory; the legacy of black lives taken at the hands of law enforcement; and, expressing dissatisfaction with police, the criminal justice system, and the presidency of Donald Trump. Like graffiti and street art in general, much of this creative activity motivated by anger, creativity, frustration, opportunity, and sadness is illegal and unsanctioned, while other pieces were sanctioned murals.
The graffiti and street art that appeared in the United States and around the world varied in terms of its type, content, complexity, the colors used, and the surfaces in which it appeared. In other countries, not only did the protests and the graffiti and street art that accompanied it mirror many of the themes seen in the United States, but it also featured homages to individuals who died at the hands of the police under questionable circumstances.
A considerable amount of the visual communication on the streets has been murals of George Floyd; large colorful panels of his face often accompanied with his dying words “I can’t breathe” written below or on top. (Already some of these pieces have been defaced by individuals who did not like the political message undergirding these images, including counter tags with the message #whitelivesmatter).
Numerous expressions of discontent that were seen on protest signs were also replicated as graffiti and street art. These included “I can’t breathe,” or #defund the police. Acronyms such as ACAB (i.e., All Cops Are Bastards) and familiar expressions such as “Black Lives Matter” or BLM appeared to be almost everywhere.
Since it is no longer necessary to see graffiti and street art up close or via print media, on can see this activity via different social media platforms, and sometimes in real time as the writers affixed these visual communications on walls, etc. The replication effect was not simply via social media as our 24 hour cable news networks that have been covering the protests and riots have also captured the graffiti and street art as well.
Not only walls, but numerous monuments, memorials, and commemorative plaques to people and events, relics to a bygone era, have been hit with tags with the words “racists,” or “murderers” spray painted on them. (In some cases they were destroyed or even torn down).
Numerous boarded up storefronts of businesses have also provided useful canvases. In some cases, the sheer number of people on the streets provided a makeshift camouflage for the activities of the spray painters and wheat pasters, and provided them with a level of anonymity to do their work unfettered.
As the graffiti and street art laden plywood panels covering the windows of storefronts and buildings are removed, contractors and Department of Public Works employees start their power washers and the grey ghosts (i.e., anti-graffiti/street art vigilantes who paint over graffiti and street art) start doing their work, and some cities (e.g., Washington, DC) pay lip service to government sanctioned Black Lives Matter murals, it’s worth remembering that just because most graffiti and street art is ephemeral, it also has the power to raise the collective consciousness of our country.
It reminds us that we must continuously struggle for racial equality, ending police violence, and fighting for a leadership that places the will of the people before the desires of a few, the rich and the powerful.