On July 1, 2013 Jeff Olson was acquitted of 13 counts of vandalism charges that could have cost him $13,000 in fines and up to 13 years in jail. The vandalism in question concerned drawings made in chalk on the sidewalks in front of three San Diego Bank of America branches. The messages were not lewd or vulgar; rather, they echoed a growing frustration with “too-big-to-fail” banking industry.
The following are some points I took away from this trial and recent chalking activities: Superior Court Judge Howard Shore prohibited Olsen’s attorney from mentioning “the First Amendment, free speech, free expression, public forum, expressive conduct, or political speech” during the trial. Apparently, the First Amendment is not a defense against vandalism. A 2000 California Court of Appeals ruling that found that vandalism by graffiti “does not require an element of permanence”, making even passive or ephemeral visual protest activities, such as chalking and yarn bombing, “graffiti” in the eyes of the law.
In the wake of the Olsen trial, NPR created a poll that asked “Does this prosecution for writing protest messages on a sidewalk sound … … justified? … not justified?” Of the 36,806 people polled nearly 95% felt the prosecution was not justified. A Mother Jones’ report identified over 50 people in 17 American cities have been arrested in connection with chalk drawing over the last five years. The list not only includes the obvious political activists but young children whose sidewalk chalk drawings were felt by local law enforcement to be a “gateway” activity to more serious graffiti. . .
This is all a far cry from the proto-punk cultural terrorism of the Situationist International, mid-20th century radicals whose tactics, content, and imagery were far more difficult for the general public to swallow. (Read: That NPR poll would have been substantially less charitable to the SI’s cultural protests.) Just watch the video embedded above: How can you not like Alex Shaefer, art teacher and activist-chalked? With a well manicured beard and a button-down short sleeve dress shirt, Shaefer is all sincerity when he says, “chalking is a perfect form of civil disobedience that is non-violent, non-destructive, and a way for people to begin to let their thoughts out, so that, once again, we can get a nice, good righteous wave of protest.”
All comments to this post are welcome. I am especially interested in those that can add some substance to the productive and generative aspects of non-destructive protest materials, such as chalk or yarn. Is there a tactical advantage to their use? To their public appeal? How do such materials stand in relation to high tech (wikileaks) forms of protest, as well as historical forms of protest (such as the SI) that were far more alienating to the public-at-large?