By Alaina Perdon
Elm Staff Writer
Street art has no definitive origin, but began to be recognized as a means of protest and was given the negative label “vandalism” during the time of the French Revolution. From elaborate murals to Sharpie scrawlings, vandalism is widely used to give voice to systemically silenced communities.
The 21st-century street art we are accustomed to is effective as a means of political statement because it catches the eye, forcing passersby to pay attention to the subject matter. Street art can be created by anyone, giving voice to the common person and drawing attention to issues not adequately represented in mainstream media.
For these reasons, street art remains prevalent in urban spaces where gentrification is forcing minority communities from their homes. Making their messages visible is a means of reclaiming stolen communities.
“Their freeing and colorful art combats the virulent systems of oppression that white supremacy has entrenched in our society, those same systems which mark their craft as illegal under the guise of vandalism,” Journalist Caroline Choi said in a 2020 article for Harvard Political Review.
Property destruction, such as smashing store windows, is often given the same merit and gravity as street art when discussing vandalism. While both are forms of vandalism, they cannot be regarded as equivalent crimes nor means of protest.
Regardless of intention, an act such as window smashing does not convey a message in the same matter as street art. This is largely because it is often dismissed as senseless destruction, particularly in media portrayals, and may even bring negative attention to the cause the perpetrators are advocating for.
This was seen during the protests that arose in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. According to a national tracking poll by Morning Consult, 42% of registered voters agreed with the statement that “most of the current protesters are trying to incite violence or destroy property, even though some are peaceful and want to bring about meaningful social reform.”
According to Vox, there are increasing instances of protesters intervening to “stop looters and vandals whom they realize only serve to discredit their work.” It is noted that the protesters engaging in violent or destructive behavior were predominantly white.
That said, such property destruction is usually trivial in comparison to the crimes it is in protest of, such as the vandalism seen in the summer 2020 protests.
“We cannot conflate the destruction of plate-glass with the violence that is being protested,” journalist R.H. Lossin said of property damage caused during the 2020 protests.
The excessive criminalization of vandalism and protest is oppressive in and of itself and demands change in the modern political sphere.
The usually pristine campus of Washington College is not immune to politically-charged vandalism. On April 3, the College community woke to find writing in several places on campus — most notably, the word “colonizer” written on the statue of George Washington overlooking the Campus Green.
On the scale of effective means of protest, the recent WC vandalism falls between street art and property damage. While it calls attention to aspects of our school’s history that are still not adequately addressed, it does not contribute anything original or productive to this ongoing conversation.
According to the Public Safety report in the Student Government Association’s Senate minutes from April 5, the vandalism was removed by PS within a day. Thus, it did not have a lasting impact on the campus community nor catalyze a social movement.
Such vandalism is far from a heinous crime, but it is also far from an effective means of sparking change. Attention has already been drawn to the problematic history of the College. Now, concrete, sustainable actions must be taken to reconcile these facts and dismantle discriminatory structures still in place.
The WC Asterisk Initiative and increasing conversations regarding race and representation on campus are a beneficial starting point. Incorporating actively anti-racist curriculum where appropriate, addressing the financial barriers that disproportionately hinder certain students, and more stringently investigating reported incidents of bias or racially-motivated violence in our community would further the progress we are beginning to make.
While it is not up to students to solve such complex issues, those who feel compelled to act can dedicate energy to tangible, actionable means of activism to spark real change on campus.
Elm Archive Photo
Featured Photo Caption: When students feel that their voices are not being heard, they may resort to protest.