The American War on Sidewalk Chalk
We’ve reported on the police arresting protestors for “vandalizing” property with sidewalk chalk in the past – mainly in California. This happened just this summer with members of Occupy LA. And in one 2009 case, 4 animal rights activists passing out leaflets and writing anti-animal cruelty slogans on the ground were actually arrested under terrorism charges!
While these charges are clearly political (chalk, after all, washes off sidewalks harmlessly) – a scary article from Mother Jones reported recently that at least 50 people have been arrested across the US in the last five years for drawing on sidewalks.
Many of these aren’t political protestors. They’re the parents of four and six-year-old children engaging in fun and harmless summer activity. One mom in Richmond, Virginia was arrested and sentenced to 50 hours of community service for letting her child draw on rocks in a local park – and reports that her daughter is now “very nervous around cops” and “very scared of chalk.”
Another mom was slapped with a $300 fine for letting her six-year-old draw on the stoop outside her Manchester, New York home. And one “family friendly” Denver HOA is trying to enforce a blanket ban on all chalk art – saying some residents have complained that it’s offensive and disturbing.
In a case outside of Philadelphia, the police explained their motives for arresting two teenage offenders by citing the “broken window theory.” The idea is that a building with a broken window or two will attract further vandalism – and possibly a break-in. It might even lead to squatters or arsonists entering the building. By harshly punishing mild acts of vandalism, the police hope to prevent more serious crimes.
Of course, that raises the question – is chalk art in a public space really vandalism? The dictionary definition of the word states that vandalism is “Action involving deliberate destruction of or damage to public or private property.” It’s hard to imagine any situation in which chalk could actually damage or destroy a building, sidewalk, or street. Even in the worst case, the chalk easily washes off with a hose or a rainstorm. It’s not in the same realm as spraypaint or a smashed-in window. Should the law treat it the same way as other acts of vandalism that cause more permanent damage?
Chalk lovers shouldn’t despair too much – while this is a troubling trend, it’s also a “crime” that’s largely going unpunished apart from a few unfortunate cases each year. Mother Jones has compiled a helpful map to let readers know if chalk art could be a problem in their area.
What do you think? Should art or slogans scribbled in chalk be considered graffiti? Or is this a case of law enforcement going too far?
Photo credit: mollypop via Flickr