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?


Related Stories:

Police Attack and Arrest LA Residents for Using Chalk

Urgent! Children Must Be Allowed To Play!

FBI Arrests 4 Animal Activists for Leafleting, Protesting, Chalking on Sidewalk

Photo credit: mollypop via Flickr


Sue H
Sue H12 days ago

When did chalk become a terrorist chemical??

Barbara S.
Barbara S.5 years ago

Chalk is not vandalism; it Freedom of Expression. Kids NEED this! Stop making them criminals! The rain washes it away, and if you can't wait for that... a high-powered water washer will do the job. Get real, people!

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra6 years ago

Thank you Julie, for Sharing this!

Nicole Pauline Sedkowski
Nicole Sedkowski6 years ago

Here in Denmark the Police wouldn't dare pull something like that. They're on iffy ground with a lot of people already. If they ever did something this braindead the tabloids would be all over it and they'd at the very least have to reimburse the victims if not lose their jobs. And with that in mind I can safely say I think that's exactly what should be done in the States too.

I can't believe ANYONE would seriously be stupid enough to label chalk criminal. Those poor families especially the kids who were traumatized, I feel so sorry for them.

I'm glad I don't live there I'd be constantly uneasy after having my faith in law enforcement shattered. *shudder*

Huber F.
Huber F6 years ago

side walk talk's streak, side walk chalk, ummm, tst ch ch..

Sammadhi Sativa
Sammadhi Sativa6 years ago

The world is a quieter place when adults leave children alone to be children. Chalk, unlike being arrested as a child, leaves no lasting impression.

Julie K. McCarty
Julie McCarty6 years ago

@Elaine, you don't have kids? Kids don't stay in the lines, nor should they, that's what imagination is all about! I remember as a kid playing with chalk on the sidewalks and the only person who complained was the one crazy person on the block that no one payed any attention to because everyone knew that kids need to play! And it's just chalk! It does no harm! And people who need to control this kind of behavior, need to control everything! And when it doesn't go their way, it upsets them, and they scream even louder! This 'whole zero tolerance' policy is stupid, it doesn't allow for common sense, or for the fact that kids make mistakes because their KIDS. Not adults, their learning, exploring, playing, etc., this is how kids learn to be adults!

Mary B.
Mary B6 years ago

A public space does not entitle someone to scribble on it. A public space means we all use it and it is not for private creativity. What's so hard to understand about that?Why do so many have this backwards? The police wouldn't have to be wasting their time if people understood that 'public' means 'it's NOT YOURS. It is shared space. Private property if it belongs to you is for your personal creativity, and even then only if what you create isn't insulting or lewd, and visable to 'the public'.

Mary G.
Mary G6 years ago

Okay, lets get this straight, the "chalk art" in the park was not a crime, it was the mother's response to the police when they asked her repeatedly not to let her child draw in a nature preserve. She had been warned more then once and instead of saying okay and walking away she chose to scream obscenities at the officers IN FRONT OF HER CHILD! She acted inappropriately and was fined in response. The parent who was fined by her HOV association knew the chalk art was not allowed in front of her house, just like some associations don't allow flags, political signs etc. They signed the agreement, so they have to abide by their word. The ridiculous argument about art and free speech in both of these cases, is just not what this is about. It's about people who know the rules, but have decided they are above the rest of us and can do what they please.

Ness Watson
Inez w6 years ago

there is a graffiti artist who does the best graffiti in chalk. At night he draws around items shadows and the result in the morning looks amazing.
However, we are generally talking about kids wanting to make goal posts and hopscotch grids and the like. I say the police need to concentrate on actually trying to catch real criminals....