According to extensive reporting in the local corporate press, the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) recently apprehended two graffiti artists in the downtown area. Although the two are both only 17 years old, they are facing possible jail time and restitution after admitting to twelve different tags around the city that the allegedly resulted in thousands of dollars of damage.
The media has fully accepted the police department’s view that graffiti is a plague on the city and that the art form somehow threatens the fabric of the community. While it is often difficult to defend the specific actions of graffiti artists, some of whom occasionally chose to write on questionable targets such as the offices of non-profit organizations, the police department’s claims that graffiti threatens the community are ridiculous as the minor forms of primarily apolitical property destruction make no direct threat on the community. In response to recent arrests, Lieutenant Ralph Mason of the GRPD was quoted on WOOD TV 8 as saying that “we’ve got to send a message that Grand Rapids is not the place to do this,” and as was the case last winter when the GRPD promised a “graffiti crackdown,” the idea of “making an example” of the arrests has been widely touted by the media and the police while people interviewed on WOOD TV 8 praised increased video surveillance as a graffiti deterrent (related: map of video surveillance cameras in downtown Grand Rapids). As has historically been the case with reporting on graffiti, the media has willingly adopted the GRPD’s view that graffiti is an attack on property that is “not fair” and is costing property owners a considerable amount of money just because the artists “get a rush… putting markings on walls, damaging property,” according to Lt. Mason. Moreover, the questionable choice of tagging the buildings of local nonprofits has created a situation in which graffiti artists are able to be pit against the downtown community and thus their arrests garner considerable media coverage while more substantial issues, such as the gentrification brought on by upscale development projects, are being ignored.
Aside from highlighting the local media’s penchant for sensationalizing crime, a cursory look around the city and at the Grand Rapids Graffiti and Street Art web site show that graffiti and street art in Grand Rapids has been largely dormant over the past year. In addition, the artists’ unnecessary confessions and subsequent jail threats shows the need of all people, whether knowingly breaking the law or not, to be fully aware of their rights, particularly when arrested and being questioned by the police. According to the American Civil Liberties Union:
You have the right to remain silent and to talk to a lawyer before you talk to the police. Tell the police nothing except your name and address. Don’t give any explanations, excuses or stories. You can make your defense later, in court, based on what you and your lawyer decide is best.