The Stupidity Of New York’s Long, Expensive (And Ongoing) ‘War On Graffiti’

author Adam Mansbach

author Adam Mansbach

Thirty years ago—at the height of New York City’s “War on Graffiti,” and in an act of faith utterly incommensurate with the city’s public demonization of graffiti writers—a group of teenagers named SHY 147, DAZE, MIN and DURO met with MTA official Richard Ravitch, and proposed a deal. Give the writers of New York City one train line to adorn with their vibrant aerosol murals, and they would leave the rest alone. Let them paint for six months, then let the public vote on the merits of their contribution.

Ravitch suggested that if the writers wanted to contribute, he would give them all brooms, and hostilities resumed. The subway’s exteriors have been art-free since 1989, but the war has never really ended. New York City remains rigidly opposed to the very aesthetic of graffiti—even if the art in question is perfectly legal.

Today, advertisers have learned to faithfully, if flavorlessly, appropriate graffiti’s ethos of logo repetition, as anyone who has ridden the train lately can confirm. In the city that incubated the most important popular art movement of the 20th century, the message is clear: public space can be yours, if you pay for it.

Unless what you put there reminds them of graffiti, that is. I learned this last week, when I tried to buy space to advertise my new novel. The silver walls where “burners” used to blaze are now for rent; anyone willing to pay fifty thousand dollars to a company called CBS Outdoor can buy advertising “stripes” for a month. For considerably more, one can “wrap” an entire train in product messaging.

“The issue,” CBS Outdoor wrote in an email, explaining why my proposal had been rejected, “is the style of writing. The MTA wants nothing that looks like graffiti.”

rage-is-back-cover-320x220Admittedly, my book title is rendered in colorful, flowing letters, by the Brooklyn artist Blake Lethem. Admittedly, this would not have been the first time Mr. Lethem’s work had graced a train. But what exactly is the rubric by which the MTA judges a letter’s graffiti-ness? At what stylistic tipping point does a word becomes impermissible to the same entity that has approved liquor adverts depicting naked women in dog collars, and bus placards featuring rhetoric widely condemned as hate speech against Palestinians? And if the NYPD defines graffiti as “etching, painting, covering or otherwise placing a mark upon public or private property, with the intent to damage,” isn’t a graffiti-style letter kind of like a robbery-style purchase?

All this might seem trivial, except that the War on Graffiti’s tactics presaged a generation’s experience of law enforcement and personal freedom. Mayor John Lindsay first declared war in 1972, and over the next 17 years, the city would spend three hundred million dollars attempting to run graffiti-free trains—this, during a period when the subway barely functioned and the city teetered on the brink of insolvency. Clearly, there was more at stake than aesthetics.

Those stakes become clearer when one examines law enforcement’s public profiling of graffiti writers. They were described as “black, brown, or other, in that order,” and vilified as sociopaths, drug addicts, and monsters. This was a fight over public space, and we would do well to remember that at the time the fight began, teenagers were also being arrested for breakdancing in subway stations, and throwing un-permited parties in the asphalt schoolyards of the Bronx. Taken collectively, these three activities also represent the birth of hip-hop, the single most influential sub-culture created in this or any country in the last half-century.

Subway GrafAs historian Jeff Chang writes, the early 70s saw the politics of abandonment give way to the politics of containment in communities of color. The War on Graffiti is a prime example, and it midwifed today’s era of epic incarceration, quality of life offenses, zero tolerance policies, prejudicial gang databases, and three-strike laws. The War on Graffiti turned misdemeanors into felonies, community service into jail time. It put German Shepherds to work patrolling the train yards; Mayor Koch once suggested an upgrade to wolves. Today, the city prosecutes hundreds of graffiti cases each year, and maintains a dedicated Citywide Vandals Task Force. Nationally, writers have been sentenced to prison terms as long as eight years, and ordered to pay six-figure restitutions. In other words, the war rages on.

One cannot help but wonder what might have happened if New York City had agreed to the naïve, visionary truce those four teenagers offered, 30 years ago now. With a handful of scholarships and a press release, might the “graffiti plague” have been alchemized into a landmark public art program, to be adapted by other cities with the same zeal that zero tolerance has been? Could thousands of lives have been altered, hundreds of millions of dollars better spent?

We’ll never know, because the city didn’t listen to its young people then. It didn’t recognize graffiti as an outpouring of creativity and frustration, a simultaneous urge to beautify and destroy, to hide and be seen, that’s every bit as complicated as being shunted to the margins of the American dream. Kids are still writing graffiti today, beautifully and badly, in every city in the world; New Yorkers taught them how to do it, but they’ve always understood why. It’s not too late to listen to them now.

Adam Mansbach is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Go the F**k to Sleep and the novel Rage Is Back, available now from Viking.


Rise Up Hip Hop Nation: 2012: A Year of Reckoning, Awakening, or Both?

One of my favorite people to build with is Professor Tina Bell Wright of Hip Hop Congress.. Her insights and political predictions are often eerily accurate and she always leaves one with lots to think about. Her mantra; ‘They don’t care about you’ is one that she says far and wide as a reminder for folks to how this system and those in power truly feel and how we must respond.. She hasn’t penned an essay in a while, but this latest one, which is actually a series of notes she plans to use for an upcoming panel discussion on Race and the 2012 Election is a keeper. It’s not a short read, but very, very necessary.. Please take some time to read it..It’s a sobering breakdown of many of social and political forces at play leading up to November and how and why the 2012 contest matters, but not in the traditional ways we’ve come to expect Will we keep counting on an ‘uncaring’ system to save us?  Its one of the realest articles I’ve read in a while.. Major props

-Davey D-

“2012: A Year of Reckoning, Awakening, or Both? — Examining White Supremacy, Corporate Fascism and the Generational Shift Defining the Political Landscape.” 

by Professor Tina Bell Wright

As you can probably tell from the title of my paper, I have a number of topics I hope to tie together. The plan is to pull together many ideas into one big theme (which is): this election matters, but not in the way it is usually framed. I don’t think this election matters politically at all, because politics as this system is now set up tells us nothing really. At best, it reflects the will of the highest bidder, or the frame of corporate media, or the effectiveness of the latest legislative tactics to manage or suppress voting (via voter ID laws or redistricting for example). Those that actually do vote do so with great skepticism, and a large percentage don’t even participate in the process at all. While the outcome of this election will not offer very different results (in terms of governance), it will illuminate two very different trajectories for this country (culturally)…and that matters greatly. That is what I want to focus on in this paper.

The Racialization of a Nation

Self inflicted wounds may be the most difficult to heal, psychologically at least. Since its inception, the United States has lived with a self inflicted wound that has defined every aspect of this society, most importantly, the distribution and control of all economic and political resources.  The racialization of this nation (or the color line as W.E.B. DuBois called it) continues to plague this country (and the globe more broadly) and the election of the first biracial president did nothing to change that reality.

But what elections won’t address, time eventually will in one way or another. As students of history, we are able to examine the effects of time and see that while it may be hard to see and feel change in the here and now, change does happen nevertheless. Historical factors are changing right before our eyes – namely the decline of the US Empire and shifting demographics. The results will define this country’s trajectory for the foreseeable future and could foster a progressive movement of the likes we have not seen in a generation. But backlash has thwarted progressive movements before, and it will this time again if the power of narrative building and cultural strategies are not properly understood

Culture Matters

After the 2010 election when the Tea Party swept into power, published an interview w/ hip hop scholar Jeff Chang. The title of the article was “It’s Bigger than Politics, the Real Shift is Cultural”.


Jeff Chang

In this interview, Chang argued that the culture wars were back, and basically a backlash to the election of Obama.

He also stated that culture always moves before politics.  He said:”culture impacts and often precedes political change….Or put in another way, political change is the final manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred.” 

Chang argues that the right understands the importance of culture and narrative building much better than progressives in either electoral or movement politics.

He states: “Sadly most progressives—whether they work in electoral politics or movement politics—have not yet figured culture into their theory of change. Unlike the right, they have no cultural strategy…..One thing progressives need to do is to understand the importance of expressing our hopes and dreams in narratives. Progressives misunderstand culture. The right is clear about it—Beck, Brietbart, and O’Reilly were long in the creation; they are the products of a four-decade long conservative movement building initiative. We need to build up an infrastructure that includes cultural strategy. We focus on facts and figures, but stories are what move the country. Culture is where ideas are introduced, values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change. It is where the national imagination gets moved. So we need cultural strategy.”

My work on hip hop and mobilization has brought me to the same conclusion.

I teach a course titled Sociology of Media and Popular Culture: Examining Hip Hop. In it, we discuss the theoretical foundation of media studies and the importance of examining media on three levels: production “the who” (who owns/produces media), content “the what” (what we get/see in media) and context “the how” (refers to the audience interpretation of media/ how audience understands media messages). That third level of analysis explains how one message can be understood very differently depending on the audience’s interpretation of it…which is a function of the (cultural – all encompassing) lens through which they view messages.

Applying the same multi-level analysis to this panel’s topic of Race and the 2012 Election, we realize that much of modern political analysis focuses on content – the “what”: elections, policies, etc.

For those that think critically, including sociologists, moving beyond the “what” level to examine “who” is in control is critical to understanding how the status quo power structure remains so entrenched. Much of our sociological analyses focus on the producers of our social woes – the corporate elite (1%), imperialists, corporate media, fascist governments, white supremacists, racists, democrats, republicans, Obama, Romney and so on.

Social structure we call it. It can change, but not easily, and definitely not overnight.  What we have not developed as well is our third level of analysis…our third eye if you will. And as they say, context is everything.  Power brokers (producers) and their power (content) may not change overnight, but how they are perceived and received can change everything. This is where a cultural strategy must come in.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

2012 is tagged the year of great transformation…apocalyptic even.  For many, the world we know ends, and if we are lucky a new and improved one begins. If we are not so lucky, it just ends or nothing changes. Interestingly enough, the fall of the US empire was not an apocalyptic event, but instead the result of a self inflicted wound that has been years in the making. Globalization and corporate fascism have weakened the nation state and the United States has itself to thank (or blame) depending on your perspective. Multinational corporations now trump the power of many nation-states …market supremacy has replaced white supremacy as the #1 global organizing principle. Everyone is in a race to the bottom which is now within reach for even middle class Americans. The concentration of wealth is in the hands of a smaller and smaller percentage every day.

The Dawn of OccupyHegemony Ends, Fascism Begins

While fewer and fewer control the world’s resources, the world has become more open in other ways, specifically due to technology. Disney was right: It’s a small world after all. 🙂 Technology has forever changed the power to control information. Propaganda is still a viable tool via media framing, but with technology, information comes quickly and much more freely via a number of sources.  The status quo power structure will have to take more drastic means to maintain its control; hence more infractions on civil liberties, police state tactics, etc.

Power via acceptance of dominant narratives is slowly eroding…people are waking up and losing faith in so-called leadership, especially politicians.

The more people challenge the system, the more police state tactics are employed. People now know better and must be physically controlled where mental control was all that was needed before. People are being beaten more because they are fighting back more.

Instead of building our own back door in compliance of a system never for us, police are forced to guard the front door with heavy artillery (see Carter G. Woodson’s Miseducation of the Negro). While it may not feel like it, this is progress. Military power is still power – a force to reckoned with to be sure…but with military power comes constant warfare – that type of power is always in danger of a coup…or a revolution…or friendly fire..a self inflicted wound that can fester and undermine its own prowess.  Hegemonic power, on the other hand, remains emboldened as long as all believe in the system as such.  Hegemonic power is not challenged if it is accepted as legitimate and right.

Shifting Demographics – Fear of a Black/Brown/Yellow/Red Planet

Census data shows us that fewer white babies are born today than babies of color. Whether the spike in hate groups and the recent mass shootings linked to white supremacists are manifestations of “white angst” over this reality or not can be debated, but much of the cultural strategy on the right seems to be a direct reaction to the shifting demographics. Nativist movements like the tea party exploit white fear to maintain a system of white supremacy in a country getting browner everyday.

So where does all this lead us with the 2012 election around the corner? Before we look ahead, let’s first look back and see how we got here.

2008 and the Election of Obama

When studies of the 2008 election were conducted, many focused on the demographic make up of the electorate…i.e. the youth vote, the black vote, the Latino vote, etc.  Three factors definitely contributed to Obama’s election in 2008. I think only the third will be a factor in 2012.

Factor #1: George W. Bush

According to some polls, many view GW Bush as one of the worst presidents in history; his two unfounded and unfunded wars and the heist of the US treasury left the mass majority ready for a DRASTIC change. Or to use the best anecdotal evidence I can cite, when asked by a pollster who he would vote for, one man from WVA or Kentucky said “I’m voting for the nigger.”

Factor #2: History

This probably was the most important factor. Most, including me placed a vote for history. This factor brought many people to the polls that would not normally go…and to be certain, many, especially young people of color will not come out again in 2012 in the same numbers.

Factor #3: The New Cultural Majority – Demographic make up of the electorate

The youth vote, the Latino vote and the black vote definitely helped Obama win the presidency. I was listening to talk radio the other day and I heard this white man admit that he even has grown tired of rich white men running everything. The New Cultural Majority represents a generational and demographic shift of this nation. In broad terms, it is less religious, more tolerant, less homophobic, and more open to diversity. The New Cultural Majority is not necessarily political, but leans more left than right, especially on social issues. George W. Bush and History will not be factors in this election. The question remains: will the New Cultural Majority show up in 2012?

Race and the 2012 Election: Cultural Strategies

Since Obama’s election in 2008, the right has relaunched their cultural strategy. With social media, the left is able to react quicker to many of the short term battles the right has waged. As well, demographic shifts and technology make it more difficult for one narrative to take hold and be the only story people get. This bolds well for short term battles, mostly the social issues. As well, with the new cultural majority, the demographic arc bends toward justice, but with ongoing economic uncertainty (with no end in sight), people’s fears can and will be exploited. Those that build the most compelling narrative will seize the nation’s imagination.


The right’s cultural strategy involves both short term and long term objectives. The short term strategy consists of taking advantage of the 2010 gains at the local and state levels as well as tapping into white angst via nativist movements like the tea party. From it we have gotten a number of battles:1. Anti-immigration legislation, SB 1070 including even crazy talk about repealing the 14th amendment, 2. Ethnic study bans, revisionist history textbooks etc.2. Anti-gay legislation against same sex marriage etc…or even long lines at Chick Fil A to show support for “family values”3. All sorts of anti-abortion and anti-contraception legislation…probably the most targeted war on women since the women’s movement4. Anti-Muslim hysteria – Mosque protests in NY and TN, look up OC Hate video on YouTube, bans on Sharia law passed here and other nonsense5. Voter ID laws to suppress votes of students (youth vote), people of color (particularly black vote) and elderly (Medicare vote)

But given the generational shift, especially on social issues, the right has also embraced a LONG term cultural strategy…and that is best described by Ron’s Paul’s Revolution…Libertarianism…buzz words of anti-government, individual freedom, rugged individualism, free market capitalism, and privatization of all things.

This is a long tem strategy that keeps resources in the hands of few but promotes universal ideals that can transcend race, gender, sexual orientation, and age (generations).

In this LONG TERM strategy, the privatization of all publically controlled and resourced entities is promoted. Folks may not be ready to talk about privatizing Medicare, but Education is definitely the next major battlefield. Coming from California I have a first hand view of the war (see footnote; I have more to say on this but will leave to discussion and hopefully will have time). Again, privatization offers the right a way to control resources (and bodies) despite demographic changes.

Because the New Cultural Majority is younger and more progressive (socially at least), the window of opportunity to implement this long term strategy is closing quickly and they realize it. If there seems to be some fervor on the right to roll back civil rights or push through unpopular legislation, it is for a reason. Time is of the essence. But it is equally of the essence for progressives of the LEFT as well if we want to make sure our narrative is the one that takes hold.


Succinctly stated, the left cannot depend on the weakening of the nation-state and shifting demographics alone to foster progressive social change. Demographic shift or not, white supremacy can and will manifest itself for generations to come via resource distribution and control. The LONG TERM war, the end of racialization of resources and the real healing of the wound that continues to plague this country will only be healed through changing attitudes, context, narrative building and cultural work.

The SHORT TERM strategy must include a focus on local community building and promotion of sustainable cultures. Our focus should be on localization – satisfying our basic needs within the bounds of our local environment.  But we must develop a coherent LONG TERM cultural strategy as well. If we do not, and the right is able to successfully privatize education, and subsequently Medicare and social security, game over. Or as I recommend to my students, have an exit strategy in place. You will find me in Ocho Rios 🙂

So in my view, this country heads in one of two directions on November 7, 2012.


Occupy v. Ron Paul’s Revolution

Democratic Socialism v. Rugged Individualism (Libertarianism)

brother’s keeper v. survival of the fittest

Saul Alinsky v. Ayn Rand

While the future is not clear, a few things are: The next generation will be more diverse; social issues will become less relevant with this next generation and hegemonic ideals that shape today’s political landscape will continue to be challenged…in other words, the younger generation is beginning to be a cultural force in politics. Does that mean the end of racialization of all aspects of this society? the end of white supremacy and corporate fascism? Not anytime soon but given the mass rejection of the political system by both sides of the spectrum, there is room for movement politics to take hold and a clear cultural strategy is required to move the movement in a progressive direction.

While demographics seem favorable for progressive change, backlash is always a powerful counterforce. The most important question = Which narrative will dominate the national imagination? If progressives do not clearly embrace a cultural strategy, I promise you the right will swoop in and push to privatize education, and instead of hailing Saul Alinsky as the example to follow to build strong people based power, and in it a more perfect union, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all, we will be looking at Ayn Rand as the founding mother of the United States, 2.0 version…forget the union, you’re on your own, man, woman, senior, and child.

Added Footnotes.

1. Public Education: Ground Zero in Cultural War

The Privatization of Education: About Control, not Profit

In countries considered “poor”, i.e. most countries in the world, education is a luxury. In actuality, only about 7% of the global population receives a college education (college degree) and the majority of those people are in what are labeled the “developed” world (read richer nations).  Well, while education was never really treated as a right in the United States, the electorate is now being molded to accept education as a luxury that only the most affluent of the society will be able to afford (like the rest of the world). While the push toward privatization has taken on many phases (faces) over the last few years (from charter schools to anti-union measures), the next phase (face) is probably the most deceptive: student success initiatives. Budget pressures and student success task force reports provide the cover for the most dramatic changes to the public education system we will see pass through the state legislators to date. Students who are not already excellent academically or who are not economically able to afford increasing costs will be pushed out…and expeditiously. While public schools are still public, affected constituent groups (students, parents, and educators) must educate themselves on the changing laws and organize vehemently to hold THEIR public institutions accountable to the communities they serve. Education is one of the only paths of upward mobility in class based structures that define our society.  The more access to education a society’s members have, the less rigid its class system…the less access to education, the more rigid the class system. The privatization of education in a globalized system is meant to control who has access to education…the elite, and only the elite.

 Plan B: The Privatization of Prisons: About Control…and Profit

So what does a once educated country do when it stops educating a large majority of its population? Very few countries can boast a “middle class” of the sorts that once defined the United States. But with access to education disappearing, that middle class disappears also. Now what? Plan B. The prison industry has proven to be most lucrative. It should be obvious to all that middle class Americans would never be able to accept competing for slave wages in a global economy, and seeing that steep of a decline in standard of living, a forced alternative was hatched. Legal slave wages under the guise of the prison industry complex. Call it indoctrination into the global economy. Private entities can own prisons and corporations can utilize prison labor – from manufacturing products to telemarketing. Cheap labor once outsourced finds its way back to US shores. Those we are now locking out of education, can now be locked up into private prisons as bodies to fill new buildings and cheap laborers to make products.

2. Building a Sustainable Culture

In preparation for this panel, an article was sent out via ABSdiscourse listserv titled: The 2012 Elections Have Little to Do With Obama’s Record … Which Is Why We Are Voting For Him…As always, it sparked some serious commentary, particularly about our tendency to fall into the trap of “voting for the lesser of two evils”. Most of the comments I read that expressed that sentiment, but I believe this comment offered not only good insight, but a viable path to progressive change.


I suggest that you are optimistic about working within the political arena. I just can’t imagine any of the key players not complying with the wishes of those who finance their elections. Those that have stormed the WH (Chris Hedges, Bill McKibben) got some press and jail time but not sure there will be any movement in domestic or international policies as a result.

 What is my answer? Good question. For me, there are really only a few ways out and voting in meaningless elections isn’t one of them.

One is revolution. It’s a nasty and brutish with an outcome that is very difficult to predict. Revolutions can be hijacked just as easily as the electoral process (e.g., Libya). It would be my last choice.

Another is global economic collapse, somewhat likely given that all empires, like this one, have a tendency to overreach and eventually do themselves in. That will also be nasty with a big price to pay by all of us who have been drawn into the industrial culture where we depend on money and jobs for the basics of life (food, water and shelter). Most of us in the developed world are very vulnerable to collapse. One benefit of a near-term collapse, however, is the planet might not be totally ransacked leaving something to work with. Again, there are no guarantees that whoever rebuilds will have learned the lessons of the past. This would be my second choice.

Lastly, we can spend what time we have left creating a sustainable culture that, in the end, will undermine the mindless, heartless neoliberalism propelling us towards the brink. There will not be any single solution. Like nature, the solution needs to fit the ecological circumstances of the niches we live in. Among movements today, this is referred to as localization — satisfying our basic needs within the bounds of our local environment. It’s the antithesis of our globalized economy. It is the way our natural world works and we have clearly demonstrated we can’t improve on that. It is time to reestablish enduring relationships with our fellow humans and with the natural world. The risks of hijack are minimal and this would be my first choice.

3. See also:

written by Professor Tina Bell Wright

Our Coverage of the Global Hip Hop Conference at Stanford

OLMNews covers Stanford University’s global hip-hop Symposium where renowned author Jeff Chang, Stanford professor Samy Alim & Hip-Hop icon & activist Chuck D of Public Enemy who speak on the globalization of hip-hop and it’s effect on social & economic issues worldwide.

OLMNews reporter Davey D speaks with Omar Offendum, Syrian American rapper, who along with other notable artists from around the globe, created a song that sparked a movement of solidarity with the people of Egypt and the middle east.

Omar Offendum