Writings all over the Walls
There is a price to be paid for failing to teach our children the practices of discipline through faith, honor, duty, integrity, and responsibility. These five pillars of functional society are bound together like the ingredients of concrete---to diminish or remove any ingredient weakens the strength and effectiveness of the next batch mixed. Failure to emphasize faith leads to a general diminished view of the importance and meaning of (as well as purpose and respect for) life. Lack of honor encourages the compromise of principles and the degradation of respect for the rights of others and their property. Absence of a sense of duty negates the necessity to respect or abide by rules. Corruption coils its dark tendrils around the heart of a government in which a society abandons the need for integrity. And no one in a society is responsible for their actions unless the individual and the collective hold one another accountable to the spirit of the law and the proper conduct defined therein.
One very recent and visible consequence of such a failure was experienced by my two teenage children upon returning to their Southern California high school from the 2012 Christmas break. While the school was closed during vacation break, vandals (lovingly referred to as taggers) trespassed inside the locked gates of the facilities and spray-painted graffiti writings all over the walls of the school. My children were shocked and angered by the trespass and great extent of the damage. In discussing the incident with them, I found a teachable moment---for the cost of the vandalism clean-up negatively affected the budget of their school, and the ugly graffiti was a painful reminder that laws exist not for law-abiders, but law-breakers.
I can recall a time, two generations ago in fact, where graffiti was generally confined to gas station restroom stalls and an occasional rock formation in an outlying area of the mountains or desert. Most of the graffiti was vulgar in content and meaningless to the average person. Back then, the presence of graffiti was viewed as crude, undignified, lowlife and foolish by youngsters and parents alike. That society shunned and put no value upon vandalism. Respect for the rights of others meant respect for public and private property, accountability to the law, and abiding by the law to the best of one's ability. The presence of graffiti violated a societal standard and was unacceptable to most.
In my law enforcement experience, graffiti in Southern California became a very serious problem with the rise of the cocaine trade in the late 1980's. Violent street gangs rose exponentially with the profitable black market drug trade. Graffiti became a calling card of gang influence and territorial boundaries. The breakdown of families impacted by drug use, gang influence, and lawlessness gave rise to the glorification of criminal behavior, particularly through Hollywood films and a new underground music industry called "rap." Gangster rap groups sold millions of records and cassettes having never had one-second of air play on any radio station in the country (the lyrics were too full of profanity to be aired according to FCC standards.) Kids were buying those songs and listening to them; imitating their idols; acting and dressing like gang members at school where it quickly became popular and fashionable. The school district and high school campus, I worked with and on, took too long to react to and do something to counteract it. And gang violence soon followed in the wake of unmonitored student behavior.
Tagger groups (small bands of graffiti artists) found public property the perfect platform for their unusual spray paint art and dialect. Freeway signs, overpasses, underpasses, school buildings, residential block walls, and commercial centers became popular targets for tagger groups. The cost of clean-up to State and local government became repetitive and exorbitant. And because many taggers were adventurous in their painting projects, they often mistakenly encroached and tagged in gang territories, which gave rise to retaliation from those respective gangs. Retaliatory shootings caused many taggers to re-think their tagging affiliations. Those that met the challenge and retaliated in kind descended into more violent pursuits and became tag-bangers (tagger gangs), whose violence often exceeded normative gang intimidation standards. A new monster was on the block.
The first major move on the part of the California legislature was effective in my estimation. Their response was to criminalize street gang association and behavior. With the enactment of the STEP (Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention) Act in 1988, California defined what a street gang was, how it operated, and then enacted harsher penalties for criminal association in furtherance of a street gang. The STEP Act (Penal Code 186.22) gave law enforcement and prosecutors the proper tools to combat gang violence by incarcerating gang participants with longer stays in prison. I have written elsewhere about the effectiveness of gang prosecution. The reduction in gang violence, as the result of identifying and criminalizing gang behavior and incarcerating the participants, was phenomenal. By 1995, gang violence in Upland (where I worked) had dropped dramatically, due in large part to rigorous enforcement of the California STEP Act.
What was not particularly effective, in my humble opinion, was another legislative effort to deal with taggers. Rather than increase penalties and incarceration time for vandalism, the legislature opted instead to enact spray-paint control. The State made it illegal for anyone under the age of eighteen to possess spray paint. The legislature then imposed laws and regulations on businesses that sold spray paint, requiring special enclosures where spray paint had to be secured before it could be sold. Of course the business owners had to pay for this unfunded mandate from the government. In an effort to limit the amount of spray paint available to vandals, the State restricted the paint vendor. Did the law reduce the incidents of tagging? No one ever conducted a study to measure the effectiveness of those laws that I am aware of. Yet I can attest from my experiences in the field that tagging did not appear to diminish as a result of the law.
This is not rocket science folks. Spray cans don't vandalize freeways, schools, block walls, and fences. People, called taggers, vandalize them. Criminalizing a spray can only makes it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to lawfully obtain paint to improve their engine blocks, car dents, lawn furniture, and awnings. Meantime, criminal spray-painters always find a way to access paint. Taggers appear to have no moral concerns for public or private property. They have no faith in or fear of our laws (unless they get caught), nor do they exhibit any honor by victimizing others. Graffiti vandals have no sense of duty to protect or uphold the property rights of others from the harm they inflict. Taggers do not express integrity by admitting to their mistakes, confessing their crimes, or taking responsibility to clean up and pay for their respective messes.
I must confess I have no tolerance or respect for criminals who, having profited illegally from their activities in gang life, used their ill-gotten gains to establish themselves legitimately in business (like the music industry or through acting careers.) Neither would I congratulate a Mafia mob boss who, after evading taxes and running an illegal gambling racket for years, opened a successful and legitimate restaurant chain. Criminals like us to think of them in kinder gentler terms---you know, live and let live. Being caught, convicted, and serving time to society for crimes is a different matter; for there is accountability and an opportunity to correct a wrong through the courts.
And having read many of the writings all over the walls in this life, it is clear that too many of our fellow citizens have little or no discipline. Perhaps they could potentially benefit from being held accountable and responsible for their behavior. Still, locking up spray paint cans (or guns for that matter) does not change the behavior of law-breakers. Locking up law-breakers, if for no other purpose, prevents criminals from breaking the law for a season. And perhaps while locked up, criminals can experience for a season the discipline they missed as children at home or in school. Criminals like us to feel sorry for them, perhaps even sympathetic toward them. But make no mistake, until criminals are caught in their crimes and held accountable, their victims are the only ones we should pity. For victims always pay a price, and sometimes a heavier toll than their criminal counterparts ever will in this life.
Remember, your behavior defines you. Are you a person of faith, honor, duty, integrity, and responsibility? Please continue to stand up for your principles and honor justice! And may God richly reward you for the goodness you express, model, and live.
(copyright 2013, Gregory Allen Doyle)