Palo Alto graffiti artist in dubious battle

Note: I started this post as a note-pad on the mid-May incident at Gunn High, a 17-year-old charged for possible “hate crime graffiti”. The student newspaper, The Oracle, (of which I was editor in chief, or co-editor-in-chief, my junior and senior years) reported that one message said “thank god lobos is leaving” referring to re-assigned Principal Villalobos, Katya. Note the term “thank god”.

I wrote to Police Chief Dennis Burns two weeks later and two weeks ago asking to learn the content of the messages. No response yet, although I did run into Burns that same day around town and he said he got my message.

I do not condone graffiti or the idea of attacking an ethnic group with words. But I question the very notion of “graffiti hate crime” and am assuming the young person innocent until proven guilty.

The following are my notes preliminary to writing Burns and publishing previous post in Plastic Alto. Excuse the disorganization of ideas. It’s more like a list of topics than a flowing paragraph and essay.

I hope to hear back from Zach Perron or to continue to research this topic. I also visited the school on the first day of summer and have reason to believe I sighted the person in question and his parents. I think they were leaving the Administration Office right before I went in, so we passed each other — they were not known to me, other than I am guessing who they are but not their names.



I am curious about the continuum from dissent to vandalism. When a 17-year-old boy writes, among other statements, “Thank God…” and ends up in the justice system, for possible hate crimes and felony vandalism, makes me wonder. I am not condoning hurtful words to members of historically subject groups — or individuals — but I also am putting the May 17, 2014 incident at Gunn High School, my alma mater, into recent context.

In 2008, the Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson resigned after admitting the instructed her officers to profile blacks.

As reported in the Chronicle, by Demien Bulwa.

I sat thru some of the public hearings on the matter and found the mothers’ pleading for better treatment for their children, and the end to profiling, to be pretty compelling and believable.

I have two sources for my understanding of the most recent case: 1) the Palo Alto Weekly article by Chris Kenrick, and 2) the Gunn student newspaper Oracle coverage. The Weekly relies pretty heavily on the Gunn story, and in my opinion did a shoddy and unprofessional job, and maybe should have held back until they got their facts straight.

That a police officer calls the graffiti “racist” does not mean the accused has done anything wrong. His views (Lt. Zach Perron) probably should not have been made public.

I walked the Gunn campus Tuesday to get some sense of what might have gone down. I think I see one place, on the new math building, where patches are painted over.

According to the student newspaper, one of the messages thanked God that the principal was resigning or being relocated.

Aren’t these messages, to an extent, expressions of political belief, and thereby afforded Constitutional protection?

If it starts “Thank God…” could everything after be considered a type of prayer?

If the person who created these messages is, as I suspect, or as my intuition and not-uneducated guess, tells me, turns out to be a member of either a lower socio-economic class or a minority himself, or herself, does that mitigate or contextualize the charges that he or she is “racist” or “sexist”?

I don’t think being black, for example, gives one the right to denigrate, for example Jews, but it is, to my mind, a different matter than the historic situation of blacks in America as a minority being subject, in some instances, to intimidation and hate messages but sub-groups comprised mainly of majority whites.

Also, there is the matter of when should a minor be treated as an adult, in the justice system.

According to research at places like Southern Poverty Law Center, in Dallas, and Equal Justice Initiative in Birmingham, Alabama our justice system seems to have flaws that incorporate difference in class. Further, even 50 years later we have not fully administered Gideon v. Wainright (rights of the accused, to fair trial, to competent defense). See Stevenson.

I wonder to what extent the Gunn graffiti incident is like Allen Ginsberg “Howl” which has it rough spots, the 1957 poem, but over all has redeeming social value.

Is the Gunn Vandal entitled to some fair comment?

Is he commenting on the relative value of the new math building (called, by the way The N Building, as in The N word)?

Is he saying that he thinks athletics is over-emphasized, even at Gunn (famous for losing to Paly, and losing blue chip athletes to cross-town transfers)?

Is he friends with the anonymous artist whose work in a political art show I likened to Enrique Chagoya?

I will be disappointed if, when I get a chance to see the actual evidence, to learn the content of these utterances, I have to retract my provisional support, this plea for leniency.

But at this point, based on what is generally known, I am disappointed in Chris Kenrick and her editors (Bill Johnson, Joceyln Dong) for their coverage, and in Officer Zach Perron. Did they fan the flames of class warfare, or engage in sensationalism.

Officer Perron, in effect, speaks for me, for We The People, so in my opinion has much higher scrutiny. His ignorance and bias, should that turn out to be the case — let’s call it “potential bias” — under the color of authority is arguably much worse than what a poorly educated (if that is fair) 17-year-old can do or has done, with pen, paint or marker.

From the top floor balcony of Gunn’s N Building, by the way, I spied 70 yards away a fairly high level piece of graffiti/art on the water byway. It’s not legal but it’s arguably of some value, aesthetic-wise.

And keep in mind that to confuse the issue you have reformed graffiti artists, or vandals like Shepherd Fairey, David Choe and Banksy earning huge fees and commissions and impacting national issues. Is there any way we can give our local child, our student, the benefit of the doubt: maybe he is a future artistic and provocative genius that we haven’t learned to interpret yet, beyond wanting to criminalize him (or her)?

To the extent that school, in due process felt compelled to censor his message and restore the walls or roofs to a uniform and message-less hue, I think in this case the young man or men and their parents should reimburse We The People for maintenance costs, or be forced to do the repairs for us, as community service.

But I don’t think he should be further penalized because of the content of his message.

(And I’m not sure what to think of the cultural vigilantism that went on: math teacher encouraging their students to leave class to erase or alter or hide the message, accepting as out of bounds without due consideration?)

(And I am aware that the Courts have consistently ruled that, in fact, the First Amendment does not apply whole-cloth to the school environment, or to minors).

Would it be appropriate for a school to clarify, when graffiti appears, that the school does not condone the message and will endeavor to hold the creator responsible, or compel same to defend his or her work, (and leave it intact until such time)?

Certainly I would not agree to have public funds put toward a message that says “Thank God…..” — it might violate the no establishment clause.

Lynn Stegner and others have commented that dissent is more often met with official violent reaction (in the case of pepper spray to the eyes of Occupy student protest at UC Berkeley).

Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian chronicle the demise of the Fourth Estate, and the tendency for the press to either enforce status quo or forward corporate and industrial and power interests. In Palo Alto, I think I see a bias for the powerful and a lack of coverage of interest to the poor, or their neighborhoods, or these types of issues.

I’ve tried to challenge the Weekly and Daily News several times to re-visit or revise their coverage of the poor, at Lytton Plaza, or in certain other cases.

In the James Franco movie “Palo Alto” there is a scene about youth cutting down a tree as a prank or statement. In 1982, vandals (and probably not artists or political activists) cut down the tree in the amphitheater, supposedly as part of a feud between rival cliques. In 1979, students named (and who could forget) Kramer, Kincheloe and Keplinger put their initials in 50 foot white lettering on the side of the  Gunn theatre.


See also: Nell Bernstein books on justice system, on NPR this week.

A year or two ago, the Daily Post  STET

I bought a copy of this two years ago at the Steinbeck center in Salinas:

I have this taped on my girlfriend’s TV-VCR; about five minutes in, I ran to my computer to post on this topic — this is David Choe, who I met one night when he was commissioned famously to paint an office space for an eventual start-up IPO company:

I bought this book at SFMOMA; I have not read it, just flipped thru it. I am not a graffiti artist although I have once or twice written in comments on a notice posted on Cali Avenue kiosk.

edit to add, 8 days later: While in Los Angeles, I heard a news report of a graffiti hate crime conviction in which Amos Hason, 49, was given three years in L.A. County jail for writing “Adolph was right” and “Ki__ Je___” on a fence behind a plumbing business.  I doubt the Palo Alto case the message was as targeted or as provocative and direct, inciting an action (it was ordering the reader to harm the famously subjected sub-group). Meanwhile I am still waiting for a response from Palo Alto P.D. about the Gunn case.


About markweiss86

Mark Weiss, founder of Plastic Alto blog, is a concert promoter and artist manager in Palo Alto, as Earthwise Productions, with background as journalist, advertising copywriter, book store returns desk, college radio producer, city council and commissions candidate, high school basketball player; he also sang in local choir, and fronts an Allen Ginsberg tribute Beat Hotel Rm 32
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