Tags: What Now

Where There's a Wall, There's a War of Words

What happens when a mural celebrating diversity is quickly defaced with hate messages? Is it just a fight among graffitists? Or is it a comments page writ large, reflecting a nation divided?
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A group of 15 volunteers spent hours in the blazing Florida sun, painting welcoming and inclusive messages with brushes and cans. Stroke after stroke, they painstakingly marked different signs of social justice: “Black Lives Matter,” “Protect Florida’s Springs,” “Fair Wage,” “LGBTQIA,” and “Welcome Immigrants,” were just a few of the issues broached.

“It took three individual sessions to do it,” said event organizer Pam Smith, the leader of the Boots on the Ground faction of Gainesville’s Women’s March group. “One to clean-wash the surface, then five of us who were artists came in and did the layout using carpenter pencils and markers. The next day, a large group of us completed the project.”

The preparation and painting took more than eight hours in total, and when it was done group stood back and took in their work, proud of the “Seeds of Resistance” they had planted on the city’s mural wall. Other groups also took notice and many agreed with the messages.

“I believe that the wall was a kind of mission statement for the local progressive movement,” said Jenna Preble, group lead of the local Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America group. “To me, the wall said: ‘These are our values. This is what we believe in. These ideals are what we will work toward.’” 

That very night, in the pouring rain, an unidentified man with a ladder and a can of black spray paint defaced the entire mural.

“I think it’s important to remember that Women’s March painted their mural in the daytime; the person who defaced it did it at night,” Preble said. 

Smith tried to decode the hastily sprayed counter-punches.

“When he put ‘Yeah right’ over climate change, he means there is no use trying to combat it,” she mused. “He said ‘no’ to people having health care. He said LGBTQ was a mental disease and that low-wage people do not have the right to a living wage. He crossed out black and put blue, saying police are more important than Black people.”

Shirley Lasseter, the Women’s March tech lead, was so disappointed by the defacement that she publicly shared before and after photos on Facebook. Within hours, she was victim of hundreds of negative comments.

“I don’t even have words to describe how horrible it was,” Lasseter said. “I’m so inexperienced in this realm of hate, it made me cry.”

This particular back-and-forth concerns more than just the residents of a southern city torn apart by politics. It captures the very essence of the partisan gridlock the United States finds itself in today. Because what is happening here is a microcosm of Trump’s America, both out loud on walls, and quietly within them as family and friends fight vigorously for justice, for basic facts, for economic equity, for jobs, for health care, for our future.

“This dichotomy has been around forever, from the beginning of time. We’re just seeing the newest manifestation of it,” Smith said. “There were people who fought the Crusades, but they got burned at the stake. We got here because we finally have some power, so now we finally have a fight on our hands.”

Social media has stoked these heightened opinions laced with ad hominem attacks because it provides a space for people to be anonymous and repeatedly and safely type mean-spirited attacks, gloat, and walk away. It’s like dropping a Molotov cocktail. And by being incognito, perpetrators can keep themselves from being ostracized. It’s cowardly to be sure.

But do words harm society? If they lead to violence, yes. Which they can on either side of this ever-widening divide.

When James Hodgkinson opened fire on Republican congressmen while they were at baseball practice, Smith said the resistance immediately lost ground. Violence, said Smith, is not an acceptable answer.

“I’m 72, and I started in the anti-war movement and in the civil-rights movement, then in women’s lib,” she said. “All of those had elements that turned violent, and as soon as we turn violent, they can crush us.”

“Both sides are too hateful. We saw that at the baseball game. These things are interrelated,” Lasseter said. “It shows clearly the divide in our country. It’s shocking because the number of people on the hate side are the minority, based on the polls and the statistics, but they can be completely overwhelming sometimes.”

In comment sections and on fast-moving micro-blogging platforms, we have grown accustomed to seeing impulsive, uninformed comments from people who don’t fully follow the news, or get their information from fake-news sites, and don’t care to know more from reliable sources. And worse, comments from trolls and even bots—not real people—who are there to incite arguments and perpetuate false information. And these comments have a way of seeping into real life.

“It’s really easy to see the wall and decide to spend $2 on spray paint if you want to spread hate over someone’s message,” Preble said. “It’s the same thing as internet trolling, just on the wall.”

A day later, a smaller group of volunteers whited out the hate-filled screeds. Then another group, this time 25 strong, painted over the original signs … only to have that work undone within hours again. The feud continued.

Gainesville Police say they do not regulate the wall, and bickering painters are not uncommon.

“Folks that choose to utilize the wall must take the good with the bad,” said Public Information Officer Ben Tobias. “Freedoms, including freedom of speech, are what make our country great. Respecting freedom means that we must respect everyone’s freedom, even if we don’t agree with their thoughts or words.”

Lasseter said the Women’s March group would no longer be repainting the wall, that their objective had been achieved, perhaps with the help of that very hate meant to obliterate it.

“We don’t want to get into a message war. This is not a dialogue. What’s up there now looks bad; it’s not a win for their side,” she said. “The idea was seeds; we were trying to plant the seeds of positive messages about groups we need to respect and include, and I think that it worked. In the hearts that could be opened to this, it probably grew in some of those hearts. I think the hate actually helped those hearts be open.”

A week later, a lone kindergarten teacher and two children stood in the blazing summer sun with a can of pink paint. The entire mural had been whited out, all messages and bickering lost. They dipped their brushes and raised their hands to the cement. They painted heart after pink heart, all in a row, filling the wall with visual symbols of love. Who could argue with love, they wondered, as they painted this country’s best hope on a wall in a town in the southern part of a nation divided.

The hearts—they are still there.