Out of line

In cracking down on graffiti and vandalism, are Boston police practicing zero tolerance - or intolerance?

By Ric Kahn
Globe Staff / November 16, 2008
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TIME OF INCIDENT: Oct. 17, 2008, 1:30 p.m.
PLACE: 154 Washington St., Dorchester.
VICTIM: City of Boston sidewalk.
SUSPECT: Denise Baskin, 43.
ALLEGED CRIME: Malicious destruction of property.
TO WIT: Etching her nickname - Nikki - into freshly poured cement.

Baskin, police say, swirled the first three letters of her moniker into the wet cement before they came and arrested her. Later, she declined comment on the matter through her lawyer. But her former housemates in Dorchester say that when she told them what happened, they couldn't believe she was taken into custody for what they considered child's play. Especially, some say, since records show that Baskin has prior convictions of a more serious nature, including assault with a dangerous weapon, a knife.

Some community activists were also taken aback. With the city averaging five homicides a month through October, they wondered whether some police officers were taking the edict against graffiti and vandalism too far.

"Are you serious? It's a waste of taxpayers' money. It's a waste of time," says the Rev. Shaun Harrison, head of Operation Project GO, an organization that tries to get youths out of gangs and into jobs. "They don't have anything better to do?"

Harrison quickly answers his own question: The area around 154 Washington St. in Four Corners, he says, is raging with gang activity. "You have to choose your battles here," says Harrison. "Go for the bigger fish. She's not even a tadpole."

But police officials say there's danger in letting the small crimes fester: they can create a climate of chaos where anything goes. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani made this kind of zero-tolerance policing famously successful in the 1990s.

"Our officers that are out in the neighborhoods are responsive to community concerns," says Elaine Driscoll, spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department. "Community members take pride in their neighborhood, and officers do as well. Somebody who is defacing public property - it's a betrayal of their neighbors."

Still, critics say that while a marred sidewalk can be smoothed over, it's not so easy to remove the scars of an arrest. In making such pinches, some argue that authorities are creating even more desperate people who may see crime as an alternative to being rejected from a job for getting another mark on their records.

"If you're racking up another case, even if it's minor, an employer doesn't care what it is," says Bruce Wall, senior pastor of the Global Ministries Christian Church in Dorchester, who suggests that Baskin should have been given only a warning. "We're creating more of a problem when someone is arrested for writing in cement."

There's no doubt that the city is geared up about cracking down on graffiti. Some other recent examples: As one of its 2008 Top Ten Neighborhood Crime Watch awardees, the Boston Police praised Graffiti NABBers, an offshoot of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. Also, in part to preempt taggers from targeting utility boxes, the city encouraged a group of artists to dress the gray units in ensembles of color.

And then there's this incident: On June 5, 2008, at 3:42 p.m., Boston police launched another strike against urban scrawl when they were called for trouble brewing outside the BU biolab on Albany Street. Call it the case of the body sketchers.

Four members of the Radical Arts Troupe had gathered to demonstrate against the opening of the lab, which is tied up in litigation. One wore white and blood-red face makeup. As one member lay on the ground, one or more others drew the body's outline - in chalk. It was, participants say, a symbol of the kind of havoc the lab could inflict on the community. As police moved in, two in the group left the scene. The others - two young women - were arrested, according to the police report. The charges: disturbing the peace and damaging public property, a.k.a. tagging.

According to city officials, the protesters needed a two-pronged permit to legalize their action. For the first portion, the Public Works Department would require that the sidewalk not be littered with things like f-bombs, and that if artwork was not temporary, the group would pay for its removal. The other part would be approved by the Department of Transportation to balance the protesters' First Amendment rights with any impact that the site, hours, and number of attendees might have on pedestrian and vehicular safety.

Indeed, in their police report, officers say that the biolab protest caused a traffic nightmare, as cars and people slowed down to gawk. In an interview, though, one demonstrator says the only commotion she witnessed was the police's show of force.

The biolab incident and others show that both police officers and protesters must walk a fine line when navigating the contours of public art. Without a permit, it's graffiti; with a permit, it's a sanctioned sidewalk showcase.

Like the blue-and-white portrait of a lighthouse on the sidewalk at Copley Square that promotes a ferry service to Provincetown. It is accompanied by a stenciled seal of approval from the City of Boston, and is one of many pieces around town done by the longtime street artist, Robert Guillemin, also known as "Sidewalk Sam."

In an interview, Guillemin says he obtains a proper permit before he works.

But political activists say the very notion of having to ask the city for permission to hold a demonstration runs counter to the idea of independent political dissent.

"You have to go to The Man to say, 'Can I protest you?' " says Klare Allen, coordinator for the Stop the Bioterror Lab Coalition.

Furthermore, Allen wonders how far the city would go to enforce the law against tracing on a sidewalk without a permit. "Would it be the same type of thing with a group of kids chalking hopscotch or four square?" she asks.

City officials answer: Many of them wouldn't need a permit because they're on their own private property. But if they're not, the officials say, they're not going to get busted, because they're playing a children's game.

In the spirit of well-known activists who deemed themselves political prisoners - such as the Chicago 7 - some have dubbed the biolab arrestees "the Crayola Two."

One of the duo, Emerson College graduate Maryann Colella, says she was blanketed by bleakness that June afternoon as she sat in a police wagon that would transport her to a cell. "It's such a sad day in America when you get arrested for drawing with chalk," says Colella, 22, by phone from Baltimore, where she's on tour with Bread & Puppet Theater, a political troupe.

The other, Leeanne McHugh, describes feeling humiliated as she was cuffed, searched, and locked in a cell, and says she never thought she'd get arrested that day, nor that she might have gotten a jail term of two years. "I couldn't imagine we would be convicted of tagging with sidewalk chalk," says McHugh, a 22-year-old street performer from Dorchester.

Driscoll, from the Boston Police Department, says officers felt the demonstrators were creating a traffic hazard, so they made a judgment call to intervene.

"We go to great lengths to allow people to exercise their First Amendment rights," she says. "Simultaneously, we also have to ensure people's safety."

Despite the drama dripping from police accounts of the episode, Boston Municipal Court officials resolved the case in ho-hum fashion. The women were put on pretrial probation for three months, and ordered to stay away from the biolab during that period. Then, officials say, the case was dismissed.

Meanwhile, Baskin has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to appear back in Dorchester District court on Dec. 12. Already the charge against her has been reduced to defacing property - though it still holds a penalty of up to two years in jail.

Baskin had been living in a Dorchester rooming house, but neighbors say she moved out after a man was killed there late last month. The victim, identified by police as Komawalee Morris, 24, was the city's 50th homicide of the year.

Outside the rooming house, days after his death, mourning candles arranged in a circle still flickered on a clean city sidewalk.

Ric Kahn can be reached at

Deface the music

Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 266, section 126B: Whoever sprays or applies paint or places a sticker upon a building, wall, fence, sign, tablet, gravestone, monument or other object or thing on a public way or adjoined to it, or in public view, or on private property, such person known or commonly known as "taggers" and such conduct or activity known or commonly known as "tagging," or other words or phrases associated to such persons, conduct or activity, and either as an individual or in a group, joins together with said group, with the intent to deface, mar, damage, mark or destroy such property, shall be punished by imprisonment in a house of correction for not more than two years or by a fine of not less than fifteen hundred dollars or not more than three times the value of such damage to the property so defaced, marked, marred, damaged or destroyed, whichever is greater, or both fine and imprisonment and shall also be required to pay for the removal or obliteration of such "tagging" or to obliterate such "tagging."

CHALK IT UP In June, two young women

were arrested during a political demonstration

outside the BU biolab on Albany Street for creating

outlines of symbolic dead bodies on the sidewalk - in chalk.

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