The Cost of Erasing Dissent

Hillary Procknow

On Thursday, August 9, I took my two children, ages 4 and 7, to an Occupy Austin event called “Chalkupy the World.” Many other cities around the country, and even abroad, participated in this event. I’ve been to a few Occupy events, support the methods and messages of Occupy, and am somewhat active in one of the Occupy groups that does work dealing with the local school district. The Chalkupy event was supposed to be a gathering of people using sidewalk chalk to express, well, anything really, but mostly dissent or disenchantment with the way things in our country have evolved to either favor the ultra-wealthy or punish the poor, middleclass, marginalized, or otherwise “different” people.

I anticipated that this was going to be a small event, and one that would allow me to show my support of the Occupy movement while also letting my children participate, or at least keep them occupied. They like chalk; they like to draw. I wasn’t really expecting police intervention. I’m a responsible mother; I would never knowingly put my children in harm’s way. I thought, particularly in Austin, this event would be reasonably innocuous. But I’m also responsible enough to want to teach my children to participate in the citizenry, to stand up for what they believe in. I can’t say I’m altogether surprised at what happened, which is really a sad comment on our society.

I took my children because I thought it was an appropriate place for children to participate in coming together, in citizens who don’t know each other meeting in person, in public space…in space that is for the public. I think it’s worth mentioning, too, that the day before, I had just read William F. Buckley Jr.’s essay “Why Don’t We Complain?” Writing in 1960, the famous conservative commenter remarked on how much people at the time were willing sit back without remark and endure unreasonable situations. He explains that it’s sometimes complex, that there are often hidden reasons for why some things are the way they are. But his essay challenged me. And on August 9, I was feeling a duty to myself and my country to speak up for things that seem unjust. If I didn’t, who would? How would my children learn to speak out against injustice?

We had picked up two packages of giant-sized sidewalk chalk earlier in the afternoon. They were the biggest chalk sticks I had ever seen, and I found their cartoonish proportions a little humorous. Two sticks in each pack. Two sticks for each child. I knew there would be more chalk waiting at the event, but it’s always good to come prepared. As we drove to the event, I reminded my children they could draw anything they wanted. I want my kids to participate in the public sphere, but I don’t want to be too heavy handed in what messages they feel forced to repeat. They will change their minds about many issues many times as they grow. I don’t think I need to force them to accept any point of view right now. I did tell them, though, that they might want to think for a minute about one thing they thought would help make the world a better place. My younger child thought about rain. My older child mentioned recycling. I told them that would be great, and that they could draw as many pictures as they liked.

When we arrived, there were about 10 Occupiers on the southwest corner of 11th and Congress, just across the street from the Capitol, where Occupiers had been warned not to use chalk. But we were all on public property on this corner. We noted the large box of sidewalk chalk on the bus stop bench. It had many more color options available. So both of the children picked out a couple of colors. My son, my older child, set in on his design. He decided that drawing the earth in a “recycling triangle” would be good. My daughter started drawing butterflies. She’s just recently developed the skill of representation, so her drawings are actually starting to look like something. I wrote a message about how I would be better off financially had I never decided to pursue graduate studies. This is true, by the way. I would have been earning a middle class income from the time I graduated college in 1997 through today. I wouldn’t have any debt. In fact, in my one year working in a corporate office after I earned my bachelor degree, I saved over $7000 dollars. I’m pretty thrifty with money. I would not have had to take out student loans (all subsidized), and I wouldn’t have had to live on the approximately $800 monthly most graduate assistants make. Of course, I would not have become more educated about history, philosophy, justice, and education. It makes a difference in your perspective. It’s important to remember that education is not a commodity. I don’t owe money for student loans because I wanted a boat or an expensive purse. I owe money because I wanted to be an educated citizen. I thought that was a responsible decision. I’m still waiting for someone to tell me it would have been more responsible to keep my office job and keep my mouth shut.

The adults had already noticed the group of state troopers gathering across the street in front of the Capitol. Apparently, one was also hiding in a car across Congress. Whatever the case or the number of eyes, four troopers crossed 11th Street over to our corner. They promptly arrested two adults who had been chalking. One of the arrested chalkupiers was wearing a mask covering his face. When my children and I first arrived, they asked about the mask. I simply explained that some people like to be private. They accepted this answer without further inquiry. Indeed, children are often at ease when their parents or role models help make sense of the world for them and are honest with them about what they see. That’s not always a very easy task. Taking a moment to consider one’s response and how it will potentially frame the world for children does take a little more effort at times, but I’d rather not go around dividing the world up into “people like us” and “people not like us” for my children. I imagine there are parents who would have explained that the young man with a mask was just weird, wanted attention, thought highly of himself, whatever excuse they could use to make sure that their children understood that he was “different” and that “we” don’t act like that.

When the troopers came to our chalking area, my children were frightened. My son began to cry. He’s pretty sensitive, but very logical. My daughter feigned crying to be like her big brother. She’s big on drama and intensity. She has asked me to recount the story of the time I stepped on a nail when I was 12 years old a thousand times, but she’s not given to crying, unless someone else has tried to pick out her outfit for the day. Without any warning, the troopers arrested two chalkupiers. I approached one of the arresting officers and politely asked if he could help me understand why two people were being arrested. He deferred to the other who explained that chalking public property was considered criminal mischief. I asked if it was explicit in the penal code, if the code was specific in naming the use chalk on public property as criminal mischief. He explained that no, but it could be considered such. Let us remember, too, that a number of courts have upheld citizens’ use of chalk as a form of expression. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote, “No reasonable person could think that writing with chalk could damage a sidewalk.” (Mackinney v. Nielsen 69 F.3d 1002, 1995). To make this absolutely clear, in our country, we have freedom of speech to protect unpopular speech. This does not, however, protect use of dangerous or slanderous speech. We all know that we may not use words to threaten another or incite violence. That kind of speech is not protected. Similarly, had there been threatening messages or even obscene drawings, that use of chalk might reasonably be considered mischievous. But there were no such messages or drawings, only messages of dissent and drawings of the earth and butterflies.

After the troopers took the arrestees across the street, I calmly gathered my children and started toward the car. I certainly did not want to keep them in a place where they might be subject to violence or see their mother arrested for chalking. They were both teary. We walked for a minute. Then, I literally asked my children to stop for a moment while I thought. As a parent, you really have to do this sometimes. Sometimes, you have to stop and figure out what is best. If we left at that moment, what lesson were they going to learn? What meaning would they make of what just happened? Of course we were going to be discussing this at length; that goes without saying. But what would they take away from this event if, having told them it was not right for the police to arrest those two people, I simply walked away, too. I knew, already, I wasn’t going to go back to the chalking corner. So I simply turned around, crossed 11th Street to the Capitol, and I told my children I wanted to talk to the troopers, to see if I could understand what was going on.

Now, I’m an adult who (not that it’s anybody’s business) has never been arrested. And that might even be a damning statement against me, depending on who you’re asking. Because, without doubt, there is injustice in our country. We have one of the highest rates of childhood poverty in the “developed” world; we have the least amount of access to health care in the “developed” world; we don’t let consenting adults of the same sex enjoy basic civil liberties; we allow bankers who stole millions of dollars to continue their practices without so much as an investigation. These are surely injustices. Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful we live in a country where women are allowed to obtain an education; I am thankful our country attempts to educate every child, whether poor or rich; I am thankful for many things. But that does not absolve me from my duty to make this country better for the vast majority of people. What I’m stalling in admitting here is that talking to police makes me nervous. Which is a shame. At any rate, I had an example to set for my children. Children should learn to speak respectfully to officers of the law; they should be willing to approach one if it seems that something wrong has happened. And as a mother, I honestly did not want to walk away from this with children frightened of a police officer who might be trying to help them if they were lost or if there were an emergency such as a fire.

The three of us walked up to two troopers standing in front of one of the gates in front of the Capitol. Honestly not knowing protocol, I extended my hand to the trooper closest to me and said, “Hi, I’m Hillary Procknow.” Her arms remained around her chest. I fumblingly said, “Oh, I guess you’re not allowed to do that.” I explained to her very politely that I did not understand why two people had been arrested and that I was indeed concerned because my children were now afraid of police. “What,” I asked, “can you help me understand to explain to my children that they do not need to be afraid of the police.” She repeated what the other officer had said about chalk and criminal mischief. I reminded her that chalk is not explicitly mentioned as mischief. She said that just like free speech, if a citizen is offended by what someone says (or chalks) an officer can tell the person to stop or arrest them. No trooper had explained that a citizen had complained. I replied, “I’m offended by what a lot of people say, but that doesn’t mean I want them to be arrested.” In any case, when I pressed her about what I should tell my children about their fear of police, she recommended that I go home and have a discussion about how it’s wrong to damage public property, and that it was going to take tax payer money to remove the chalk. I offered to go home and get rags and buckets. She said it wouldn’t make a difference. Of course, we did go home and have a discussion. I did tell my children not to be afraid of police. (We are not people of color, so it’s a lot easier for me to say this to my children than it is for others. If we had dark skin, this particular issue would have been much more complex. And that conversation will come, too.) But, I also told them that our country is not perfect. Just like at home, we all have to pitch in.

Many people wonder, I’m sure, what chalking a sidewalk does to make this country better. I want to be clear on this. People coming together, in public, to express themselves is something that makes the country better. I don’t mean this to apply to any particular political persuasion (and, in fact, Occupy has a firm stance on its resistance to embrace any particular party). When people meet each other, disagree, agree, argue with civility, see each other’s faces, learn to be in a public space and tolerate the presence of others, important things happen, and not necessarily or even mostly sweeping political change. The country learns what it looks like when people participate, when people recognize each other as human. The country learns what it looks like when people decide for themselves to think beyond political platforms and party lines, and come together to imagine new possibilities that simply are not available on a ballot coming to you in November. Jane Addams, one of the great educators in our country’s history, who fought for the rights of poor and women, for sanitary conditions for immigrants all over Chicago, had some reservation about women’s suffrage, which she did fight for. Why? Because she new in the 1910s what we have witnessed over the past 100 years. When people have the right to vote, it’s all too easy to dismiss the other important civic obligations they have. Did I vote this season? Yes? Check. Done with my responsibilities. When you feel your obligations are limited to a multiple choice form once or twice a year (if you’re a very conscientious voter), you will have failed to understand every other obligation to your country, your fellow citizens, your neighborhood, your local public school, the poor, the sick, the marginalized. Being in public and expressing in public are ways to make this country better. Not the only ways, certainly. If I should have known better than to bring children to a public display of dissent, then I truly hope people will come out in public and make the public a safe place for all of us to be.

The two arrested Occupiers were charged with Class C misdemeanors. Apparently the charges may be increased to Class B. Class B misdemeanor charges result when the damage done costs between $50 and $500 to remedy. The cost of erasing dissent, in this case of erasing chalk from a public sidewalk, will cost tax payers less than $500. The cost of erasing dissent, by making the country’s citizens fearful of participating in a robust public sphere, by making them fearful of coming together, by making its children afraid to be with others and afraid of the police, will be paid for generations to come.


It rained the next day.

Photo Credit: John Jack Anderson 2012

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