On Sunday night, a person or group of people decided to publicly share their thoughts on the ongoing plans for a new homeless shelter in Portland. But it’s the way they’ve chosen to amplify their message — graffiti outside of City Hall — that is getting people’s attention. And we’re not fans of their work.
Don’t get us wrong, we’re all for an impassioned and informed debate about the future of Portland’s new shelter that includes a host of differing and strong opinions. That’s how good policy and enduring, adaptable public resources are designed. But we have to agree with the city that breaking the law and spray painting a message on public property is not a good way to contribute to an otherwise necessary conversation.
“The City of Portland respects all opinions regarding policy matters, but we do not tolerate criminal acts, and defacing City property is not the right way to share your message,” the city said in a press release, sent through the police department. “The City does intend to press charges if a perpetrator is identified.”
The city’s response is spot on.
Also included in the city’s Tuesday press release is the 15-word message along with a photo of the graffitti. The message and photos ran in media outlets around the state, including this one. We understand that the underlying message of the graffiti is a critical part of the story. We also have to wonder, however, if repeating that message and showing the graffitti over and over rewards the perpetrators — and that’s what they are — for their inartful, inconsiderate and illegal means of communicating their opinion. Maybe by discussing it at all, we’re rewarding them right now.
Again, it’s not the content of those 15 words with which we take issue. Maine’s largest city, like many other parts of the state, has been wrestling with how to provide services to homeless members of the community. For a variety of reasons, it could be very easy for the voices of this often marginalized community to not be fully represented in this conversation. So, advocacy on their behalf is generally a good thing. But the medium, and not just the message, matters.
That advocacy should come through avenues that don’t break the law or cost the city money to clean up. Thankfully, this is still America. People are free to protest, free to speak up at public meetings, free to write letters to the editor and free to exercise their First Amendment rights in so many other ways. Turning to graffiti on city property seems more likely to draw a line in the sand — or in this case, the sidewalk — between advocates and the city officials they aim to influence. From where we’re standing (admittedly, up here in Bangor) that looks counterproductive.
There is, of course, little chance that someone willing to flout the law and spray paint this message will be moved by an admonition from this editorial board. But we do hope that when others feel strongly about weighing in on an important local issue, and perhaps feel unheard in that discussion, they find a way to share their opinion that is less destructive of public property and more productive in the overall debate.