Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Politics: Reminder of Why to Avoid Massachusetts

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I'm not going to defend artist Shepard Fairey, or pass judgment on him either way. I don't know if he's criminally responsible for graffiti or not; I don't know if he's in violation of copyright or not. However, the news of his arrest in Boston while he was en-route to the opening of an exhibit featuring his works at the Institute for Contemporary Art reminded me why I want nothing to do with the mentality of people in the state of Massachusetts if I can avoid it for the rest of my life.

Shepard Fairey has become best known for the abstract image he created of Barack Obama in red, white and blue with the word "HOPE" below that eventually became an icon of the President's campaign. The image itself has created controversy, as the Associated Press claims that his use of one of their photographs as a starting point did not constitute fair use.

However, that legal situation may be the least of Fairey's concerns. Long before creating the "Hope" work, he was known for graffiti stencils including the word "obey" and Andre the Giant. Boston Police claim that they have evidence that, in 2000, he personally stenciled at least two locations in that city with graffiti, leading to charges that they used to arrest him last Friday.

Quite possibly, Fairey deserved to be arrested. However, as I listened to coverage of recent events on CBC Radio One's The Current this morning, I was mostly feeling glad that I didn't live in Massachusetts anymore.

This is how things work in Massachusetts. It's likely that Boston Police had other opportunities to arrest Fairey before the opening night of his exhibit, probably back as far as 2000. However, at that time, there was likely not public pressure on them to make the arrest, and they likely focused on things they considered more important. However, now that Fairey has become prominent and even a role model, resentment about his perceived hypocrisy has grown into anger that has likely been directed into pressure on the police department to arrest him. I doubt there's much fault to find with in the police department in this case, regardless of the eventual legal truths that will be revealed. It's the political climate that has changed since 2000 and has led to a prominent artist being arrested.

What happens in Massachusetts is that people take a dislike to someone (or a group), don't say much about it, then wait for an advantageous event that allows them to get the public on their side and take out their dislike in either the courts or the media, or both. It happens all the time. His rivals had been after Massport Executive Director Peter Blute for a long time, then set up the 1999 "booze cruise" (which the Boston Herald just happened to be around to photograph) to embarrass him into resigning. Politicians had wanted Amtrak out as contractor for commuter rail around Boston for months if not years before the death of a man by heart attack on a train allowed them to rally public support to get rid of Amtrak--and the change in operator has done nothing to prevent the same event from happening again, but they got their revenge on Amtrak. On a smaller scale, I've seen neighbors that disliked someone wait for a minor incident that amounted to an accident and then, as a group, all individually call city inspectors to create trouble for that person and put their renovations so far behind schedule that they ended up nearly bankrupt.

There are two things that always bothered me about these kinds of events. First of all, they are completely unconstructive. Rather than presenting a positive alternative to something that is going on, they try to drag down a person. Nothing positive ever comes out of these sequences, and whomever becomes the target can have their life ruined. More importantly, they don't deal with the root cause of the dislike. Those against Peter Blute were apparently mostly upset about his plans for a third runway--plans that Massport didn't drop when Blute was succeeded. Quality of service on commuter rail has gone down since Amtrak was replaced by the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad by almost any standard, but I wouldn't blame that on the new contractor--the real problem is the equipment provided by the local agency.

If Fairey really committed criminal acts--and he may have--then he should have been arrested a long time ago, perhaps made to do restitution for any damage caused. It's so typical of Massachusetts for such an arrest to wait until it creates maximum damage to the person--and do nothing about vandalism, the real problem at the heart of the community resentment. It's really tiresome to see yet another unconstructive Massachusetts drama.

For all I know, somebody in the Boston area has some old grudge against me, and if I ever become prominent and pass through town, they'll find some way to cause serious trouble for me while I'm visiting. Considering how things work in that region, it would be almost be more surprising if someone weren't waiting for such a chance.

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