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Shepard Fairey case is part of Detroit mayor's fight against vandals

Shepard Fairey is looking at a possible 10 years in prison for pasting his art on Detroit buildings.
Shepard Fairey is looking at a possible 10 years in prison for pasting his art on Detroit buildings.

DETROIT – Let there be no doubt the city of Detroit is changing for the better.

Mayor Mike Duggan holds news conferences almost daily to run with some new and exciting program aimed at improving the fate of Detroit residents. Often these programs are the norm in any other major cities but they are new to Detroit because, in its seemingly endless slog into municipal bankruptcy, it really could do nothing. Bankruptcy Judge Rhodes called it "service insolvent."

Here is today's example: Mayor Duggan rolled out a vocational style training program for high school students yearning to become firefighters or emergency medical technicians. Providing high school classes that complete the six-month academy training during a student's junior and senior years is not rocket science, yet it can change the lives of young Detroiters that for too long have been devoid of hope for the future.

Not so simple, though, is making Detroit run like other major cities when it comes to things like law enforcement. Take the strange case of famous artist Shepherd Fairey. He is best known for giving the world the President Obama "HOPE" poster in 2007. He also has a wild fascination with Andre the Giant. So much so, he uses wheat paste to attach massive stenciled portraits to the late pro wrestler to the sides of tall buildings all over the country.

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Fairey came to Detroit a while back when Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert (of "most- prodigious-Detroit-landlord" fame) hired him to display his art for a tidy sum. But Fairey is charged with being unable to constrain his efforts to buildings where his art was asked for and welcome. Soon thereafter, "Obey the Giant" artwork started showing up all over the city's buildings and railroad trestles.

The city of Detroit now is charging Fairey with malicious destruction of a building and other property doing damage in excess of $20,000, which is no small charge. It's a 10-year felony! The posters are affixed so securely it requires defacing the brick or siding to get them off.

Fairey says Detroit cannot prove he put up the posters. That was not much of a convincing defense because a judge ordered Fairey to trial on the charges later this month.

This is an example of Mayor Mike Duggan's zero tolerance policy regarding graffiti and vandalism. He reiterated his firm opposition today at the news conference rolling out the firefighter program.

"Of the 36 individuals the police have arrested (for vandalism recently), two thirds of them came from outside the city of Detroit and I for one am fed up with people coming into the city thinking they can trash it and nothing is going to happen," Duggan said.

Fairey calls Los Angeles home.

But let's look at Detroit's larger crime problem.

The murder rate is off the charts, violent crime is rampant, property crimes continue to plague residents and the understaffed Detroit Police Department can barely keep up with any of this. So how do you square expending this much effort going after graffiti artists? Well, there is an urban crime fighting methodology called "broken window enforcement." It operates under the belief that going after the smaller, petty crimes spreads the word upward and outward and helps stop more important crime because everyone knows the cops are looking at everything.

New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani made this policing famous. Duggan believes when it comes to preventing blight in a blight-filled city, you enforce with enthusiasm. He emphatically made his case again today.

"When you go mark up a building you don't own, that's vandalism. It would be vandalism in Birmingham, it would be vandalism in Grosse Pointe and now it's vandalism in Detroit," he said.

It was a big applause line from the crowd at that news conference today because so many residents are so tired of unrelenting urban decay. The mayor wants everyone to know that every one of those arrested for felony defacing property recently are getting treated exactly the same, and that includes Fairey.

But, getting tough leaves a lot of unanswered questions. There are those wondering if there is any true sense of proportion here. Many who like Fairey's work will ask: A woman bumps into someone on a ramshackle city bus and gets stabbed to death, occupying police and prosecutor time as it should, but at the same time an artist of international fame is looking at 10 years in prison for breaking out a bucket of wheat paste and slapping a poster on a wall? They cannot grasp something like this taking up important court attention. To his supporters, Fairey is not a danger to anyone and adds a bit of modern artistic flair to Detroit's neighborhoods -- not just downtown.

Local 4 has discovered Fairey also has people who don't necessarily support him yet wonder about the wisdom of "open windows" policing at this time in the city's history. Andy Arena heads up Detroit's Crime Commission. Its charge is for former law enforcement officers (Arena used to run Detroit's FBI office) to look at crime issues like this and weigh in with an outsider's view, taking into account all sides. They step back and look at the city's response, the victims and the alleged criminal's situation. In this case, Arena is not wondering whether Fairey is guilty, that's for the courts to decide. He does wonder, though, whether the penalty fits the crime and whether the city really needs to go after Fairey this way.

Let's be clear here and reiterate, Arena is no Fairey apologist. He fully expects a guilty verdict or perhaps a plea agreement. He told me today "you've got to address crime but you've got to look at your resources and you don't have the resources to cover everything and that's a very tricky thing for the city to be dealing with now."

Arena thinks this situation is unique and can be turned into a win-win with some creativity. He looks at the policing landscape and says: "You cannot come into the city and deface property like that, but, you know, you've got a world renowned artist. So, what can you do? Can he do some kind of an art symposium for Detroit Public Schools can he pay to clean this up?"

Arena is looking for not so much special treatment for Fairey but a way to turn this lemon of a low level crime into some lemonade; a problem into opportunity:

"Do you put a guy like this in jail or do you get something positive out of this guy?" he said.

Arena says he is not looking to pick a fight with the mayor and hopes everyone can walk away from this "tagging" or graffiti -- depending on your point of view -- with some sense of improvement the city can claim as a victory.

Mayor Duggan says he can't wrap his mind around this debate. Fairey's supporters can't wrap their minds around the enforcement. The trial will play out, but how with the aftermath? This will definitely be interesting!


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