Spray-paint artists in America’s most expensive neighborhood: Terrorist threat or teenage prank?

This post has been updated.

Editor’s note: This is an opinion column by George Salamon.

They struck in the early evening hours of Feb. 16, spray-painting “F*** the 1%” several times and “Kill People” once on walls of houses, garage doors, fences and a car in Atherton, Calif. On Feb. 25 the CBS television outlet in San Francisco (KPIX) and CNBC reported their “threatening” and “offensive” graffiti, and CNBC coined the term “anti-wealth phrases” to capture the heinous nature of the threat the graffiti posed.

On the following day, a story in the San Jose Mercury News followed with a less-agitated account of what had occurred and who might be responsible. None of the stories confronted the key issue raised by the response to this act of vandalism. While no one questioned that personal property was defaced and destroyed, and that therefore felonies were likely committed, the real question of whether or not the FBI should have been involved in the investigation of the spray-painting was not explored by the media.

Atherton, where the median price for a house is $6.6 million, is located close to Palo Alto, and it’s nestled conveniently between the Emerald Hills and Stanford University golf clubs. Among its current and former residents are Charles R. Schwab, founder of the brokerage giant; Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google; and Meg Whitman, president and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard. The community was named America’s most expensive ZIP code (94027) in 2013 by Forbes.

Since no witnesses to the spray-painting have emerged, and since the cameras on or near the properties have offered no clues, neighbors of the defaced properties were cited in the KPIX story as being on the fence as to who the perpetrators were: “Occupy (Wall Street) protesters, gang members, or teens with time to kill.” The CNBC report conceded that the “graffiti may just be another case of a few kids making mischief,” but quickly added that “because of the heated political climate over wealth, and rising class tensions in San Francisco, the police informed the FBI.”

The KPIX and CNBC accounts present, but don’t question, the FBI’s involvement in the case. No civil-rights attorneys or constitutional lawyers were interviewed. KPIX reported the incident “has gotten the attention of the FBI” because the federal agency “monitors activist movements such as Occupy Wall Street.” Some Americans consider political “activism,” which includes voting, petitioning Congress and peacefully assembling to voice grievances, their civic duty – and a contribution, rather than a threat, to democracy. And spray-painting has not (yet) been declared a federal offense.

In the CNBC account, the connection to the Occupy movement and the justification to call in the feds is spelled out more clearly by Atherton’s town manager.

“The nature of the graffiti was the 1 percent issue,” he said. “So they (the police) wanted to alert the FBI.”

The 1 percent issue is a grave economic, social and political matter, and the police might have called the economics and sociology departments at nearby Stanford University to gain a better understanding of it. But why the FBI?

The perpetrators of the Atherton caper or protest, whichever it turns out to be, should be charged with defacing and damaging private property. The one “Kill People” sign is stupid and nasty, and so vague as to be meaningless as a threat. In addition, it is no more a threat than if the painter of it had said in a conversation to a friend, “We ought to knock off our leaders every 50 years or so.” If that person had urged passers-by to go home and grab guns or baseball bats to do it, then the police and FBI should have been called to stop that person and the violence he or she tried to incite.

Finally, what none of the stories, including the best of the three in the San Jose paper, addressed is the perception or misperception of the “1 percent issue” – and why the FBI’s role is to discover and prevent terrorism, not advocacy of social and economic change. The Occupy movement has engaged in conventional political activity by voicing dissent, no matter how badly some of its followers occasionally behaved in the assemblies to express that dissent.

The FBI website defines one of the agency’s goals as the capacity “to develop comprehensive understanding of the threats and penetrate national and transnational networks that have a desire and capability to harm us. Such networks include terrorist organizations, foreign intelligence services, those that seek to proliferate weapons of mass destruction, and criminal enterprises.” Occupying a park across the street from a bank that issued dubious mortgages hardly qualifies Occupy Wall Street for membership. The movement calls for “non-violent civil disobedience and building solidarity based on mutual respect, acceptance and love.”

In a report on the FBI by the Congressional Research Service, terrorism is described as having “the capacity to undermine national public and private institutions and values, and negatively affect national quality of life.” Has Occupy Wall Street aimed for, or ever achieved, that capacity? There is nothing to suggest it.

But who has? And here the good folks in Atherton might add to their own understanding of the “1 percent issue.” As a group of Harvard social scientists and health specialists suggested as early as 2008 that high economic inequality, with its ever-widening income gap between the 1 percent (or top 10 percent to 15 percent) and the rest of Americans, correlates with – if it does not cause – “more crime, less happiness, poorer mental and physical health, less racial harmony, and less civic and political participation.” In their eyes, and in the eyes of Occupy Wall Street, those who contribute to, and endorse, our widening economic inequality inadvertently inflicted some of the harm terrorist enemies of our society aim to inflict deliberately.

In light of all that, let police forces in the Bay Area catch the Atherton spray-paint gang. And let the American people push their representatives and their media to talk honestly and fully about that “1 percent” matter.

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