Over the past several years, I have often posted a photograph and used it as a prompt for reflection. In Seeing the Better City, I encouraged this approach as a helpful way to spur meaningful discussions about urban land use disputes, particularly in American cities. In my pending book, I take the idea farther, integrating it with the co-creation approaches that have become increasingly popular as a method for meaningfully incorporating community viewpoints in a holistic discussion.
All of which brings to mind the commemorative obelisk on the eastern end of the Richmond Bridge in Greater London, which memorializes the bridge construction between 1774 and 1777. The facing of the structure does two things. First, it states distances to nearby locations. Second, and more relevant to this discussion, it also communicates a law and order message–anyone who intentionally “deface[s] or damage[s] this obelisk,” will face prosecution.
It is more than ironic to compare this simple, conventional warning with world events today. This week, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, statues of people involved in the slave trade or other discriminatory practices have fallen prey to tear-downs, spray-painting, and more. We are considering law enforcement in a new light during a sudden, much-needed reckoning about the status quo of systemic discrimination against minority populations.
A further example: In my hometown of Seattle, protesters near a police precinct on Capitol Hill have formed an autonomous zone, bounded by checkpoints. Seattle officials are attempting negotiations around this so-far peaceful endeavor, and, currently, underlying legal questions about cordoning off streets and public space are relegated to secondary importance. The standoff has sparked a Twitter war between President Trump–who alleges domestic terrorism–and local officials, who support the cause of Black Lives Matter.
As daily news becomes dynamic and increasingly unpredictable, I have begun to shy away from Zoom meetings and now-virtual annual conferences where speakers pronounce with finality post-crisis solutions and conclude the inconclusive. In contrast, I would rather reflect based on personal observation on how human nature is mixing in new and insightful ways.
Do common-sense messages on longstanding monuments need revision? Words etched in stone may need an edit. If a Google Doc, the redlined version would be heavily under discussion. But this much is clear: “deface or damage” needs a legal path that blends the old and new.