Our Methods and Goals in the UB Graffiti Scandal

#11, 1987

At the beginning of the fall semester 1986, we began an intense graffiti campaign on and against our campus, which is the State University of New York at Buffalo (commonly called the University of Buffalo or UB). Our first targets were the elevators servicing Clemens Hall, the location of the English department. At least five different people -- Bill B, Bill McB, Beverly, John and Joe (all grad students in English) -- were involved in the campaign. Our graffiti included phrases taken from songs by the Mekons, the Birthday Party, or Parliament/Funkadelic, lines copied out of theory books, and stuff we made up ourselves (such as Bl@h, such stood for "Bop Like Adorno & Horkheimer").

The effect wasn't immediate, but it was what we were looking for. On 7 November 1986, the following letter to the editor ran in The Spectrum, UB's student newspaper. Entitled "Some people mistake building for subway," it was written by Emily Tall, who was identified as an Associate Professor of Russian.

I am appalled at the way some students keep writing on the walls of the Clemens Hall elevators! What is this, a zoo? The New York City subway system? What are these people trying to prove -- that they are above the norms of public behavior? Or don't they even know that there are any? Whoever you are, I hope you realize that your scribblings are offensive.
While I am at it, I would like to express my anger at the person who ripped off all the notices and pictures from the bulletin board outside my office. All that information was for your fellow students; you were depriving [sic] them of part of their education.
I guess I'm still naive; I expected more of you.

Our responses were to write even more graffiti in the Clemens Hall elevators (some of the graffiti in Russian and mockingly repeating Professor Tall's rhetorical questions) and to take the graffiti campaign to the entire campus. Calling ourselves "the Bomb Squad," we would wander around the campus, writing graffiti everywhere we thought it would offend people like Professor Tall. Eventually, we read about and visited the ghastly walkway between the Student Activities Center and Knox Hall. Because there were official plans to decorate this awful place, we concentrated our efforts there. We weren't alone; there were others -- some of them more traditionally "political" in their graffiti than we were -- who relentlessly bombed the SAC walkway.

On 10 December 1986, the following letter to the editor ran in The Spectrum. Entitled "Bad poets spoil hallway's progress," it was written by one Michael Zekser, who was identified as the coordinator of Kappa Sigma's "Make A Difference Committee."

I want to talk about the walkway between the SAC and Knox Hall. Since January, I have worked very hard to change this undecorated, institutional hallway that is so characteristic of UB.
Much to my surprise the administration actually liked the idea and wanted to help, not just give permission; they wanted to share in the planning. I found myself forming The Make A Difference Committee to find a path through SUNY red tape. Believe it or not, the administration hates the red tape as much as we do.
At any rate, this is the first project of its type on the Amherst campus. Sixteen years without students doing anything about the environment we all complain about. My philosophy has always been: Don't complain about something if you aren't willing to work to change it. So I worked, some SUNY administrators worked, and some of my fraternity brothers worked.
Well, designs were submitted, funds were dug up, and plans finalized. The University then primed the walls of the walkway -- what came next? The winning design? Wrong. Graffiti. Whoever did the graffiti could have submitted a design like others did.
Instead some anarchists, anti-Nicaraguans and bad poets made their statements. To me, this shows they don't know what's going on at this University and that they don't care about others. Predictable. There must be a better way to get political.
I hope I don't see anyone in the walkway with an uncapped marker. I would definitely do something.

With this letter, the graffiti scandal at UB began.

Working as fast as possible and yet well prepared for our task, we wrote the following response to Zekser, photocopied it on bright yellow paper, and posted it all over campus. Entitled "An Open Letter to Michael Zekser, Coordinator of the 'Make A Difference Committee,' Kappa Sigma, Dated 11 December 1986," our single-page response was wedged between the handwritten phrases "WARNING!" and "THROW THIS AWAY."

There is much in your letter to the editor of The Spectrum (10 Dec 86) that I, as one of the "anarchists, anti-Nicaraguans and bad poets" who tried to write all over your beloved walkway between the SAC and Knox Hall, can agree with. We agree that the "undecorated institutional walkway" is, unfortunately, "so characteristic of UB." We agree that for the last sixteen years, students haven't been doing anything about "the environment we all complain about." We agree that a good rule of thumb is "Don't complain about something if you aren't willing to work to change it." Finally, we agree that "there must be a better way [than writing graffiti] to get political." It seems that those "better ways" are inaccessible to us at this moment in time, and so the "political" graffiti will have to act as our Northwest Passage. . . .
What we disagree on is the role of the UB administration -- the very people who leave undecorated all of the "institutional" stairwells, hallways and classrooms at this university -- in all this. You were surprised that "the administration actually liked the idea and wanted to share in the planning." Your reaction is understandable, given that you don't understand that you are doing the Administration a favor, not the other way around! Even if the official "Make A Difference Committee" chose the most "political" design imaginable, the completed design would be little more than a caption that insists that the overseers of the still-institutional SAC hallway are really great people who act in our interests. With the same idea in mind, we note that the officially-sanctioned designs in the Norton and Talbert Cafeterias depict the very food that is sold there. How literal-minded can you get? Your red-tape cutting administration is more than happy to provide the leninist Graduate Group in Marxist Studies with adequate funding, because it knows that the GGMS can be used to obscure the fact that this university community is in fact reactionary and closed in on itself.
You are right to say that "whoever did the graffiti could have submitted a design like others did." But we chose not to, because we don't want decoration; we want communication, communication that is outside of the marketing mentality of the university community. We chose to drop the Bomb on the SAC/Knox Hall walkway precisely because it was to be officially painted; we wanted to test the strength of the desire here for radical communication, for refusing the silence of a community that only wants to advertise itself. The result of that test, as you are obviously aware, is that the desire for radical communication is stronger than anyone thought, ourselves included! You say that "anarchists, anti-Nicaraguans and bad poets made their statement." But there were more of us than that! There were pro-Nicaraguans, anti-Iranians, undefinables, situationists, Marxists and good poets. It was as a result of the Make A Difference Committee's futile efforts to humanize the walkway that all these writers became aware of their membership in an unorganized organization. We are now working to weed out the anti-Nicaraguans and other reactionaries, so as to attack the present marketing-society with even greater force.
I should like to take this opportunity to respond to Emily Tall, who complained about the graffiti in the Clemens Hall elevators in a recent letter to the editor of The Spectrum. She asked if we thought that UB was a "zoo" or "a NYC subway." She also asked if we had crippled one of the elevator's doors. Yes, we think UB is a zoo and is like the NYC subways, and we are happy to respond to the name "Monkey Nigger," which is what these two places, taken together, must signify for a woman as limited and fearful as Professor Tall. We want to destroy everything you apparently hold dear. The Clemens Hall elevators and the SAC/Knox Hall walkway are just the beginning. We're coming to your town and we drive a trash can.

Entitled "To: Anarchists, Bad Poets, Anti-Nicaraguans," Zekser's hilarious response to our open letter was posted all over campus a day or two latter. Significantly, it attempted to imitate exactly the form and style of our open letter, as if these things, which were actually quite contingent, constituted some sort of established practice that we ourselves were obliged to follow. Printed on colored paper, Zekser's response was wedged between the phrases "WARNING!" and "DON'T THROW THIS AWAY." All this proved our point, namely that "this university community is reactionary and closed in on itself." If it is true that "the only way to change a system is to get inside it," as Zekser claims, this is because the system cannot tolerate the idea that something exists outside of it. For people like Zekser, negation, which is quite asymmetrical, can only be tolerated if it is reduced to a "No" that neatly corresponds to a "Yes." Thus Zekser changes "THROW THIS AWAY" to "DON'T THROW THIS AWAY," and demonstrates a fetish for permanence and a hostility to ephemerality.

Zekser wrote:

[To: Anarchists, Bad Poets, Anti-Nicaraguans] or whoever else does graffiti unjustifiably. I will justify unjustifiably soon. First I am glad that you replied so quickly. Must be nice to be a philosophy or poly [sic] sci major with access to printing equipment. However, trashman, it was very predictable that you and your group didn't sign your flyer. You wouldn't want to be bound to your current beliefs after graduation when most of you will swing to the right, get haircuts, new wardrobes and maybe marketing mentality jobs.
You say better ways of expressing yourselves are inaccessible to you. The flyers you put up Thursday makes you a blatant liar. Also, ever hear of the Alternative News Collective. It used to be a school funded newspaper for people with viewpoints very similar to yours. Too bad radical liberals didn't want to do the work involved in airing the views they pretended to live by. The paper could always be restarted, but that would mean work.
Next, SUNY-Central in Albany are the people responsible for the institutional look -- not U.B.'s administration.
Next, I chose the judges. I chose open-minded administrators and students who represented organizations who got involved.
Next, ever hear of AIA. They are here because faculty are biased in your direction.
Next, you don't want decoration either. Neither does SUNY-Central. Maybe you guys work for SUNY-Central. You want communication. Remember the ANC? How about getting a speaker to come here? How about a rally?
Next, the great radical purge is going on now, huh? Three other purges come to mind: The Ayatollah's, MacCarthy [sic], and, of course, the inquisition. Great idea.
In closing, thanks for the reply. By the way, it's a common fact that the only way to change a system is to get inside it. Good luck on the outside.

More than anything else, Zekser's letter is an indictment of what passes for a university-level education in this society. In this hastily, poorly written and poorly argued response, the all-too-familiar and already impoverished "First, second, third, fourth and finally" structure is further degraded into a "First, next, next, next and in-closing" format. The whole thing is short on things to say; even its insults and threats are lame. This guy is a student leader, ready to graduate and assume his position in the world at large? At the risk of wasting time, we'd like to make a few specific comments about the contents of his response.

Zekser has a real and quite comic problem with names and correctly identifying people. Though we clearly stated that we would respond to the name "Monkey Nigger," Zekser insists on calling us "trashman" (as if there could only be one of us, and as if this person could only be a man!). This proves the value of the name "Monkey Nigger" to us: it cannot be uttered, by anyone, without causing a scandal, and so it is forgotten as quickly as possible.

Quite obviously, Zekser's uninformed decision to dump the "anti-Nicaraguans" (who are presumably anti-Sandinista) in with the anarchists and bad poets was a glaring, stupid mistake. Others have already caught it: we saw one of Zekser's flyers with the phrase "anti-Nicaraguans" circled and the words "Fuck Head" written on it. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before one of Zekser's cronies will ask, "Hey, Mikey! Ain't we the anti-Nicaraguans?" How will Zekser be able to unravel that one? Answer: he won't. And a fine thing that will be, too, for Zekser is obviously a self-important know-it-all. Note that his response to our open letter, unlike his letter to the editor, does not identify him as a member of Kappa Sigma. As a result, when he writes, "I chose the judges," etc. etc., it sounds as if he thinks he's King. But who chose him to make the choices?

According to King Zekser, "radical liberals" such as ourselves hate hard work: we are too lazy to work hard at anything, even "radical liberal" causes such as the Alternative News Collective. And yet, when the time comes, most of us will not find yet another way of staying out of the workforce; we will apply ourselves and will get the haircuts, wardrobes and mind-sets necessary to get jobs. To insulate himself against the idea that "radical liberals" will shortly be invading the job market and changing it from the inside, Zekser says that we are only pretending to be radicals. But we are not pretending. We are really fucking lazy, and we don't give a damn that our hair, clothes and beliefs will keep us from getting the type of job someone like Zekser would do anything to get.

Let's conclude this piece by making some general comments on the architecture here at SUNY at Buffalo and its effects on the preconditions for radical political action, for these are the issues foregrounded by writing graffiti in places such as the SAC/Knox Hall walkway. Radical political action in the 1960s, which sought to destroy all of the separations that keep people apart from each other and from themselves, was made possible by the existence of public spaces big enough to accommodate large-scale rallies, demonstrations and protests. It seemed clear that without these spaces, radical political action would have nowhere to be born, grow and thrive. And so, at the end of the 1960s, SUNY administrators began the construction of a second, "satellite" UB campus in Amherst, New York, and began the long-term process of moving all of UB from the old campus to the new one. The new campus -- a polycentered maze of above-ground tunnels and easily separable buildings -- had and still has absolutely no place big enough for a rally, demonstration or protest. As a result, once student protest died in the 1970s, it was unable to revive itself in the 1980s.

Throughout this period, the goal of radical political action has remained the same: the elimination of separation. But many student radicals still adhere to the idea that to protest against something in an effective way you've got to hold a mass demonstration. As a result, they come to the conclusion that it is impossible to protest at UB, at which no mass demonstrations can be held. But this conclusion is false: protest is still possible, but it must be done in manners appropriate to the changed physical environment. UB's architecture may prohibit macro-political actions, but it is a rich field for action on the micro-political level. Most people, but especially administrators and security forces, never imagine that a virulent student politics might be born in a stairwell or a walkway. And so small, out-of-the-way areas of campus can be liberated from control, but without the administration or security knowing anything about it (until it is too late). Though not as spectacular as a mass demonstration, a network of liberated pockets can be far more potent in its effects, for it possesses the element of surprise. If or when the administrators and security forces do learn of the liberated areas, and bring them back under their control, student radicals need not be concerned that their whole movement will die if one of these areas is re-claimed. The radicals can simply move on to another out-of-the-way place that no one thought was vulnerable. In this way, their movement won't easily be defeated, for it will be small, mobile and intelligent.



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