Buckets of sidewalk chalk are often found in suburban garages and kindergarten classrooms, available for kids to express their creativity on concrete palettes. However, sidewalk chalk has been a bone of contention here at UC Irvine during the past couple of weeks.
On Nov. 17, UCI Police detained five UCI students for using chalk to write messages of protest around the humanities, Ring Road and Student Center. Statements such as “Dear TA: Your union sold you out. Reject the contract” and “No More Fees” were visible for a short period of time before student workers were ordered to clean off the chalk.
As part of the ongoing student movement, protesters scheduled a “Chalk is free speech!” protest last Monday, Nov. 22. Student organizers met around 11 a.m. near the flagpoles and began writing messages such as “Our University” and “Fire Kemper” – a reference to UCIPD Officer Jared Kemper, who pulled a gun on protesters in San Francisco during the Nov. 17 regents meeting.
Between 11 and noon, students passed out chalk to other students and continued to write messages along Ring Road as they moved toward Aldrich Hall. Two UCIPD officers showed up and stopped students from continuing their chalking.
Four students were detained and asked to sit in front of Aldrich Hall while officers took down their information. One officer asked to see the hands of a nearby student who was holding a sign to look for evidence of chalk residue. One of the protesters advised the four students who were being written up to not say anything to the police, but he was told to stand back. Other students began shouting about oppression and police intimidation. “Chalking is free speech!” they called out to passers-by. “Chalking is not a crime!”
Two more officers also showed up, including Officer Kemper, which immediately provoked a strong reaction from several of the protesters. A video of the protest shows sociology graduate student John Bruning asking, “Officer Kemper, are you going to shoot anyone today?”
The protesters who were not being written up were asked to step back while the police continued their investigation. Protesters continued to shout statements at passing students and asking the officers if there were specific laws regarding chalking as vandalism.
The four students, who were told they were stopped for vandalism, were released at around 12:30 p.m. without any charges. After they were released, students continued to chalk around the humanities. They were stopped by a maintenance worker, who radioed for the police. By the evening, the majority of the chalk messages were washed away.
The next day, similar chalk statements showed up in the School of the Arts, but were not scrubbed away until Wednesday morning.
“Whenever there is chalking that challenges the administration, it’s immediately erased,” Bruning said. “In the past, there have been cases of police tearing down posters advertising protests which were properly posted. So while there are a number of issues of chalking by itself that I think need to be resolved, it’s indicative of something much larger happening.”
UCIPD Chief Paul Henisey acknowledged that chalking was not illegal, but could lead to potential student conduct charges because of the clean-up efforts involved. Dorms and other campus groups have chalked areas of the campus without consequences before. The major concern, Henisey said, was if the chalking were to continue and caused “university resources to be used for clean-up.”
But protesters say that they have no plans to stop chalking.
“Chalk is cheap and students will continue chalking,” Bruning said. “Hopefully [the administration] will stop expending scarce resources to suppress a form of dissent that is legally permitted.”