Property Damage: A Means of Exploring Self-Expression and Addressing Trauma

Prop­er­ty dam­age has val­ue to the move­ment, even when it only achieves goals rel­a­tive to the indi­vid­ual. It can be cathar­tic to a per­son with a need to release repressed emo­tion, a con­di­tion caused by liv­ing in an oppres­sive soci­ety. It can also be cathar­tic to peo­ple who expe­ri­ence the cathar­sis sec­ond-hand — glass on the ground reflects truth and police lights bet­ter than wet asphalt. Beyond this cathar­sis, there is anoth­er ben­e­fit to the indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence. Prop­er­ty dam­age can bridge the gap between the way the world looks and the way it can feel. Peo­ple often attempt to bring togeth­er their per­son­al expe­ri­ence and the appear­ance of the world, because the dis­con­nect can be dis­con­cert­ing at best and trau­mat­ic at worst. This is affirm­ing and healthy for peo­ple, but it also means they and oth­ers have less cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance when they expe­ri­ence the world. This in turn ide­al­ly leads to a reduc­tion in trau­ma from that expe­ri­ence.

I believe in the pow­er of prop­er­ty dam­age beyond cathar­sis and bridg­ing the gap; what fol­lows though explores cer­tain per­son­al ben­e­fits of the tac­tic only. It is not to sug­gest that because the focus is on ben­e­fits with­in, no ben­e­fits exist with­out. Inten­tion­al­ly wreck­ing shit has an impor­tant role to play even when some of the goals do not extend beyond the indi­vid­ual.


There is a cathar­tic aspect of prop­er­ty dam­age and the unruly nature of “vio­lent” protests, where media incor­rect­ly applies the word vio­lence to prop­er­ty dam­age.

Analy­sis of these acts of prop­er­ty dam­age must begin not with the act itself but with its gen­e­sis. A human being is free­dom. That free­dom is vul­ner­a­ble to exter­nal forces and oppres­sion, but a per­son in their nat­ur­al state is in a state of free­dom, whether you agree with Locke or Hobbes or Rousseau or whomev­er. Peo­ple exer­cise that free­dom through expres­sion, through paint­ing, poet­ry, lit­er­a­ture, and oth­er fine arts, but also through the so-called “low” art of crafts, the devel­op­ment and main­te­nance of com­mu­ni­ties, the evo­lu­tion of soci­etal norms and expec­ta­tions, and tra­di­tion. Expres­sion is any­thing that helps to cre­ate or devel­op our con­cepts of iden­ti­ty into the exter­nal land­scape.

When an author­i­ty exerts itself upon a per­son, it cuts away at that person’s abil­i­ty to express them­selves. The dri­ve to express does not dis­si­pate just because a per­son can­not for­mu­late any kind of real expres­sion. Instead, it sits in the bel­ly, fer­ment­ing. As it grows and rots, this for­mer­ly-pos­i­tive expres­sion builds pres­sure, which must be released. The longer some­one goes before find­ing an out­let, the greater the pres­sure, and there­fore the greater the release. If a per­son goes too long with this thing grow­ing inside them, they may break.

This is not a new idea. Often cathar­sis is called “let­ting off steam.” Some have sug­gest­ed that seek­ing this cathar­sis rein­forces the behav­ior that neces­si­tates it because the flush of cor­ti­sol can become habit-form­ing. There is no uni­fied view on whether repress­ing expres­sion inten­si­fies a feel­ing or caus­es it to dis­si­pate. In fact, over a hun­dred years ago doc­tors were argu­ing whether this release could be effect­ed with words alone, or if it could only be effect­ed by a sig­nif­i­cant act, such as revenge, and this debate con­tin­ues today. (Cathar­sis, as most psy­cho­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­na, is not near­ly so sim­ple. A good intro­duc­tion to the con­cept is the essay Anger and Cathar­sis: Myth, Metaphor or Real­i­ty by Stephen A. Dia­mond, Ph.D. Avail­able at (last vis­it­ed Mar. 7, 2017)). But the cathar­sis is still valu­able. The cathar­tic effect of smash­ing a bank win­dow or a police flood­light is symp­to­matic of the repres­sion of the indi­vid­ual. It is evi­dence of a person’s inabil­i­ty to express them­selves in a state of total free­dom. This cathar­sis is an inter­me­di­ate point between a con­di­tion of unen­cum­bered free­dom and a con­di­tion of com­plete repres­sion, under whose pres­sure peo­ple even­tu­al­ly risk a total break­down or inter­nal col­lapse. It is nec­es­sary and good.

Lim­i­nal spaces help to expe­ri­ence the nuanced com­plex­i­ty of the world. Expe­ri­ences like smash­ing a win­dow can occur in the cre­pus­cule of the evo­lu­tion of a person’s polit­i­cal under­stand­ing. It can be a point of ide­o­log­i­cal depar­ture between activists who would oth­er­wise have sol­i­dar­i­ty from their fight against the same oppo­nents. These cathar­tic events allow peo­ple to make a deci­sion, and it is my hope that the dis­cus­sion about the neces­si­ty of cathar­sis in an oppres­sive soci­ety might allow peo­ple who strong­ly dis­agree on the role of prop­er­ty destruc­tion could find com­mon ground once again.

Bridg­ing the Dis­con­nect Between Sense and Per­cep­tion

There is anoth­er val­ue to see­ing prop­er­ty dam­age and the after­math of the black bloc, as in this after­math the world begins to look like it feels. There is ordi­nar­i­ly a dis­con­nect between the way the world looks and the way it is: ordi­nary, mun­dane. White suprema­cists and neo-Nazis are open­ly advo­cat­ing for their despi­ca­ble nation­al­ist agen­da, fas­cism is in its ascen­dan­cy, and peo­ple are still buy­ing bread. The world is on fire and peo­ple look like they’re just going about their dai­ly lives as best they can, even when we all feel this des­o­la­tion inter­nal­ly. This rift between col­lec­tive­ly-assert­ed “nor­mal­cy” and indi­vid­ual aware­ness of a dire sit­u­a­tion can be con­fus­ing and trau­mat­ic.

Anoth­er exam­ple of this rift between what a per­son sees and what a per­son feels is gen­der dys­pho­ria. As some­one who has expe­ri­enced this, I noticed par­al­lels in the dis­con­nect I felt when star­ing at the world and star­ing at myself in the mir­ror. In this sense, dys­pho­ria is the very real phys­i­cal, men­tal, and emo­tion­al trau­ma caused by a person’s expe­ri­ence of the dif­fer­ence between the nor­ma­tive and pos­i­tive real­i­ties in which they live. While these two exam­ples of rifts or dis­con­nects are not direct­ly com­pa­ra­ble, the con­cep­tu­al frame­work is use­ful to under­stand and explain dif­fer­ent sub­ject mat­ters and their asso­ci­at­ed trau­mas.

One way I deal with my gen­der dys­pho­ria is to use gen­der-affirm­ing exter­nal sym­bols and expres­sions, like nail pol­ish and make­up, to alter my pre­sen­ta­tion to bet­ter rep­re­sent my iden­ti­ty and expe­ri­ence. I rec­og­nize my priv­i­lege in being able to do this rel­a­tive­ly safe­ly: I am not in the clos­et. Merg­ing the exter­nal and inter­nal — specif­i­cal­ly, by chang­ing pre­sen­ta­tion to reflect iden­ti­ty — dimin­ish­es the expe­ri­ence of that trau­ma. Like­wise, this rift is assuaged when the world’s pre­sen­ta­tion begins to reflect our expe­ri­ence of the world. This indi­vid­ual action becomes social­ly vis­i­ble. A cathar­tic act, as defined above, or the after­math of that act, could be an expe­ri­ence-affirm­ing sym­bol. It brings the inter­nal under­stand­ing and the exter­nal­ly vis­i­ble into clos­er align­ment. Humans are excel­lent pat­tern find­ers. We like to find mean­ing with­in every­thing, in order to define things in terms of rela­tion­ships. We devel­op inter­nal sys­tems of mean­ing, and we apply these sys­tems to the world in order to make sense of it. Some sym­bols have cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance, which means there is a gen­er­al­ly agreed upon field of mean­ing that cer­tain sym­bols com­mu­ni­cate to mem­bers of a cul­ture. In the chaos of a shat­tered win­dow, an observ­er may dis­cov­er a reflec­tion of the invis­i­ble chaos around them. In sequen­tial images of the destruc­tion of a lim­ou­sine at Wash­ing­ton, D.C. on Jan­u­ary 20th, the whole world saw a sym­bol of wealth and class strat­i­fi­ca­tion dis­man­tled by force.

First, the lim­ou­sine was parked on the street, already a tres­pass­er because the streets are the people’s. We live on the streets, off them, by their lan­guages and cul­tur­al imper­a­tives, while the wealthy live high above them, removed from the minu­ti­ae, from the noise and vio­lence their politi­cians’ laws do. Sec­ond, the peo­ple were danc­ing on top of the lim­ou­sine, as if to say “this is mine, I will feel joy and express myself in the ecsta­sy of the moment. You can­not touch me here — here is where I touch you.” Third, the tint­ed win­dows were smashed. The lim­ou­sine, with its tint­ed win­dows, rolls slow­ly down the peo­ples’ streets and turns the world into a zoo for the wealthy, so that they may feel immersed in our world while remain­ing pro­tect­ed from the ret­ri­bu­tion they must know is com­ing some­time. Their sym­bol is con­spic­u­ous while their iden­ti­ties are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly obscured by that sym­bol. Final­ly, the lim­ou­sine was set on fire and “WE THE PEOPLE Ⓐ” was spray paint­ed on the side in gold. Graf­fi­ti is the art of the street, while gold is and always has been the baroque dis­play of con­spic­u­ous wealth. The sym­bol­ism of the fiery lim­ou­sine was direct and pow­er­ful. Regard­less of what they thought about it, a burn­ing lim­ou­sine with gold spray paint is a pret­ty blunt metaphor for the rever­sal of the pow­er dynam­ic between class­es.

The progress mir­rored what I think a lot of us seek to see in a broad­er sense. I can’t speak to anyone’s goals but my own, but I want to make what was done to the lim­ou­sine an explic­it threat. “This is you, this is what we will do to you, and this is how we will reclaim your use­less sym­bol­ism and make it poignant through its theft.” This is the world we feel we are in. We can sense it, but it has remained just out of our sight, or out of our grasp. By dis­man­tling the lim­ou­sine, we cre­ate the world as we under­stand it to be. We need no longer feel the trau­mat­ic dis­con­nect between our inter­nal des­o­la­tion and the exter­nal calm­ness of peo­ple who only appear to be going about their dai­ly lives with­out express­ing the hor­ren­dous nature of our cur­rent real­i­ty.

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