Naming and Shaming

I’m a teacher; and like many teachers, it’s hard for me to look at mistakes kids make as black and white issues. I mean, they make mistakes so often! Literally every day, a kid or teenager is doing something terrible on this island; and when you see these kids constantly, you often learn enough about them and their stories to see the gray areas in between. You also end up kind of loving a lot of them, rough edges and all. Basically, what I am saying is that I love many of the young assholes who come through the classroom. 😛

With the rise of social media, naming and shaming people who do things we disagree with or are upset by has become commonplace. There is much of that happening on our tiny island; and being a small and connected community can sometimes make it intense. This past week, the Guam seal and a bunch of cars in local parking lots were tagged with graffiti. Graffiti is nothing new on our island. For as long as I can remember, bus stops were being painted and repainted to hide the restlessness and misdirection of local youth with nothing better to do, most of them from low income families or communities lacking activities and places for young people to productively spend their time with positive mentors. I can think of several people who have had their cars or property vandalized.

The difference is that now technology makes it possible for us to put these things in the forefront. It also allows us to more directly comment on and discuss the people who did it. This past week, the offenders included a middle school boy and a group of teenagers who had their photos plastered and shared all over the internet. I don’t agree (at all) with what they did; and hope they are held accountable for their actions; but man…our community responded in such an ugly and embarrassing way.

Beneath the pictures of these young people were ugly names, comments with racist undertones, public shaming of parents (none of whom anyone seemed to actually know), and even a local public figure suggesting that we should “start building a wall,” implying that people from neighboring islands are the root of the island’s graffiti problem. As a public school graduate and teacher of many public school graduates, I can definitely tell you that’s not true. Aimless kids of all backgrounds have been known to write something on the wall or vandalize things.

I remember a few of the boys in my high school classes identifying themselves by the names they would spray paint over the sides of buildings and bus stops. I also have a few local College students who have written about their “tagging days.” They weren’t making smart choices (that I always knew); but I was also aware of what homes they were coming out of and what they were working with in terms of adult guidance, love, and financial stability. Sometimes, they came from completely healthy homes with lots of love. Sometimes, kids just do dumb shit. It’s as simple as that.

Some of the boys I went to school with who did things like this never quite made it out of self-destructive cycles; many others did. One became a realtor (who is now probably annoyed when people tag properties he is trying to sell). Another is an officer in the United States Armed Forces, another is a teacher, and a couple of them have evolved into wonderful fathers or family men. I am certain they are glad social media wasn’t around to name and shame them during those years of misdirection. I can also tell you that some of them were Chamoru, some of them were Filipino, and yes, some of them were from the FSM. It was, and is, more of a poverty and lack of guidance problem than it is a race problem. Sometimes, it’s also just a “dumb and young” problem.

I get that it is irritating to have the Guam seal spray-painted on. It’s great that it was so quickly and so easily cleaned up after. I get how completely infuriating it is that cars have been spray-painted on. I would be livid if it were my car, too. What I don’t get is how our community was able to muster so much energy to shame, name call, and harass the kids who did it while remaining largely silent when our island is REALLY being contaminated and destroyed: Not a peep when soil had to be overturned or declared too sick to plant in within certain villages. Not a whisper when toxic chemicals are stored on the island. No real community effort when invasive species began attacking our trees. No voiced disappointment over the military’s role in endangering our birds, trees, or some of our animals. Not even a little outrage when it was confirmed that the history of contamination here is literally killing our people and linked to our disproportionate cancer rates. Silence when we learned that military contamination has made servicemen who were once stationed here sick. And now that there are plans on the table to further jeopardize our water sources, land, ocean, limestone forests, and native species…there is still an underwhelming amount of dissent from the general public. We give awards to (and even praise) people and institutions that are engaged in an even more insidious “vandalizing” of our island, but can find it in us to call a middle school child all sorts of racial slurs and accuse his parents, people we don’t know, of being horrible human beings. It just seems like we need to re-prioritize our outrage.

I am more furious that I have had to watch six people I love die within a span of six years, at far too young an age, because of cancers linked to their environment. I’m furious that so many of our families are still living on contaminated land that the military has failed to clean up. I’m more ready to shame the military for trying to say they are good stewards of the environment when they are clearly the biggest polluters of our island. Pollution is not just trash on the side of the road or spray-paint (that stuff is bad too though). Pollution is also putting lead in your water, burying mustard gas in your back yard, and spraying the place with agent orange. Pollution is also detonating things in our waters and letting lead get near our water aquifers. Vandalism is also servicemen who draw eagles in ancient caves near our burial sites.

I don’t think it’s okay to spray paint the Guam seal. I don’t think it’s okay to victimize other people in our community by spray-painting your name on their personal property; but I think that all of you claiming to shame these wayward kids because you care about Guam’s “environment” and the “beauty of our island” need to redirect some of your anger. The middle school boy with the stupid tag name is not as big a threat to our island’s beauty as the storing of nuclear weapons, bombs, toxic chemicals, and putting lead in our water.