Civil Vandalism: A Manifesto

There are many ways in which I could be a better person. I could drop my laundry quarters into the coffee cups of the panhandlers outside my office. I could work to suppress my nervous reaction to sad or uncomfortable news, which is to giggle uncontrollably. I could even stop and listen politely to vested activists on the street who are trying to “raise awareness” for a cause of the month (the last time I walked through Union Square, I was stopped by three different people trying to get me to sign a petition to make non-Christians in the U.S. sign a loyalty oath, as a form of protest against Israel). But, rather than conforming to normal avenues of betterment, I strive to make a difference through Civil Vandalism.

Henry David Thoreau-- not me...

Loosely inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience, Civil Vandalism is my way of making the world we live in more sightly and slightly more true. Basically, Civil Vandalism allows adherents (as of yet, me) to visually and textually amend and correct the world. While this philosophy does give me some dispensation to, after a few drinks, copyedit the fliers taped to the walls of my friend’s building’s elevator, it is more focused on a sober attempt to undermine the constant societal reminders of Right-wing hatred and lies. They have Fox News, I have my Sharpie and quick hands at bookstores. I find my particular inspiration in this passage from Thoreau’s essay (with my notes included):


Unjust laws [or books] exist: shall we be content to obey them [slash let them sit comfortably in a bit of prime real estate by the front door of the airport Borders], or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded [wait around until Random House suddenly decides to stop giving seven-figure advances to rabblerousers who sell books to the deeply misinformed/ sycophantic], or shall we transgress them at once? “¦ I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in [although I do what I can], but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong [and that the wrongness is helped by inaction].

I don’t have the guts or talent of Banksy, so I’m constricted to switching out and covering up displayed books by Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck with milder fiction and memoirs about dogs. Anyone looking to read anything by those purveyors of fear and deliberately misleading end-notes will have to rummage through layers of the latest Jodi Picoult tear-jerkers or “groundbreaking” biographies of Princess Diana.

I don’t know how I started doing this, but I’m pretty sure my mother is somewhat to blame. She is a woman who kept our Kerry/Edwards 2004 sign out on the front lawn until May of 2005, until it was stolen by some neighborhood ruffians. The fact that my younger sister and I have the same habit also implicates our mother. I asked my sister for her philosophical rationale for obscuring books and this is what she had to say:

Whenever I’m in Borders and I see an Ann Coulter book on display, or any caricature of a book that doesn’t deserve to exist let alone be on a visible shelf, I feel it’s my patriotic duty to flip it around or put it behind other books. This is my little form of rebellion. I know that it doesn’t do much, but it does do something for my sanity. If I were braver or didn’t fear incarceration I would actually vandalize these books. It actually pains me to think that people would spend money on these works of ignorance, dim-wittedness, and hatred.

I’d like to point out that neither of us actually break the law. As far as I know, it is not illegal to hide copies of Decision Points behind issues of Bitch magazine. Nor is it illegal to accidentally leave a copy of Pinheads and Patriots facing away from any possible buyers, so that all that is visible is O’Reilly’s unappealing mug.

Bookstores are easy targets for this sort of vandalism, as as long as you don’t steal the books or actually damage the product, there is nothing technically inappropriate about it. It becomes slightly more difficult when one leaves the world of retail and begins encountering posters and advertisements.


In particular, I’m talking about how anti-choice activists have, through posters and false-advertising campaigns, attempted to high-jack the national discourse on abortion and reproductive rights. Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg signing Intro.371-A, legislation which would regulate the deceptive practices of so-called crisis pregnancy centers, into law, I was able to cancel my order of stickers reading, “Not Licensed Medical Professionals.” I planned to affix this stickers to all subway ads that feature the face of a worried, but very attractive, lady above text that read “Pregnant? Scared? Call this Number.” (Bonus points if she’s resting her hands on a hugely pregnant belly.)


My truth-spreading campaign reached a hiccup when I noticed a bus on my way to work. The side of the bus was covered by an ad declaring “41% of Viable Pregnancies Aborted? We Need a New Strategy, Mr. Mayor.” I thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to run into traffic with a long manifesto describing why that is a willfully and calculatedly misleading ad, so I’ll reproduce it here:

1. The only reason there are so many abortions in NYC is that they are more accessible here than in other parts of the country. There isn’t something in our delicious tap water that makes women more likely to chose to end pregnancies.

2. So what if 41% of viable pregnancies are aborted? It just means that 41% of women who found themselves pregnant decided that the best decision them and their families would be to terminate the pregnancy. Perhaps someone should look into why these women feel unable to start or expand a family (Hint! It could have something to do with poverty and a lack/decrease of fundamental social services! Or myriad other reasons that are none of our fucking business!), rather than demonizing them as a monolithic, heartless, entity.

3. An appropriate “new strategy” would be to increase access to birth control, so that fewer women find themselves in a situation where a viable pregnancy would need to be aborted. Maybe replace trans-fat and salt with spermicide and oral contraceptives?

A bit long to put on the side of a bus, right? Maybe it would fit on a t-shirt “¦

Deep down, however, I know that these little things I do really accomplish nothing. Publishers will keep paying wingnuts to write wingnutty things, salespeople at Barnes and Noble will excavate copies of Arguing with Idiots from the Romance section and return them to their proper place by closing, and the Right, with questionable funding and single-minded intensity, will continue its war on women and their reproductive autonomy. Even on a personal level, I would be better suited to redirect my rage towards exercise and cleaning and away from muttering on the subway. And while I make sure to donate as much as I can to causes like Planned Parenthood and the New York Abortion Access Fund, there is still something deeply satisfying about hiding a book written by someone who thinks that the country would be in a better place today if women never got the right to vote (I’m looking at you, Coulter).

Please do donate to these great organizations!

New York Abortion Access Fund

NARAL Pro-Choice
Planned Parenthood

CPC ad sourced from, an anti-choice site. Don’t give them page views, please.

21 replies on “Civil Vandalism: A Manifesto”

In addition to making more work for the salespeople in bookstores, I have another objection to this that @SallySassyPants mentioned: Thoreau wouldn’t advocate hiding books, let alone destroying them. Shutting down discourse is never successful; it drives it underground, and it offers fewer opportunities to deconstruct and contradict it. Dictators silence people; democracies should not.

If you’re really that eager to offer counterpoints to the crazy, find a proactive way to do it. Join an organization where you can canvass neighborhoods and go house-to-house explaining the importance (or evil) of a pending bill. Donate your time to put up fliers or stuff envelopes for a candidate who supports your views. Write correctly spelled, nonracist protest signs and picket groups you disagree with.

Hiding books isn’t going to change anybody’s mind. Presenting people with new, or well-reasoned ideas just might.

I liked the idea mentioned earlier about inserting bookmarks or small fliers with evidential information – this shouldn’t mess with anyone’s shelving, or cause extra work for booksellers, nor should it cost the OP extra time out of what I am certain is a busy schedule that may not allow for picketing and canvassing. It would still be an “everyday” act – but would be less offensive and destructive to the people she’s not trying to punish.

Indeed, the picketing and canvassing takes time, but she’s also talking about how imperative it is to fight back. If you’re serious about that then you ought to do something that will actually make a difference–getting people in office who are on your side, and getting bills passed that help your cause. Civic involvement is difficult, but if she’s that keen on it, she could make it more of a priority.

As a former bookstore employee, I just find this irritating.

Do you really think you’re changing ideologies or even challenging them by creating extra work for tired retail employees?

You’re still being passive; you’re just trying to make yourself feel better about it.

Yeah, this is a little mis-guided. Thoreau, I don’t think, would want someone to suppress someone else’s ideas, no matter how strongly he disagreed with them. He is, after all, a major proponent of democracy, which involves the free-exchange of ideas. Putting a sticker next to a crisis-pregnancy center poster is one thing, but hiding someone else’s ideas is quite another (I might call it censorship). Hiding books is both destructive to the poor employees who have to re-shelve them and detrimental to a democratic exchange.

a) Errybody in the club need to come down. Like actually. This piece is funny and obviously hyperbolic.
b) Working in retail sucks, I’ll give you that. I’ve been there.
c) Fact: If we don’t fight back, we’re all going to go insane. The world is so fucked up right now, so much bullshit, if we don’t fight back we have nothing. Maybe Yagoda’s occasional (keep that in mind–it’s not like she does this every morning on her ways to work) acts have caused some inconvenience, it’s heartening to hear about people who care about things and aren’t passive.
4)Yes, I’m aware I just switched from letters to numbers.

Are you the sister mentioned in the post? Because the messing with books in Borders thing was clearly not hyperbole; it was a retelling of something that sounds like it happens pretty frequently. And making life difficult for retail employees doesn’t affect how any of those authors who offend you exist or do business. They’ll never even hear about your acts of “fighting back.” If civil disobedience is what you’re going for, try “disobeying” the offending parties, not regular people trying to pay their bills.

It is not funny. And not hyperbolic since she states that she ACTUALLY did those things.
“Have caused some inconvenience” is such a privileged way of laughing something off. The fact that she cares about things and isn’t passive has NOTHING to do with the fact that she DELIBERATELY made someone else do extra work in the name of “fighting back.”

This whole “civil vandalism” concept is so privileged that it’s laughable. You aren’t putting yourself in harm’s way, protesting. You aren’t taking an active role in trying to get publishers to stop paying right-wing nuts to publish. You aren’t really doing anything that takes any effort or sacrifice at all. Just making a mess for someone else to clean up, to make you feel like you’re “fighting the system.”

I used to work at a bookstore, oh, about 2 blocks from Union Square, so you probably did this to us too. On behalf of myself and all my coworkers past and present…

Fuck you.

As stated below, actions like that don’t hurt the authors. They hurt those of us who get screamed at when customers can’t find the books they want. Who get accused of hiding the books on purpose because we disapprove of them. Who get accused of lying when we promise that yes, it’s right on the front of the bestseller table. Whose inventory numbers are constantly screwed up from this sort of nonsense. If I still worked there, you better believe I’d be showing everyone your picture so we could keep an eye on you.

I understand being irritated at having to take time out of work.Disagreeing with the writers actions are totally fair. But acts like this are hardly responsible for people screaming at you. Only the people screaming because they didn’t look more than one book back in the stack (rookie mistake) are responsible for their actions.

Also, way harsh Tai. This isn’t youtube.

It’s not just taking time out of work. It’s creating extra work for someone who is underpaid and over-worked and who probably hates Ann Coulter too.
Just because the people screaming are responsible for their actions doesn’t mean that the bookseller doesn’t feel like a complete piece of shit after the end of a day of constantly being told she’s a stupid retail drone. Even when it’s not your fault, people’s irrational screaming (or even physical violence–I had a book thrown at me once) has an effect on your self-esteem and happiness.

So yes, acts like this ARE responsible for people shouting irrationally. And for name-calling and book-throwing and COMPLAINTS TO MY BOSS THAT I WAS INEPT because I couldn’t find a book that someone had hidden. Completely unacceptable, and the author should be ashamed of herself for purposely making someone else’s life harder.

I’m shaking right now, I’m so angry.

I’m not arguing that it’s acceptable. At all. I’m saying that people acting insane (and throwing books at a retail clerk is fucking insane) isn’t the fault of a teenager hiding books. It is the fault of a unhinged person who is in control of their manners. If I’m at a bookstore and a clerk can’t find a book, I have never, and would never, consider screaming at them an option.

I’m hardly condoning their actions, just trying to point out that those people who scream and throw things are human shitstains that will find any reason to be vile to the people around them.

Oh, of course. But I think it’s important for someone hiding books to realize that her actions do have consequences. An annoying customer is going to be annoying regardless, but since a bookseller has no control over who s/he has to interact with, contributing to that stress in any type of way isn’t the best way to contribute to society.
People get EXTREMELY upset when a book is supposed to be in stock and it can’t be found. And if a teenager hides books that the bookseller has taken time to put in the correct section (the one that is listed on the search system), that DOES mean the teenager is at fault. She’s not responsible for the customer being crazy, but she’s responsible for making the bookseller look inept and uninformed. And a little bit stupid, since the bookseller will swear, “But I just put that there twenty minutes ago!”
Accountability is important.

My junior year of college, my school’s anti-choice group tried to organize a day of silence – they hung up posters with an image of a woman with her mouth taped shut, and text said something about “the voices of the unborn.” It made me sick, but I didn’t think it was right to write on it or take it down because they had the right to advertise and I know I’d be pissed if someone took down any fliers I hung up. So I wrote “WHAT ABOUT WOMEN’S VOICES?” on an index card and taped it beneath the poster in my dorm elevator. It remained there for a day or two and then both my index card and the poster disappeared. (The day of silence totally failed, by the way. I may have been a little smug about it.)

There was a blurb on the local news this morning about local grocery stores being collectively (and rightfully) pissed at a Facebook grocery store Scrabble-type game.

You could maybe get the same effect with some subversive and non-employee-troubling bookmarks inserted in the books you previously moved or covered up?

For more than a decade, I was the poor hourly retail drone who had to stay an extra hour after a crappy nine-hour shift because I’d have to do things like reshelve all of the books that “subversive” shoppers thought it would be awesome to make a statement with. Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter don’t feel the effects of those acts; the wage slaves like me who have to clean up after them do. I have similar feelings about flash mobs. I’m all for making political statements, but not on the backs of working people who have nothing to do with designing end cap display planograms; people who just want to do their jobs without having people purposely cause extra work for them.

I don’t think people who haven’t worked in retail realise that one huge aspect of retail work isn’t just shelving books, it’s arranging products according to a company’s very specific standards about shelving. Companies have different words for this–zoning, blocking, shelving, etc–but they’re all pretty much the same. It’s annoying and stupid, but part of the company’s brand is having products displayed identically across all their stores.

So at the end of the day when the store is a mess because people are pigs who leave shit lying on the floor (non-retail workers don’t believe me when I describe the messes people left for us) and put things back in the wrong place and leave stuff half-hanging on their hangers, dragging on the floor, etc… at the end of the day it’s the employee’s responsibility to put everything back according to this specific, persnickety master plan. Every time someone DELIBERATELY vandalises the store, hides a product, puts in the wrong place, etc that’s one more thing that we, the underpaid retail employees, have to find and put back. One more trip halfway across the store on your aching tired feet because you’ve been on them for 8 hours in shoes you can’t afford to replace to put a stupid Bill O’Reilly book back where it belongs.

Oh, and the places I’ve worked at? No one leaves until all of this is done to the managers’ satisfaction, and if that means everyone has to stay late–without being paid overtime, until the lights automatically shut off and even then, half the time the managers would just go in the back and turn them back on again–then oh well! Yeah, it’s unfair. Yeah, it’s soulless corporate evil. But you know what, those of us working in retail HAVE NO CHOICE but to do this. We can’t just quit and get a “better job”, or complain to HR.

To the OP: You’re a jerk. Check your privilege.

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