Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Thomas Gilliam IV – Reflections

I did not know Mr. Gilliam. But I wish I could have had the opportunity. From what I’ve been told, he is the type of person most people want to count among their friends. I don’t care if it sounds cliché: the fact is my thoughts have been with his family as I have considered the events that marked his final day in this curious place that we have decided to call Earth. Not one of us knows how long he has to live. But do we really need to know? We already know that the span of our life will be a finite one, and one that is relatively short. For this reason I hold to advice that is timeless: don’t waste your life.

Were Mr. Gilliam’s final actions wrong? Normally, I would not be asking this question, nor is it really my place to ask. But it seems that many have already asked this question publically, and public discourse has included many accusing answers. I would like to formulate a response to these people.

While many would deem urban exploration unwise, that does not make it wrong. While many would deem trespassing unwise, that does not make it wrong. Did I really just say that? Yes, I did. Just because something is unlawful does not make it unethical. Legal codes in our society are about creating order, providing for the common good, and protecting personal liberties and rights – they are not created to inform us what is inherently “wrong” and “right.” When I see a “no trespassing” sign in the public domain, I interpret this as, “We will not be liable for your actions beyond this point.” Or, as the late and great Ninjalicious put it, “When we see a sign that says ‘Danger: Do Not Enter,’ we understand that this is simply a shorthand way of saying ‘Leaving Protected Zone: Demonstrate Personal Accountability Beyond This Point.’” The vast majority of laws that I can think of do indeed function as measures to prevent people from bringing harm to other people. But trespassing is different: the only person that could possibly be hurt by trespassing – devoid of any other activity such as vandalism or theft – is the trespasser himself. (Trespassing on exclusively private property is something I will not address here.). I believe every adult has the right to subject himself to whatever risk he deems acceptable in life.

While laws help protect us from some of the common ills of societies (theft, assault, murder, etc) that comprise external dangers, only common sense can protect us from the potential dangers of our own decisions. Certainly the government or authorities should inform the public when and where hazards and dangers exist. But if an informed citizen then decides to disregard that advice or that information, I believe he has the right to do so, for it is his life and not another’s.

I am not an attorney, but if access to UVA’s off-limits areas are obviously cordoned off, locked, impeded, etc, then I don’t think the university will be liable for someone who circumvents one of those measures. The University should understandably confirm that they have not neglected any real liability issues around grounds, but they should not bend over backwards to try to enforce behavior that cannot be enforced. It is my hope that the University will not institute any new policies that seek to sanction students to a degree that I consider unjust and disproportionate – namely expulsion (or “dismissal,” as some like to call it).

What about the prohibition of reckless behavior in the student code of conduct? Here we are faced with something that one might call “the relativity of recklessness.” Tell me, which is more reckless: visiting a rooftop or an under-street passageway to take some photographs, or intentionally subjecting one’s self to a state characterized by the absence of physical coordination and mental coherence? Drinking alcohol (beyond the first couple drinks) would certainly be more reckless if we really examine it. In fact, according to the CDC, there are around 79,000 alcohol related deaths per year in the US. There is also an average of 42,000 deaths from automobile accidents per year, according to the FHWA. Could the simple act of driving be more reckless? It would certainly seem so.

It is also worth noting that the vast majority of UVA’s rooftops (at least the ones that students try to access) are flat, and many even have a brick or cement wall that runs along the perimeter, effectively creating a fence of safety. Believe it or not, the Physics building is this way too. However, if one were to climb out higher and venture over to one of the extreme left or right sides of the rooftop, the structure there is indeed different (and one can tell at a glance that icy or wet conditions would preclude any ability to safely navigate those stretches). But the safety of UVA’s rooftops is not even the point.

I also do not think that attempting to further seal off steam tunnels and roof tops will make a difference. People who wish to engage in such activity will usually do so regardless; and, frankly, it is unrealistic to think that such people can be stopped by protective measures. For example: one thing UVA would have to do is never renovate the exterior of any of their buildings ever again. Why? Because exterior renovation usually requires erecting scaffolding around the building, and scaffolding can be climbed. (The Chemistry building is currently lined with scaffolding.) You can't really stop someone who decides to climb it. You can put up a sign saying, “no trespassing,” and you can even put up a fence. But the fence can be climbed. You can put up an electric fence and hire a troop of armed guards -- but then we enter the realm of lunacy and leave the realm of the realistic.

Obviously I am a proponent of personal freedoms and personal responsibility. But I am also a proponent of something else: living life to the fullest and recognizing the beauty that hides all around us. Or, perhaps it isn’t hiding. Perhaps we need only to open our eyes.

“For too many people, urban living consists of mindless travel between work, shopping and home. […] Their alertness has atrophied due to the lack of any real adventure in their lives, and their senses have dulled to cope with the cacophony of noise and meaningless spectacle that surrounds them. […] Rather than passively consuming entertainment, urban explorers strive to actually create authentic experiences by making discoveries that allow them to participate in the secret workings of cities and structures, and to appreciate fantastic, obscure spaces that might otherwise go completely neglected."

Charlottesville certainly isn’t a sprawling metropolitan area (at least not yet), but it is still full of hidden gyms – both urban and rural, both permitted and prohibited.

Allow me to close with another quote from Mr. Jeff Chapman (aka, Ninjalicious):

"I find it sad that most people go through life oblivious to the countless — free — wonders around them. Too many of us think the only things worth looking at in our cities and towns are those safe and sanitized attractions that require an admission fee. It's no wonder people feel unfulfilled as they shuffle through the maze of velvet ropes on their way out through the gift shop."


Anonymous said...


Meekohi said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

Despite what you post there, you and anyone else who trespasses is doing a criminal act. That makes you a criminal. Frankly, if a poor kid did what you rich spoiled brats do they would be tossed in jail. You only get away with it because of your connections. What complete brats you all are. Stop breaking and entering.

Shadow Monkey said...

I haven't been on here for ages, so my reply comes nearly 3 years late. Anyway, given that UVA grounds are freely open to students, and given the lack of signage in UVA buildings explicitly prohibiting access in many of the aforementioned places, I imagine several attorneys would disagree with the criminality of such acts. But I'm not an attorney. Nor is that important.

What's more important is that I come from a low income family with no connections that struggled to make ends meet. In fact, I worked for my father for years cleaning office buildings late into the night for no pay when I was a young child (far below the legal working age) because that's how our family managed to pay the bills. If I wanted to play on a sports team as a child, I raised the money to pay for it. Not all who make it into UVA are rich.

Lastly, "breaking" and entering has and will always be against my code. In my view, the "breaking" part is vandalism, and I am no vandal. To "break" and enter a UVA building would be to deface and devalue the property of the state. I never left a trace.