According to the broken-windows theory of social disorder, it takes just one shattered pane of glass to unleash a cascade of chaos in a neighborhood. The authorities might fear this, but for others, a little chaos can occasionally be liberating.
Such an occasion arrived for Corey Menafee one morning in June on the Yale University campus, when the custodial worker drove a broomstick through a small stained-glass window that depicted an eerily bucolic scene of enslaved blacks carrying bales of cotton.
The vestige of American slavery had long gone politely ignored amid the polished Oxonian interiors of the rarefied university (disclosure: The author is a Yale alumna). But that morning, Menafee recalls matter-of-factly, “I just got tired of seeing that image.” During a break from his shift in the Calhoun College residence dining hall (then mostly empty because of summer vacation) he says, “I don’t know, something inside me is like, that thing has to come down.”
After the glass came tumbling down, Menafee heard his manager yelling about destroying university property.
“There’s just a moment of sobriety, where you’re like, uh-oh… you can’t take it back.”
Anticipating the aftermath, Menafee went to his locker room and shaved, to look decent for the cops, he says, because, “In my experience, people deal with you better when you’re clean shaven than when you’re all scruffy.”
Then came charges of reckless endangerment and first-degree felony “criminal mischief”—and he had to resign from the job he’d held for eight years.
However, Yale later announced it would not pursue legal action against Menafee and was “not seeking restitution.” It wasn’t his clean-shaven look that did it but a groundswell of public support. Dozens of activists, students, and faculty members rallied at his court hearing in early July, supported by a pro bono attorney. The local advocacy group Narrative Project circulated a petition calling for the charges to be dropped and posted this statement on Facebook: “We cannot continue to stand by while people of color across this country are being unjustly punished in a judicial system that was never meant to cater to them.”
The window smashing resonated with the nationwide wave of revolt in response to police brutality and racism, including a recent protest for Black Lives Matter on the New Haven Green, just down the street from Calhoun College, controversially named after the infamous advocate for slavery John C. Calhoun.