Speechless in San Francisco
One of the chief representatives of small-f fascism in San Francisco is sitting across from me at a Starbucks explaining his theory of social decay. The end of civility, Rick Thurber says, begins with fliers about lost pets.
Thurber and the group he founded -- the so-called Community Clean-Up Project -- have raised a lot of hackles in city neighborhoods. Funded by business interests and the Mayor's Office, this 51-year-old landlord, two of his employees, and several volunteers fan out across the city five days a week, tearing down every single publicly posted flier they can lay hands on. It doesn't matter whether the flier advertises a garage sale, asks for help in finding a cocker spaniel named Spencer, announces a Mumia Abu-Jamal rally, or, as was the case lately, encourages people to attend a meeting of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council (where the topic of discussion would be how to stop Thurber from ripping down fliers). If it's a flier, and it's affixed to a telephone pole, telephone switching box, or other public pole, space, or appliance, Thurber and his helpers tear it down.
Then they post a decal that warns that anyone posting fliers (or, uh, decals) could be fined.
When I met up with Thurber, I fully expected to hear a justification based on city beautification -- that fliers clutter up telephone poles, cause visual pollution, create litter, pose fire hazards, etc. and so on. What I didn't see coming was this fanciful, if delusional, intellectual construct: Handbills and fliers are a leading cause of social degeneration.
"What people are most afraid of and intimidated by is not real crime, but the sense of disorder," Thurber says. "Too many fliers creates an atmosphere that says nobody cares. It leads to anti-social behavior, and more property gets vandalized."
Thurber wasn't advancing the perfectly reasonable theory that real urban decay -- vacant housing with broken windows, streets piled with uncollected garbage -- gives anti-social types subtle cues that they can be anti-social without consequence.
No, Rick Thurber had distilled that theory, and come down to a belief in direct cause and effect: Fliers cause crime.
I asked him, just to make sure I understood properly: Do you really believe fliers lead directly to anti-social behavior?
"Oh yeah, they do," he said.
At the end of our conversation, I tried to be as polite as possible, but I told Thurber that I thought his ropes had lost their grip on some fairly important cognitive moorings.
I wanted to set up a meeting with Thurber because I couldn't believe that one man had made it his life's mission to change San Francisco -- the home of free expression, a birthplace of the rock 'n' roll street poster -- into a flier-free zone. I also wanted to meet Thurber because I'd heard so many things about him that were just so hard to fathom. Among other things, I'd heard that:
He followed people down the street, tearing down fliers immediately after they were posted. He bullyragged people -- sometimes people who had just lost pets -- threatening them with arrest or legal action if they hung fliers. He'd issued official-looking citations to merchants for placing cafe tables, planter boxes, and trash receptacles on the sidewalk.
But the most disturbing thing I'd heard about Rick Thurber was that, as nutty and irritating as he seemed to be, he and his constipated ways of thinking were actually in vogue down at City Hall. San Francisco's supervisors were passing laws aiding his campaign, and Mayor Willie Brown was sending tax dollars to the Community Clean-Up Project.
So I called Thurber up. I had to see, up close, someone humorless and reactionary enough to be utterly focused on the eradication of small paper signs that help struggling bands find audiences; Deadheads find rides to concerts; struggling students find cheap furniture; grass-roots political groups find new members; and grieving pet owners find their best friends in the whole world.
What I found in Rick Thurber was a man without any apparent sense of scale. To him, posting a flier is tantamount to gang behavior. Actually, one of his employees, Lawrence Espinoza, told me exactly that: "I don't see any difference between a nightclub promoting its club, and a gangbanger promoting his gang."
And as Espinoza said it, Thurber smiled and nodded his head, the way a teacher does when he hears his words coming out of a student's mouth.
In the mid-1970s, Rick Thurber worked as an investigator for the Department of Public Works' division of weights and measures. Now, he speaks with evident pride of busting butchers who didn't weigh their products properly: "Once we went out unannounced and checked their weights. They were all off."
He repeats the point, so I can't miss it. "They were all off."
"I was a public officer," he continues. "I was trained to do investigative work. I used to write citations and even issue misdemeanors and go to the district attorney to recommend prosecution. I know how to get the job done."
Indeed, he does -- if the job includes pissing people off with strange behavior that seems more than a bit obsessive. Thurber claims he has lost his temper and threatened to have people arrested or hauled into court on only two, or perhaps three, occasions. He says he has the support of the majority of neighborhood groups in the city, and those who oppose him are "radical vandals who have no respect for the community and reliable codes of conduct."