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."
As far as I can tell, though, few of the many people who are fed up with Rick Thurber could be described as "radical vandals."
Elizabeth Giles, the manager of Cole Valley Pets, says several pet owners have come into her store upset after Thurber or his workers threatened to sue over the posting of lost-pet fliers in public places. Giles allows the panicked owners to tack up the fliers in her store. But, she says, fewer people see the fliers there than outside, and the chances of finding a lost pet are accordingly decreased.
"This man," Giles says, "does not behave reasonably."
Cosi Fabian, a poet who lives in the Haight-Ashbury, had a run-in with Thurber when she was posting a flier looking for storage space in the neighborhood. This December, she says, she had another disturbing encounter with him, this time over fliers about her lost cat.
"This time I decided to take him on," she says. "Thurber was following me down the street, and pulling down the fliers as I put them up. I said, 'You better not do it ....' He was very frightening. When you talk to him, you can see he isn't listening. He throws all these names of organizations at you. He claims to have authority he doesn't have. He told me I had to go down to the Police Department with him. He finally drove off, and screamed, 'Bitch,' when he did."
Since then Fabian has monitored Thurber's activity in her neighborhood. She says he or his workers have torn down fliers alerting the neighborhood to the presence of a repeat mugger, and to the upcoming spraying of pesticide in a public park, incidents Thurber calls a mystery (the mugger flier) or a mistake (the pesticide warning).
I wish I could report that Thurber and company are simply a small group of neat-freaks who lack respect for the rights of others and the concept of free speech. Unfortunately, he's representative of the new thinking at City Hall on managing the untidy but naturally occurring aspects of urban life.
The main proponents of this new thinking are the two most power-hungry egomaniacs in city government: Mayor Willie Brown and Supervisor Barbara Kaufman.
Brown and Kaufman were the prime movers behind the unconstitutional law the city recently adopted, which (if it is not shot down in court) would force newspapers to compete for a limited number of slots in city-run newsracks. These two "public servants" argued that this un-American effort to control the press was about neatness, about ending the sense of chaos on city corners created by individual newsracks. They even said the law was about safety, that people could get hurt if newspapers were allowed to place their constitutionally protected speech willy-nilly wherever they wanted.
Thurber, a big advocate of the newsrack ordinance, says the same things about fliers.
So I asked him: Aren't fliers on telephone poles a natural and charming part of urban life? Don't they add character and color to a city?
Thurber: "The problem with that theory is that if you read the city ordinance and the California and federal Outside Advertising acts, all three actually say there is a compelling need to prevent them, because of the visual pollution leading to urban blight, the damage to property, and the threat to vehicular and pedestrian traffic."
And then I got it: For anyone in the Thurber mind-set, the publication of pleas for lost-pet help, notices about musical events, and calls to political action constitute urban blight and a threat to public safety.
This is a scary notion. But it is even scarier that the rhetoric of an intellectually unhinged wannabe cop dovetails with a supervisor for and the chief executive of the City and County of San Francisco. And, actually, Thurber shares more than a rhetorical kinship with Willie and Babs.
In the wake of the newsrack ordinance, Kaufman has authored yet another strike at free-flowing speech. Her newest proposed law is a hectoring micromanagement of -- you guessed it -- fliers and handbills.
Kaufman's bill, which will be heard in a Board of Supervisors committee this month, would, if passed and enforced, prevent anyone without lots of money and time and a battery of lawyers from posting a flier in San Francisco.
Under Kaufman's proposed scheme, anyone wanting to communicate political points of view or pleas for help by posting fliers or distributing handbills would have to ask the city for permission, register his or her name and address, receive an ID number, pay a fee, and place a deposit.
If Major Babs gets her way, penalties -- including fines of up to $1,000 and six-month jail sentences -- could be handed out to any free-speech-minded citizen foolish enough to improperly affix a flier to a pole, to fold a handbill in an unapproved way, or to fail to take the fliers down before a government-prescribed time limit had run out.
Kaufman's legislation is alarming. But there is another, even more disturbing indicator of the current dictatorial thinking at City Hall -- the decision by the mayor to support Thurber's group with money and equipment.
Brown's Department of Public Works, which wrote the law Kaufman is proposing (after several meetings with Thurber and his political allies), gives the Community Clean-Up Project all the cleanup equipment it needs -- for free. On top of that, the Mayor's Office has started funding Thurber's efforts through the -- and wouldn't Orwell have loved this name? -- "Neighborhood Beautification Fund."
Last year Thurber's group received $1,500 in "emergency" city funding. He has applied for a budget of $97,000 for next fiscal year.
And the Mayor's Office has asked the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG), a group that receives its own city funding, to detail eight of its members to Thurber's group, effecting an additional indirect city subsidy of Thurber's efforts.
The recent rise of small-f fascism in San Francisco has gotten to be too much for folks like Nick Porcaro, a 38-year-old software developer and jazz pianist. Porcaro first heard of Rick Thurber and his group's activities in January; Porcaro had just returned to San Francisco from Los Angeles, where he spends a lot of time now since his girlfriend began attending graduate school at UCLA.
"I had come back after a couple of months and saw all the poles on Haight Street stripped," Porcaro says. "I thought: How did San Francisco become like L.A?" Porcaro, a long-standing member of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, asked around and found out about Thurber and his activities.
He fired off an e-mail to his friend Kathy Ketman, a fellow computer programmer, in January, sharing his initial thoughts:
"Nowadays when you walk down Haight Street, there are no more posters advertising bands like JFKKFC, Cat Butt and Dog Stick, no more Reality Maps [a spiral-form explanation of the mystical nature of the world created by a neighborhood woman dubbed the Cosmic Lady], demonstration notices, free couch announcements, or pleas from deadheads needing rides to wherethehell ever.
"Instead you see sanitized lampposts with signs announcing that you will be fined for posting anything.
"This pisses me off to the point where I either 1) want to move away from San Francisco because it's becoming right wing or 2) I want to fight this."
Porcaro chose to stay and fight. His first target will be Kaufman's law. After that, he and his fellow free-speech lovers, who have formed the Ad Hoc Committee to Defend Free Speech in San Francisco, will figure out what to do about the so-called Community Clean-Up Project.
Porcaro and fellow members of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council say they plan on showing up at Board of Supervisors' meetings where Kaufman's law will be discussed and voted on, and will have the help of a lawyer, if it becomes necessary to sue.
Others have researched the law and wonder whether Thurber is acting illegally when he tears down fliers. After all, if someone obeys all the city's requirements on fliers -- how they can be hung, how long they can be left up, etc. -- and a zealot with city funding comes along and takes them down, isn't he breaking the law?
One of Thurber's chief targets has been Slim's nightclub, which plasters large swaths of San Francisco with fliers that announce upcoming shows. As soon as they go up, Thurber tears them down. The nightclub thinks Thurber is acting illegally.
"We follow the letter of the law," says Slim's general manager and part owner Dawn Holliday. "He's interfering with our business, and that's against the law. If he doesn't stop we will sue him."
But that type of lawsuit seems unlikely to have much effect on the small-f fascists down at San Francisco City Hall. Whether through newsrack ordinances or flier ordinances, Willie and Babs have decided that government will impinge on free speech whenever that impingement serves their tight-ass sense of social order.
And enforcement of Official Speech Control will he handed over to the government-funded neighborhood enforcer, Rick Thurber.
Back in the early 1960s, the administration at UC Berkeley tried to regulate the expression of political speech on Telegraph Avenue.
Students had established tables and other structures, picked freely and at random, where they distributed handbills and fliers advocating everything from Maoism to Mickey Mouseism. People gave soapbox speeches, some intelligent, some outlandish, and some far from the normal avenues of rational thought. It was a wonderful mix of ideas. It was a conversation, a free, unfettered, messy -- sometimes very messy -- but distinctly American conversation.
It was the sort of messy public conversation one used to see in the fliers in the Haight and other city neighborhoods, before Thurber set to work with Willie Brown's blessing.
When the administrators at UC Berkeley tried to regulate the free market of ideas, the kids stood up and said no. It was called the Free Speech Movement. The late Mario Savio got up on a cop car in his stocking feet (he didn't want to hurt the paint job) to make speeches about odious machines and throwing our bodies against their gears. It was something Willie Brown supported.
But that was before Brown traded in his dashiki and his principles for a Brioni and power.
Now, just across the bay, we face an older, power-hungry Willie Brown and his thoughtless henchwoman, Barbara Kaufman. Both seem intent on placing government between newspapers and readers, and between lost pets and the owners who want them back desperately.
These two municipal tyrants are intent on destroying a great deal of what is unique and beautiful about San Francisco, because they don't understand San Francisco. And what they do understand, they don't appear to like.
This is how Peter Doty put it in a recent article for the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council newsletter: "Barbara Kaufman needs to be reminded that she is a Supervisor for San Francisco, not Singapore; we don't want a neat and tidy Police Space just because a few individuals can't handle the aesthetics of fliers on poles."
Doty hit the nail on the head. Thurber, Kaufman, Brown, and everyone else who thinks newspapers and fliers are threats to public order ought to move to Singapore -- or Walnut Creek -- and leave the rest of us to carry on the great and untidy traditions of free speaking in San Francisco.