Signs of the times

Pub date August 8, 2006

The Mission has become a battleground between those trying to stop war and those trying to combat blight — a clash of values that is headed for a court battle that will determine whether San Francisco has gone too far in its campaign against the posting of handbills.
On one side are the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition, World Can’t Wait, and other groups that stage the city’s biggest rallies against war and injustice. They’ve been hit by the city with tens of thousands of dollars in fines for their notices getting posted in violation of a city law cracking down on blight, and ANSWER has responded with a lawsuit.
On the other side is a 56-year-old activist named Gideon Kramer, who led the campaigns against graffiti and illegal signs and eventually became the eyes and ears of the city’s Department of Public Works and the Clean City Coalition. That nonprofit antiblight group gets hundreds of thousands of dollars in city money annually and in turn gave Kramer a full-time job pursuing his zealous fight against blight.
Kramer’s job is to cruise around in a city-provided motorized cart to document and remove illegal signs and submit that information to the DPW, which then issues citations and levies fines. Although Kramer maintains he doesn’t single out antiwar groups, he does admit that it was the blanketing of the Mission with ANSWER flyers and posters during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq that animated his animus toward sign posting.
“They hide behind the First Amendment, but this is not a free speech issue,” Kramer told the Guardian. “They completely obliterated this neighborhood for two years until I got them to stop…. This place looked like a war zone five years ago, when I finally took this area over.”
To Kramer, his efforts are simply about beautifying the Mission, which to him entails removing graffiti and flyers, particularly the ones affixed to any of the 88 historic lampposts along Mission Street, violations that draw a fine of $300 per notice rather than the $150 fine for most poles.
But to ANSWER’s West Coast coordinator Richard Becker, the city and Kramer are chipping away at fundamental rights of speech, assembly, and due process in their myopic effort to gentrify the Mission and other still-affordable neighborhoods.
“It is connected to a drive in San Francisco against working-class communities. This is being done in the name of fighting blight,” Becker said, “but it’s part of the transformation of San Francisco to a city that caters only to the middle class and above.”
The antihandbill measure — passed by the Board of Supervisors in 1999 — is part of a clean-city campaign that includes aggressive new measures aimed at removing graffiti and punishing those responsible, increased spending on street and sidewalk cleaning, crackdowns on the homeless, and most recently, the prohibition of campaign and other signs on utility poles.
State law already prohibits all handbills and signs from being on traffic poles. The local law extends that absolute prohibition to “historic or decorative streetlight poles,” such as those along Mission from 16th to 24th streets, along Market Street, around Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, and on a half dozen other strips around the city.
In addition, the measure sets strict guidelines for all other postings. Unless those posting handbills want to register with the DPW and pay permit fees, their signs must be no larger than 11 inches, “affixed with nonadhesive materials such as string or other nonmetal binding material (plastic wrapped around pole is OK),” and with a posting date in the lower right corner. Signs must be removed within 10 days if they’re for an event, otherwise within 70 days.
Any deviations from these conditions will trigger a fine of $150, payable by whatever entity is identifiable from the content of the handbill, regardless of whether the group actually did the posting or knew about it. That standard of guilt, known legally as the “rebuttable presumption” — wherein someone is considered guilty unless they request an administrative hearing and can prove otherwise — is one of the targets of the ANSWER lawsuit, which is scheduled for its first pretrial hearing next month.
“In San Francisco, the distribution of handbills and other such literature is a quintessentially protected First Amendment activity, as it is everywhere. But the moment someone posts a group’s literature on city property, the DPW is entitled to presume, under the rebuttable presumption, that the group itself is responsible — absent any evidence of a connection between the group and the person who did the posting,” wrote attorney Ben Rosenfeld, who is representing ANSWER and two other accused violators, in a brief to San Francisco Superior Court.
Furthermore, he argues that there are no evidence standards for contesting the fines, which themselves have a chilling effect on free speech, particularly for poorly funded social and political activists. And, as he told the Guardian, “most people believe that posting flyers, because it’s such a time-honored way of communicating, is legal.”
Yet the City Attorney’s Office argues that city law is defensible and that rebuttable presumption — which is a similar legal precept to how parking tickets are handled — has been validated by the courts.
“We are going to argue that it’s reasonable and fair and it mirrors a state law that has withstood challenges,” said city attorney spokesperson Matt Dorsey. “As a matter of principle, we don’t think the right of free speech allows defacing public property.”
It is that argument — that illegally posting signs is akin to vandalism or littering — that seems to be driving city policy.
“It happens very frequently, and the concern for the city is it costs a lot of money to remove,” the DPW’s Mohammed Nuru told the Guardian. “It adds to urban blight and makes the neighborhood look ugly.”
The view that handbills are blight has gotten a big boost from city hall in recent years — and so have those who advocate that point of view most fervently.
The nonprofit group San Francisco Clean City Coalition — whose board members include city director of protocol Charlotte Schultz and NorCal Waste executive John Legnitto — identifies its mission as keeping “San Francisco clean and green by building bridges between resources and the neighborhood groups, merchant associations, and residents that need them.”
A review of its federal nonprofit financial disclosure forms shows the organization has steadily received more public funds from at least three different city departments in recent years, totaling almost $300,000 in 2004, the last year for which the forms are available, plus another $170,000 in “direct public support.”
“Our organization has grown substantially,” said Clean City executive director Gia Grant, who is paid almost $70,000 per year and has been with the group for five years. “It has increased every year for the last five years.”
Most recently, the group won the $140,000 annual contract to manage the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, bringing to that low-income neighborhood the same kinds of blight abatement work they’ve been doing in the Mission, mostly through their contract with Kramer and his alter ego: SF Green Patrol.
“I believe all San Francisco residents have the right to live in a beautiful neighborhood, no matter where they live,” Grant told us.
Kramer has been applying that mantra to the Mission for several years now: tearing down signs, removing graffiti, painting and repainting the lampposts, and tending to the landscaping at Mission High and other spots. Kramer told us he volunteered his days to the cause even before he was paid for his efforts.
“Basically, the Green Team deals with the restoration of public property,” Kramer said. “I’m doing a lot of things in the community on behalf of the Mission District.”
Yet Kramer is hostile to the view that maybe the Mission was fine just the way it was, a point made by many residents interviewed by the Guardian — particularly activists with the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC) — who are more concerned with gentrification than the proliferation of signs for war protests.
“Because their causes are so lofty, they feel like they’re above the law…. They think that because their cause is so important, the end justifies the means,” Kramer said of the many groups with which he’s battled, from ANSWER and MAC to New College and the Socialist Action and Anarchist bookstores. “Free speech is not unlimited and the war in Iraq has nothing to do with clean streets. They’re just lazy and would rather just wheat-paste posters everywhere.”
Kramer said he’s been paid a full-time salary for his efforts for the last year, although neither he nor Clean City — which contracts with him — would say how much he makes. But whatever it is, Grant said Kramer’s days as a fully funded antisign enforcer might be coming to an end.
“The Green Patrol is not being funded by DPW anymore,” Grant said, noting that the contract expires at the end of August. “At this time, there’s no plan to carry it past August.”
ANSWER’s Becker has had several confrontations with Kramer, although both men insist that their actions aren’t personally directed at the other. Kramer is just trying to remove what he sees as blight and Becker is just trying to keep the public aware that the United States is waging an illegal war on Iraq and supporting Israel’s aggressive militarism.
“The war, from our perspective, is really growing,” said Becker. “A considerable number of people are becoming more alarmed by what’s happening. The war has intensified and it’s a complete disaster.”
Set against that global imperative — and the role of US citizens in allowing it to continue — Kramer’s “sacred lampposts” are a little silly to Becker. “He’s got this attitude that ‘I’m preserving your community for you,’” Becker said. “It’s a crazy thing and it’s gotten completely out of control.”
But facing fines that could total $28,000 with penalties, ANSWER has been forced to take the sign laws seriously, pursue legal action for what it believes is an important constitutional right, and instruct volunteers on the rules (with only limited effectiveness, considering some unaffiliated antiwar activists simply print flyers from ANSWER’s Web site and post them).
“The most important issue to us and to other political organizations with limited income is being able to communicate with the public,” Becker said.
And the sign ordinance has made that more difficult. Nonetheless, ANSWER has remained aggressive in calling and publicizing its protests, including the antiwar rally Aug. 12, starting at 11 a.m. in Civic Center Plaza.
As Becker said, “Despite the threat of these massive fines, we’re going to keep moving forward.” SFBG