Signs of the times

Peace groups fight the city's handbill posting ban — and the one man who works to enforce it in the Mission District
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.