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"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.