Friday, July 25, 2008

The Handbill War

The pen and ink cartoon below was created in 1983 and first published as a handbill posted on utility poles in the commercial sections of the Fan District. Later it ran in SLANT in 1986. That single frame cartoon of mine was part of a five-year campaign waged to fight off the city's anti-handbill laws.

By keeping ordinary things like handbills, cohabitation, gambling, and other "victimless" crimes illegal, it means just about anybody can be harassed by the long arm of the law. But it's the ones with the unfashionable attitudes that feel the boot first.

As the Biograph Theatre's manager, when I was busted in 1982 for posting a handbill that promoted a midnight show ("Atomic Cafe"), it was a bust I deliberately provoked. I wanted to beat The City of Richmond in court.

Laws that the GRTC, politicians and yard sale promoters routinely ignored were suddenly getting guys in bands busted. Perhaps not so coincidently this crackdown happened when the band scene in the Fan District was at an all-time high.

After looking at a hundred choice flyers and listening to expert witnesses, the judge bought my defense and found me not guilty. (For an amusing account of an incident in that trial, click here.) For a while the cops left hand-billers alone.

Then the busts resumed in late-1984. In 1985, SLANT's first cause was to once again frame the battle with The City in a freedom-of-speech context, while insisting the pop scene depended on flyers being posted in such a way, on the people’s utility poles, to exist.

In 1986 an ad hoc group of Fan District artists and musicians formed to pepper The City with a propaganda campaign. In 1987 the local statutes governing handbill-posting in the public way were changed. Essentially, we won.

Freedom of speech prevailed.

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