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When Beth Solomon and Thomas Smith walked out of One Judiciary Square a week ago Tuesday, they had good reason to feel kicked around by the folks inside.

Solomon, a leader of the fight against the proposed new D.C. Convention Center at Mount Vernon Square, had just seen the D.C. Council vote to approve the project in spite of persistent objections that it’s the wrong building on the wrong site. And Smith, a Shaw Coalition colleague of Solomon’s, had gotten the boot for disrupting the meeting.

But the scene outside the building proved just as insulting. After councilmembers voted them down inside, Solomon and Smith ran smack into some other folks busily rejecting their anti-convention center efforts—with their bare hands.

“We saw these two guys with the red jackets and the big trash cans taking down posters,” explains Solomon, who had helped put up the anti-convention center posters that very morning.

Those two guys were no ordinary citizens. As Safety and Maintenance workers (SAMs) from the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID), they work for the new self-taxing quasi-government dedicated to cleaning and hyping downtown D.C. “They came along with a little cart,” says Smith. “I yelled that that’s political speech and you can’t do that.”

According to Smith, the SAMs replied that they were on the lookout for decaying posters. “They said you can’t leave things for more than three days,” he says. “It was a flagrant lie, because we’d just put them up.” In any event, the D.C. Municipal Regulations allow signs to remain in place for 60 days.

Solomon says that the poster removal is the latest in a series of efforts by business interests—or their friends in government—to squelch criticism of the multi-million-dollar project. She contends that even while her posters were disappearing, other political posters on the block remained untouched. “We said, ‘Are you taking down posters of candidates?’ and they said no,” Solomon adds.

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Either way, the brouhaha is only the latest in a series of flaps over anti-convention center propaganda. Just last month, project foe Debbie Hanrahan found herself cited for posting on public property. After it was pointed out that the Shaw Coalition has the same right as political candidates to stick up posters, the District’s Department of Public Works rescinded the tickets.

Downtown BID spokesman Marc Goldman says it was a case of cleaning up, not clamping down. “We are in a process right now of going through and painting poles throughout downtown,” he says. “What occurred was [the SAMs’ supervisor] giving a painting route, and the SAMs taking off signs to prepare.”

But just a couple of days later, new posters Smith had put up overnight were stripped from the posts underneath two parking signs in front of One Judiciary Square by SAM Eugene Griffin. (The D.C. Municipal Regulations section on posters and placards, which the activists cite as protecting their right to post, does not address parking signs. Posters on them are fairly common, however).

Griffin explained that he was removing the posters under orders from his supervisor, who he said had told him to take down all posters. And as for the placard across the street touting mayoral candidate Faith, Griffin offered a perfectly believable explanation: He wasn’t tall enough to reach it. No conspiracy there.

Goldman says it was probably a case of a worker overdoing his job. “Some of our line employees have taken this to the nth degree,” he says.

To some, however, the flap confirms fears that the BID is out to privatize downtown’s public spaces, driving out the unpredictable—and unprofitable—aspects of real urban life, such as business-unfriendly politics. Solomon says the only people who have taken things to the extreme are convention center proponents. She says that boosters—she counts the BID among them—are out to derail her efforts to block the project.

It’s a charge Goldman flatly denies. “That doesn’t sound to me like the way we would carry out our business,” he says.

“What’s going on here is a stepped-up effort by the government and by quasi-governmental agencies to go after citizens and to restrict and to limit public debate,” says Solomon. “Its not their public space, thank you very much. It still belongs to the citizens last time I checked.” CP