Signs of life

Suddenly, last summer, during the drought and the health-care debates, simple Coroplast signs bearing the legend “no socialism” sprouted like buttercups on the front yards of 78209, the insular Alamo Heights-Terrell Hills-Olmos Park bubble of mostly well-heeled Anglo families. These particular signs lacked the zeitgeist gut-punch of Tea Party protest signs, those oft-misspelled homespun rebuttals to the bank bailouts, same-sex marriage, wise Latinas, President Obama’s purported place of birth, and the granny-killing vicissitudes of health-insurance reform. Instead, perplexing and unsettling at first sight, the “no socialism” placards made no direct reference to any particular act of policy or jurisprudence, and leave the viewer to guess at their underlying specific message.

“No socialism” could refer specifically to health care; early scuttlebutt maintained that the signs originated with a group of unnamed physicians who feared the loss of revenue if private insurance corporations faced governmental challenge. Or, maybe, “no socialism” referred to the potential for higher taxes imposed upon the wealthiest 300,000 Americans, who earn close to as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans combined (this statistic garnered from an ’07 report on IRS data by Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, professor at the Paris School of Economics.)

Maybe that’s the wrong tack, though. Thinking outside the proverbial box, “no socialism” could be a grito arising from the graceful Southern-style estates and Spanish colonials, stating that dangit, Socialism isn’t enough; the hell with compensation based on an individual’s merit and an economic platform based on resources used for the benefit of the public. That’s sissy talk. Nothing short of military overthrow of the government and collectivization of all means of production shall satisfy these secretive, hardcore red commies. That’s right; a communist revolution might be unleashed from the banquet rooms of the San Antonio Country Club, Marxist actions planned in the darkest corners of the Argyle.

Michael Jay Smith thinks otherwise. In his opinion, “Those that are proudly displaying `no socialism` signs typically benefit from government-granted perks such as the homeowners tax deduction on interest and the lower tax rate on capital gains. Socialism is often in the eye of the beholder.”

For this ’09-er and designer, “no socialism” folks aren’t Marx-quoting cultural revolutionaries; they’re selective socialists. Smith was so inspired by this cognitive dissonance that he designed his own sign, a lookalike Coroplast rectangle reading “no selfishness.”

You say tomato, I call bullshit
This is where this front-yard debate gets uptempo. Smith’s friend and ’09-er neighbor Heather Lammers loved Smith’s “no selfishness” sign, and asked him to make one for her yard. After all, it’s no more vague than the “no socialism” slogan; while you may or may not eschew what you consider to be unfavorable socialist doctrine, nobody’s gonna stick up for selfishness, right? It’s not even inconceivable to have a “no socialism” sign standing cheek-to-jowl in your yard with a “no selfishness” sign. Consider, readers: WWJD?

About the next step in the ’09 sign back-and-forth, Lammers says, “Lila `Walker` was walking on my street, and told her companion she was so fed up with the ‘other’ signs that she was going to rip the next one she saw out of the ground. Luckily, the next one she saw was our ‘no selfishness’ sign. … Michael wasn’t interested in printing numerous signs, so he authorized Lila to champion the cause.”

And champion “the cause” she did. I met Walker at Olmos Perk back in May to discuss this counter-measure. An ’09-er herself, and a retired teacher of history and social studies (“I called it ‘world cultures’”) at Alamo Heights Junior School, Walker would never have allowed her 6th through 8th graders to get away with the reductive thinking and “intrusive, name-calling kind of discourse” represented by the “no socialism” sign, she told me. She wasn’t so crazy about the s-word or the ideals contained therein, either, saying, “Socialism isn’t just a term, but a specific political system, one which has sometimes led to murderous tyrannical regimes. … But at any rate, `socialism` isn’t just an insult you throw out there when you disagree with the government.”

So Walker commissioned a batch of the Smith-designed signs to be printed in Austin. Soon, word of mouth spread among the bubble’s progressive-minded residents faster than cedar pollen in December `see CurBlog: “Bubble Battle Babble” May 15`.

Smith, Lammers, Walker, and their compatriots didn’t intend their signs to be “too inflammatory,” Walker said. “We didn’t want to attack anybody, but just suggest another way of looking at the issue and respond to this ‘no socialism’ statement.” To appeal to the better angels of our nature, in other words, rather than bite back.

This genial message didn’t stop the “no selfishness” devotees from feeling bitten, though. Mary Kay Stewart, founder of the Friendship Bridge, a nonprofit which raises awareness — and microloan funds — for the female artisans of Guatemala, received a nasty anonymous letter from (presumably) one of her neighbors, which was excerpted in Scott Stroud’s column in the June 7 edition of the San Antonio Express-News.

The letter was addressed: “Dear Socialist Neighbor,” and went on to “thank you for you looking forward to pay more income tax `sic`. Our welfare check and health care benefits should be increasing shortly … PLEASE send cash so we won’t have to pay taxes on the income or get a social security card or become a US citizen.”

Naturally, Stewart was hurt and shocked by the incoherent, vituperative, and unsigned letter, but remains steadfast, writing to the Current that, “I was horrified and astonished.  I told myself ‘This cannot be San Antonio,’ my beloved home for over 40 years. … But, on the other hand, my rights as an American citizen and my hopes for our future are making me crawl out of my self-protective shell.”

Express-News columnist Jonathan Gurwitz also weighed in with an impassioned editorial for the June 6 Sunday edition of the daily. Gurwitz begins, “Genial residents are manning picket fence parapets on the manicured lawns of Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and Terrell Hills. Neighbor is setting upon neighbor,” and intones, “This is exactly what our nation does not need.” He muses that “citizens are enlisting as mercenaries to politically mobilize their neighborhoods,” and concludes that, “No matter where your political allegiance may lie, and mine is unabashedly with the ‘no socialism’ folks, this is a bad thing.”

Interestingly, it wasn’t during the initial “no socialism” yard-sign foray that the admittedly like-minded Gurwitz took his editorial stand; it was in response to its counter-statement. And not surprisingly, this annoyed the redoubtable Ms. Walker, who wrote the Express-News that “for months, `those who disagreed with the ‘no socialism’ signs` were made to suffer in passive embarrassment. Finally, our response was not to steal the signs from private property, as the other side is now doing, but to erect our own sign. ... Former Chief Justice Earl Warren opined, ‘Many people consider the things government does for them to be social progress, but consider things government does for others to be socialism.’ For Gurwitz, a journalist, to contend that only one side of an issue should be argued is disgraceful.” 

Dancing in the Streets
Whatever their motives, and whoever they might be, I applaud the “no socialism” faction for making the political personal, and in public. Well, sort of public; the original “no socialism” signs can be ordered, for $19 apiece (Lila Walker’s signs, on the other hand, can be had for $4), from, where you’ll find no info on the founding members of the movement. The registrant of this website, though, according to an independent researcher at the Daily Kos, is Rick Flume, a San Antonio bankruptcy attorney. (I rang him up, but my calls to Mr. Flume’s office were not returned by press time.)

I hope that Mr. Flume, or whoever else took action on the “no socialism” front, as well as the “no selfishness” believers, appreciate the puckish San Antonio spirit that has now reimagined and re-framed the debate. A slew of signs has appeared on lawns in ’09 and beyond recently which lampoon the state of affairs pronounced by Stroud and Gurwitz to be so threatening and regrettable, and instead celebrate its absurdity while championing a little freedom of speech. We’re a quirky town, San Antonio: There’s nothing we can’t have a little fun with.

Some brilliant signs we’ve seen and heard tell of, over the past couple of months:

• NO SELF (the Buddhists weigh in?)

• NO SHELLFISH (what, not Kosher?)

• NO SOCIALITES (this one was devised by Brad Lawton, we hear; go to to find his design company’s phone number and order one ahead of the Fiesta rush)

• NO CHICKEN, NO FISH, NO BEEF (veggie opining?)

And, inevitably:


Leilah Powell, a mom and yard-sign enthusiast (she sent us several photos you can see online), beseeched us “to make clear that San Antonio isn’t this conservative backwater where everything is so tense and serious,” adding that she has yet to see “any kind of in-person rudeness or conflict whatsoever. … I’ve found this whole thing funny, and interesting. It’s public art, really, and it shows San Antonio’s personality; we’re creative and friendly and kind of eccentric. It’s that Fiesta spirit.” The signs, she observes, don’t necessarily reflect what we think of each other, hence the outpouring of jokes. She adds, laughing, “We aren’t even anti-crustacean.”

Bringing it all back home
As this goes to print, the favorite of the signs among Current staffers was designed, like the “no selfishness” signs, by Mr. Michael Smith. He wrote us, “Here is a photo of my tongue in cheek `sign`, which stayed in my yard longer than I expected. I hope it now decorates some teenager’s bedroom.”

The sign in the accompanying photo reads: “no zombies.”

A sentiment I think we can all get behind. •

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