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Activists' Messages Line Market Street, Route of Historic Marches

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Adee Roberson-designed poster for Jessalyn Aaland's 'Class Set Volume 3,' installed in bus stops along Market Street. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

The latest crop of San Francisco Arts Commission Art on Market Street posters may at first glance look like a series of inspirational quotes. “Consciousness is power,” reads one bus stop kiosk. “Tomorrow’s world is yours to build.”

But there’s more to those messages than a dose of optimism: Each quote from a prominent author or activist, selected by artist Jessalyn Aaland, opens the door to a deeper understanding of Market Street as a site of history-making marches and demonstrations. Informing the candy-colored posters is research on nearly 125 years of localized dissent, all part of a larger undertaking meant to provide future generations with the tools to make their voices heard.

The nine bus stop designs, which will remain on view through October, are enlarged versions of Risograph prints Aaland produced as part of Class Set, an ongoing project that distributes free artist-designed posters to K–12 classrooms. (Full disclosure: this writer contributed a design for Class Set Volume 1 in 2016).

The full group of posters to be distributed in 'Class Set Volume 3,' 2019.
The full group of posters to be distributed in ‘Class Set Volume 3,’ 2019. (Courtesy of Jessalyn Aaland)

So far, Aaland has distributed over 10,890 posters to classrooms across the United States; each volume is also available for sale to non-teachers, and proceeds from those sales help fund the next round of posters. The project is inspired by Aaland’s past experience as a teacher at San Francisco’s Balboa High School, where she inherited a classroom of peeling paint, broken lights, water-stained ceiling tiles and (fittingly) a clock frozen in time.

While Aaland livened up the space with her own art, student work and contributions from artist friends, she knew other teachers relied on a hodgepodge of free posters to decorate their walls. Class Set combines positive, progressive messages with contemporary art aesthetics. Aaland sees her role as that of the commissioning body; she picks the quotes, solicits the artwork and prints the posters with her partner, Paul Morgan.


“I like to get artists who use pattern and color, maybe things that are mysterious or unexpected in text,” she says of Class Set’s look. “For me this work falls under social practice: working with other people to use art as a tool to do something useful.”

In this third iteration of the project, Aaland decided to address the Art on Market Street poster theme (“24/7”) by deeply researching the history of protests on the thoroughfare or in nearby neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, SoMA and Civic Center.

“I spent a lot of time watching—this was a really intense research process actually—so I was watching videos of certain protests to confirm if they went down Market Street or not,” she says.

Spread from Jessalyn Aaland's 'A Brief and Inconclusive History of Protests on San Francisco's Market Street,' 2019.
Spread from Jessalyn Aaland’s ‘A Brief and Inconclusive History of Protests on San Francisco’s Market Street,’ 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)

During a residency at Oakland’s Real Time and Space earlier this year, Aaland compiled her research into a zine titled A Brief and Inconclusive History of Protests on San Francisco’s Market Street. “Part of my interest as an artist (and former educator) is helping ordinary people see that their potential role in transforming our future is not that far out of reach,” she writes in the zine’s introduction.

In the zine, Aaland connects each quote to three events linked by themes like “transportation-related activism,” “labor demonstrations and strikes,” and “anti-war marches.” Some of the events, Aaland says, were well known to her, others completely new.

“Finding out about the Great Bicycle Protest of 1896 was pretty amazing,” she says. (Nineteenth-century cyclists rode en masse to protest poor road conditions on Market Street.) Aaland traces the legacy of that event to a 1972 protest for a dedicated bike lane and the 1992 “mobile traffic clot” that launched Critical Mass.

“At a time when there’s a lot of frustrating things about living here, it was really exciting and enriching to read about this history,” Aaland says. “It’s reinvigorating to be reminded of that history—that we live in this place that’s so rich and has actually changed a huge amount of things on the social and political landscape.”

Poster designed by Jesjit Gil in a Market Street bus kiosk.
Poster designed by Jesjit Gil in a Market Street bus kiosk. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

And while this historical information isn’t included on the Market Street posters themselves, a small note running up the left side of each design points people to the Class Set website, where Aaland provides a teacher’s guide (distributed in booklet form with each set of posters heading to a classroom) filled with ideas for discussions and activities centered around poster design and—for Volume 3—youth activism.

“High school students are getting involved in protests, but they don’t necessarily know how to do that safely,” Aaland says. In 2017, she produced a zine called Guide for Youth Protestors; the scenarios put forward in the Volume 3 booklet cover issues of dealing with counter-protestors, tear gas and post-protest consequences at school.

But even if the average Muni rider doesn’t go the extra mile to unlock all this background information, Aaland hopes they’ll get something out of the series. “I think it’s this feeling that it’s within reach to make social change, that you can participate,” she says. “There’s all these kinds of small things that you can do if you’re empowered and start taking action, even on a micro level. So I’m just hoping it might inspire someone to think about things they could do in their life.”

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