Overpass Light Brigade mixes social media, "physical commitment of real people" by Royal Brevväxling
If you haven't actually seen the illuminated signs on overpasses all over Milwaukee, perhaps you've seen the pictures attached to the numerous articles and blogs about them from all over the country, from the Huffington Post and the Seattle Times to Time magazine or all the television segments on programs like "The Rachel Maddow Show" and "The Ed Show."
The signs with messages ranging from "Recall," "Vote Walker Out," "Walker = John Doe" and, more recently, "We Shall Overcome," "Question Austerity" and "Boycott Palermos" have appeared on bridges outside Milwaukee, too, from Kenosha and Madison, to Fond du Lac and Portage.
What has come to be known as the Overpass Light Brigade (OLB) began with a simple "Recall Walker" sign that Lisa Moline and Lane Hall, artists and professors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, set up at a rally near their home in Wauwatosa to offer their support.
The partners had become involved in early trips to Madison, along with thousands of other people from all over Wisconsin, at the beginning of the protests to Governor Walker's controversial "budget repair bill," which later became Act 10.
The couple wanted to increase visibility for signage at rallies and protests once it started getting dark. They thought using relatively inexpensive LED lights somehow could work.
"We set up our sign on street corners and at spots where people could sign the recall petition," says Hall. "But we wanted to scale it up."
Their first lighted sign was made from off-the-shelf strings of battery-powered lights and measured 3x4 feet. It simply read, "Recall Walker," and debuted on the North Avenue overpass where members of the Occupy Movement staged a protest.
That first sign has now been selected for part of the Wisconsin Historical Society's permanent collection archiving the Wisconsin Uprising.
Wanting to increase what Hall calls the "throw power" of "essential visibility," the artists designed portable, two-foot by three-foot signs, an individual letter in each one, and took them to the city's overpasses.
The multi-lettered sign debuted on an Interstate overpass between Holt Avenue and Howard Avenue on the South Side, which is the same bridge the OLB just returned to on Saturday, June 23 with striking Palermo's workers.
They were uncertain of the reception they'd receive that first night, but were confident it was legal and that their actions would do something to promote their cause. Their initial idea was to use bungee cords to affix signs to the structure, but a person Hall describes as a "young Republican" approached and informed them doing so was illegal.
"He was right. So we learned that night that OLB actions would require one holder per letter. That one insight changed it from being a DIY guerrilla action to one of community and witness testimonial," says Hall.
As people volunteered to hold signs, OLB actions became more about the activist groups in each area they occurred; Hall and Moline began to see themselves more as suppliers to the various groups. As the recall election approached, Hall says they were also receiving "a lot of aggression from the right wing" and they began documenting the actions: Moline doing video and Hall taking still photos.
More and more people approached the couple wanting to join the actions, including Madison-based activist Jenna Pope and Joe Brusky from Occupy Riverwest, who quickly became co-coordinators of OLB actions.
"There was the primary action, the bridge part, and then the social media. The pictures and videos are particularly media-genic and were getting widely distributed," says Hall, who watched the statistics on their social media outreach expanding from 3,000 to 21,000 after a few bridge appearances.
Hall's statistics show they've reached 180,000 people now.
"This is amazing for a little group of activists. It's really interesting to see where this went, mostly in the U.S., but also to Egypt and beyond," says Hall.
At one point, the political editor of The New York Times sent out a field photographer to document the actions.
Hall says it was hard to get a dozen people to join them last December but by May, when they returned to Madison, over 120 people were on the bridges.
Over time, the OLB's "actions" turned into "bridge parties" as the "brigaders" who braved the cold weather standing on a bridge increasingly looked forward to the events, turning them into festive engagements with other community members.
MPS teacher Alissa Gonyea participated in the OLB about 10 times. As a "holder of the light" (what the brigaders sometimes call themselves), Gonyea enjoyed hearing people honk their car horns to "this is what democracy looks like," one of the chants of the Wisconsin Uprising.
"Whether in the freezing cold, rain or windy weather I stood proud, smiled and waved to the cars below. Our audience was travelers and we provided the service of delivering a clear message. Someone voted because they read our message," she says.
Gonyea says she also brought her 15-year-old, Connor, with her on the overpasses so he could experience "true democracy."
"I see each action more like a '60s 'happening.' For the (political) left, they look at us and say 'grit your teeth and do your duty' and the (political) right just thinks we're all paid activists from a union. None of this is correct. I don't think a movement can last without joy and pleasure to it. That's our ethos," says Hall.
Even after the recall election, Hall says the "sociality of it is getting more and more joyful." There are tailgating parties near the bridges with food, at the last "happening" someone ordered pizza delivered to the bridge and other groups have formed their own bridge brigades, like OLB-Dane County.
In efforts to "open-source" the light brigade, Hall has given other groups instructions on how to create the signs and build the necessary social networks around the actions. The recently formed OLB-Fox Valley has a blue fist made out of lights.
The results of the recall election have been "depressing and disappointing" to Hall and other OLB members but, because this is about building a movement more than making endorsements and achieving partisan objectives, Hall says the group persists.
After the election, Hall sent an email to the OLB's listserv members asking if anyone wanted to be taken off this list. He had been working on what he hoped would be a victory message, but on June 6 he found himself working on letters for a new sign all day.
"The overwhelming response from the listserv to 'OLB 2.0' was that 'it's important to keep going.' Over 50 people came out around the new message," says Hall.
That message was "We Shall Overcome," which is the title of a key protest song during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and '60s.
"This has been about network building and creating a people's bandwidth, where they can get their messages out as a fusion of virtual community and physical commitment of real people," says Hall.