Before this horrible nightmare named Governor Walker, how would I have met such great people? How would I have met Giles Goat Boy and Puddytat and ruleoflaw and plankbob and stcroix cheesedhead and Cady Brownell? How would I have met people like Blue Cheddar, writer and creator of her eponymous blog, or Chris Reeder, music leader of the fantastic Solidarity Singers? From the parties in the African American community that The Playground Legends organized last summer to the Overpass Light Brigade's recent actions on the highways, our lives are rich beyond measure due to newly opened spaces for sociality. This, for me, is the different between a protest and a movement. In Wisconsin, we are building a movement, one relationship at a time.
A while back, a guy known locally as Milwaukee Ironworkers mentioned on Facebook that he'd like to join us for an Overpass adventure. I've been coordinating these from a growing list of folks who are willing to brave the cold during rush hour. I put a call out for an upcoming date, with the understanding that we meet from 4:30 to 6:00 at the designated pedestrian overpass. I need at least 8 people for the event: 6 to hold the letters, at least 1 to keep an eye on everyone (we've had some issues with rightwing visitors who want to "talk" with us about our presence) and 1 (usually me) to document the event. I tell people to "dress like you are going ice fishing" and warn them that it can be a bit tiresome to stand for an hour and a half, the wind whipping up from the freeway, off from the lake, as the chill of the night settles in.
Milwaukee Ironworkers is one of those guys who works a few hundred feet up on girders… a proud union man, and stalwart in his fight for workers' rights. I figured he could get some tough friends together. I've been feeling a bit overtaxed on the organizational end of things, so I suggested that he coordinate an event and just tell us where and when to show up with the signs. What a great idea! There is something magical that happens when people write themselves into a narrative. It is no longer your story. It is a group story. In this way this project has become very fluid. Who is author of the event? The sign creators? The organizers for that particular evening? The Holders of the Lights who brave the windchill? The passersby who take the story home and talk about it the next day? The folks who post and repost documentation on Facebook?
We drove the thirty miles south and east to Racine, met our new collaborators and unpacked the lights. What a great crew! I didn't expect such a festive atmosphere. Everyone was excited to be a part of the intervention, in spite of the bitterly cold weather. And the overpass itself was really beautiful, a white gleaming cage over a main city road. I was delighted to learn that we had a photojournalist in our midst, who took some amazing pictures. We did our thing to mostly happy beeps and honks. Racine has been hard hit in terms of joblessness and generally the response was quite supportive.
There is something about standing in 20 degree weather when the night sky falls, holding signs and watching your world from 16' above a roadway that turns a group of strangers into the fastest of friends. It is akin to camping… it just seems to cut through the crusty layers that we normally maintain. After the overpass occupation, we went to a bar and shared drinks and stories. These are some seriously committed activists. They have coordinated the drive that has resulted in almost double their expected quota of Walker/Kleefisch recalls, as well as the necessary recall signatures for their State Senator Van Wanggaard. "He's toast," one woman said to me last evening. "I'm fully confident that we will send him packing."
We finished our drinks, said our goodbyes, and made our way back through the dark country highways, north to Milwaukee. On the drive back badscience and I talked about this new sociality, these new friendships that we have made. We are meeting fantastic people: smart, committed, creative, full of life and humor. They are probably people that I would never have met before last year, since my own life had been circumscribed by relatively static community boundaries: family, immediate neighbors, students and colleagues.
No matter what kind of passport we now need to get in or out of Fitzwalkerstan, I take great solace in the heart that is the heart of the country.
I have gotten to really appreciate the functional and sculptural beauty of the pedestrian overpass structures that arch their way over the freeways, bridging neighborhoods that have been bisected by impassable rivers of cement. They aren't made to be observation decks, but when you are up on them, life looks a bit different. People rush from job to home, while we get to freeze time just a little bit, standing there with ridiculous and beautiful letters that suggest, assert, beg, advertise an action, a recollection, a retrieval. Recall. Plain and simple. Fix the divided state. It doesn't need to be this way.
The bridge we stand on seems an apt metaphor for the Overpass Light Brigade's current function: give visibility to resistance, bring people from diverse communities together, build a movement one relationship at a time.