When cars and trucks pass underneath our glowing signs, the drivers and passengers retain a memory of the message, distributing it to both nearby and far-flung locations. We hold the letters one-side-by-each, short-form messages of protest against long-form extremism, semaphores of solidarity picked up and swept across social media. This is the OLB, "coming soon to an overpass near you," a group dedicated to tactics of visibility and voice, the importance of physical witness, community coherence and the power of purposeful play.
Last evening even the 80% prediction of rain broke in our favor. The 20% chance of no-rain won the early evening. It was odd being out and not feeling bone-cold. We had scoped out a pedestrian overpass we had never occupied before, a long arcing structure built over an extremely wide section of Milwaukee's I-43, a bridge from East to West within an African American neighborhood of Milwaukee. These often overlooked structures are like fords in roaring rivers, stitching two banks of bisected communities back together.
More than twenty people showed up, so we were able to bring out multiple messages. "WALKER LIES" was newly possible because of the addition of a nice "S" to our lexicon, and as more people arrived we later spelled out "WALKER IS JOHN DOE," referring to the ongoing investigation into campaign corruption that has enmeshed Walker and his closest Milwaukee County cronies. It is good to keep this reminder floating over the freeways. Our hope is that people either say "Oh, yeah… that issue is still out there!" or "Can you tell me what that whole JOHN DOE thing is all about?" Our first message of the night was pretty self-evident if you are paying attention. His lips move: he's usually lying.
In order to get the beautiful photographs, I need to get down to highway level with my camera on tripod. The big gap in the fencing made this easy, and two of us were down taking pictures when the police came. Ugh-oh. Two squad cars pulled over, disco balls blazing and two Milwaukee County Sheriffs climbed the embankment towards us. They were fairly surly. I stood patiently waiting, taking pictures while I could, wondering what was coming next. I heard the lead cop in his walkie-talkie, "kkkssssshhh, yeah, we've got a bunch of protestors at the bridge….. kkksssshhh…Trespassing on right of way…. kkkssshhhhh…. Complaints called in…." Complaints, I now understand, are called in whenever we come out. The frequency of police presence is dramatically rising in proportion to the increase in our national visibility.
They ran our licenses, told us to get off the easement. They reaffirmed our right to be on the overpasses, however, which was reassuring after our Portage incident. "You can be up there as long as you don't affix those signs!" the Sheriff curtly stated. "Which is why," I pointed out, "we have all those people up there, each holding a sign…"
I do understand the logic of our embankment banishment, even though we were way up on the side, quite far from the freeway. The problem is in getting the pictures. You've got to get close to get the shots. I ask myself, "What would Werner Herzog do?" and begin to think of ninja gear, camo-paint and invisibility cloaks. Proceed and be bold...
When the Milwaukee Police came last Wednesday out near State Fair Park on I-43, the first squad car parked and just watched. It was a little disconcerting. We were coming off the bridge to end our action, and figured it would be fun to line up the signs against the fence right in front of the squad, in order to make a unique display for the officer. Once thusly arrayed, I went up to the cruiser. The officer rolled down her window, and I said to her, "I'm sorry, are we causing a problem for you?" (which I think is more effective than "Are we doing anything wrong?"). We both laughed because I caught her with her cell phone out, taking pictures of the signs. She was going to post them on Facebook. She couldn't share her political feelings with me, but she was really nice and really friendly.
A few minutes later when the paddy-wagon came ready to check us out or roll us in, she was already on our side. The officers talked among themselves for a while, looked at our signs, looked at our motley crew of kids and elders and everyone in between, all down-home Wisconsinites. After a while they said goodnight and left. It was all pretty gentle, yet their presence was, of course, a large part of the communication.
Last night, our encounter with the law was a lot less friendly. Everything was fine, but it was pretty terse and tense. OLB gently yet insistently pushes at the constraints around public assembly and peaceful protest. We are not there to argue with cops. We are there simply to be there, and to be visible.
The message seems to be getting out. After being featured in the Sunday NYTs two weeks ago, our Facebook "reach" shot to 69,503 people, far-flung across 20 different countries. (Please "Like" our page here.) Care2 did a nice article about us this morning. We're talking with a number of other protest groups around the country about possible splinter-group collaborations, and we are booked to appear throughout the state at events and overpasses. A lot is happening, and we try to balance it with other pressing duties of job and family.
Yesterday, at an academic conference at UW Milwaukee about the Occupy Movement, a student asked one of the panelists, "What does success look like to you?" The panelist, a brilliant radical Marxist (the kind of guy the rightwing is really talking about when they say the word "socialist professor") got kind of esoteric and deconstructed the framing of the question and its blunt lack of nuance. I like direct questions, so as a moderator, I jumped in. "This movement succeeds or fails," I said, "on whether it opens up new networks that bridge partitioned and multiple communities, including my own and your own. Success, for me, is about the opening of these new social spaces. The great thing about this model is how straightforward it is. It is all about process. All you have to do is go out and engage. By engaging, bridges will be built. It is that easy..."
It is that easy. Build bridges with diverse communities. Take the overpass as metaphor and arc yourself across bisecting structures. We can do this. It will take time, but through action and creativity and play we can model the same new and old solutions that are always within reach.