The police seemed a bit surly when they arrived last night. Perhaps they were made nervous by the 41 people on the bridge, the reporter, the video crew shooting a spot for Tom Barrett's campaign against Walker, the flags, the light saber, the letter signs, the word signs, the banners and the Big Blue fist. The minute we now step out on a bridge, the honking begins. The complaints, I am told, also begin immediately. Of the 40 events and actions that we have executed around Wisconsin, 12 have been visited by police. Sometimes they park and watch, sometimes troll the area under the bridge. They most often come out and see what we are up to, take my information, ask questions. Usually they then give their consent and leave, reminding us to not affix anything to the infrastructure and to not block the walkway. The fact that we are doing nothing illegal is certainly significant, so it is interesting when, as happened last night, the first words out of the policewoman's mouth were "You have to leave this bridge!"
Last week, while at another overpass, a Wauwatosa policeman arrived, walked up to our bridge, asked who was in charge, and told us that we were causing "driver distraction" and would have to leave. An ironworker named Randy and I talked with him at some length. I am by nature pretty conciliatory, and have frequently reminded OLB participants that our fight is not with the police, and that we are not there to make a point about freedom of assembly. However, both Randy and I wanted to know why we were getting kicked off the bridge. We were ending the night's action anyway, but I wanted to know if we could expect this every time we went there. Was it a Wauwatosa law that was different than the rest of Milwaukee County? Why have other police forces assured us that what we were doing was within the law? What laws or rules were we breaking?
He asserted his authority, suggested we call the department to check further into the laws, or post a complaint, and left. I was surprised when, about 10 minutes later, he came back. "Uh oh," I thought, "What now?" He told us he spoke with people at the station, and that we were well within the law. He offered us an apology, and said we could be there "24/7" as long as we didn't actually interfere with traffic or affix anything to the bridge. I shook his hand, thanked him, and told him that his coming back to inform us was an act of real character. We were all really impressed.
So when we were informed last evening by the West Allis Police that we had to leave the bridge, we were a bit incredulous. We've been visited 3 times by the same police force while on this particular overpass, every time ending in similar assent: don't block, don't affix, and thanks for ending at a reasonable and specific time. (I always offer this up as an important consideration and indication of our discipline. We "occupy" from 8:00 to 9:30 now, and leave right at 9:30, so I can say to the police "Oh, we have 40 minutes to go…" which allays some of their concerns). Puddytat was the first person the cops approached, and they immediately ignored her, in order to speak with Randy, a tall and handsome guy who seems authoritative. Puddytat was steamed. Badscience began to take their pictures, which made the situation a bit more tense. I told Badscience to chill, since the picture-taking was becoming the issue instead of the issue. She backed off. BatmanWi heard them call the County Sheriffs on their walkie-talkies (the highway is their jurisdiction) who told them "We know all about those protestors and they don't bother us!" which then shifted the current complaint from traffic disturbance to "noise compliance issues" due to all the semi-truck air horns, which continued to blast away underneath us.
Puddytat explained to them that we would be the first to see traffic disturbance, and there clearly wasn't any as cars whizzed by below us. I offered the fact that we would be leaving at 9:30 out of respect for the neighborhood. Our flag bearers kept marching by. The kid with the light saber was sparring with the darkness, the messages (RECALL WALKER and WALKER=NO JOBS) were aligned on each side of the overpass, the videographers were set up with fancy lights down on the sidewalk, the neighbor kids were in the park watching the action and taking pictures. Something shifted, and the cops agreed, reluctantly, that we could be there. They left. It was pretty tense, but reasonable. A wagon (which was the fourth policeman of the night) kept cruising slowly by, over and over, making their presence known. Some suggested that this was not-to-subtle intimidation. I disagreed, explaining that they were spectators trapped in authoritarian roles yet inspired by our demonstration of citizen engagement, enthused about our exhibited Situationist paradigm of performativity within the contested and liminal zones of public space. Or not.
We always do an "end of the bridge" procession, a "crawl" (in honor of Animal Nuz) off of the bridge. We then set up for a final photo-op, with our amazing volunteers so patiently holding the signs aloft. At the end of this is the "zombie walk," which is a wonderful bit of textual chaos as the letters mysteriously march in increasing entropy. Some of us stayed around for a while and talked about freedom and authority, our rights as citizens, and tactics for ameliorating police interactions. Thus, the lovely evening ended.
Life is crazy sometimes. What stories! Yesterday I drove to Madison, sang with the Solidarity Singers near the capitol. I delivered our first LED sign to the State Historical Society for their permanent collection. I was interviewed by professional videographers. I passed out letters and flags to 40 people near a pedestrian overpass over a busy freeway. I documented our actions. I talked with a writer on the bridge who wanted to do a story. I helped push back against a police request that had dubious legal standing. But mostly, this is a story about all of us: the "we" of WI. We might win on June 5th with sheer will and determination and creativity and energy or we might lose to the implacable purchase power of billionaires who are changing the very nature of our democracy.
But on June 6 we will wake up and go on fighting. After all, we have collectively created a living movement, not a weekend hobby.
[Tom Barrett's website is here. Donate!]
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