The Overpass Light Brigade wanted to be in Madison Tuesday night for the recall election results. The Solidarity Sing Along was going to perform in front of the capitol at 8:00, and we planned to array our signs on the lush grass of the capitol lawn at dark. After much thought and the construction of a couple of letters, we decided on THE PEOPLE UNITED. This seemed to succinctly sum up sixteen months of marching together, rallying, singing, standing, collecting signatures, protesting, strategizing and finding solace in new friendships. The scene was a cross between Mardi Gras and a home football game. Cars and pickup trucks were circling the square, honking democrabeeps. Vuvuzelas were blasting their ear-splitting fjord sounds. Policemen on horses were taking it all in while the Singers were leading a rousing chorus of "This Land Is Your Land" complete with lyrics adapted to Wisconsin place names. It was a spirited occasion.
At 8:30 we gathered some stalwarts and strangers on the capitol steps and walked a few blocks to our Subaru to get the signs. They looked great with the loveliest capitol building in the whole country gleaming white behind the lush and juicy early summer lawn. A flood of photographers rushed over to get shots. It was a wall of paparazzi and was just what we hoped for. We felt like we could pull out a major win, as all news of voter turnout seemed to be breaking in our favor. A friend, coming back from a restroom break said, "I was just in that bar over there, and they are already calling the election!" It wasn't even 9:00. "What?" I said, "You mean we won?"
The bad news slowly percolated through the crowd. The polls closed at 8:00. It wasn't even 9:00 yet and The Ed Show was already calling the election for Scott Walker. People were still standing in line at the polls in Milwaukee, where there are never enough ballots, and the race was already over. How does that work?
We soldiered on through the gathering disheartenment. The euphoria of being alive and a part of this magnificent movement was replaced by a dark dream dirge, a waking life of yourself watching yourself move through someone else's narrative because you weren't able to write it yourself. We went over to the theater where the Solidarity Singers had retreated and watched an outsized screen display Ed Schultz' head huge enough to match his resolute narcissism, his own sense of dismay either a real or calculated interpolation between working class hero and camel hair coat. We listened to our favorite pundit, John Nichols, articulate the obvious - that endless amounts of money can buy a lot of free speech in the era of Citizens United.
I finished my double whiskey and Badscience and I packed it in. We talked all the way on the drive back to Milwaukee, urgent, quiet, sober. What will become of the Overpass Light Brigade, which has become a force within the specific context of the recall. Will people have the heart to come back out to the bridges? What messages are appropriate now that the race has been run? The recall has been a focussing lens for many, many people. A win could have shown what sixteen months of struggle, heart and creativity could still achieve, a loss brings us closer to the one party system that defines this sham-democracy called American political theater.
I've always admired the intelligence and pragmatic toughness of badscience. Romanticizing few things, she tends to look straight at tough situations. By the time we were home, we had resolved a few things: 1) The Overpass Light Brigade is needed more than ever, 2) We will continue to call out the corruption of Scott Walker and his cronies, and 3) We know a lot of people running for office now and want to help them get elected. That sounds to me like the beginning of a cohesive mission statement for OLB Phase 2.
The next day, yesterday, we woke up and got busy. One letter needed to be fixed, one needed to be made. We had already put out a Bridge Party date for that evening, regardless of electoral outcome. After such a crushing defeat, I didn't know if people would have the heart to come out, so it was great to see Holders of the Lights already parked near our favorite overpass in Milwaukee. Resolute souls, these people! We all stood around and talked for a while, and more people arrived. It was somber, but not so bad. I pulled out the letters and turned them on. More gathered, thirty strong. We lined up at the fence, then took to the bridge. We had a new message, serene and beautiful, spiritual: WE SHALL OVERCOME.
As the evening went on, our spirits lifted. The sound of the horns was different now. Less angry. Heck, the angry side won, though they still leave their ugly comments on our Facebook page. The message shone over the freeway, shouted from the mountaintops. More people came. A woman - a teacher - driving along the road circled back and came up to us, weeping. OLB gave her hope. The forty people gathered by the end of the night seemed a small group compared with the 124 on the bridge just three evenings before, though we would have been thrilled to get so many people even two months ago. Our first posts to Facebook went viral. 300 shares within a few minutes. 500 likes. At the end of the evening, people reaffirmed their desire and commitment to going out, to remaining part of this amazing activist community that coalesced out of anger directed at an extremist politician whose credible deceit has fooled a state into thinking he qualifies for a leadership role. Or perhaps, as the Koch-fueled Republicans suggest, it is time to ransack the unions, especially easy these days since they don't seem capable of convincing a majority of Americans that they serve a significant function. Perhaps it is time to admit what becomes more apparent each election cycle: that the national Democratic Party is forever diminished due to chronic ambivalence between corporate power and progressive promises. Perhaps it was time to just give up.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps we wake up, look to ourselves, and realize it is the same as it ever was. Institutions aren't going to deliver us. In a one party system, all else is resistance. Visibility, creativity, bodies in space, the power of purposeful play, engagement, community… all semaphore for a way to live, cloud-tags for the practice of everyday life. We awaken, not to a wake, but to a wakening. We're still here, and we insist on essential visibility.
We shall overcome, some day.