Something about last night's message sure got under someone's skin. Perhaps someone powerful. Perhaps someone with skin in the game who isn't in the public eye. Or perhaps someone in law enforcement with his own ax to grind. We'll probably never know. But boy howdy, we sure had a lot of cops on our bridge last night!
Our message: PALERMOS - NEGOTIATE! Not too inflammatory on the face of it. This message probably means nothing to most of you.
It was pretty busy on the bridge when the cops got there; noise of rain is out of town so we had fewer "officials" for our action, the photographic contingent was dispersed taking pictures, our livestreamer was making the rounds, we had lots of newbies on the bridge, some of whom spoke little English, and a long-ish message. I was holding a sign myself and finally had to abandon it so I could speak with the police officers who had gathered at the mouth of the bridge. Then the Sheriff's Department arrived and all hell broke loose.
Leap over the variously-nicknamed ornamental doohickey for the details.
Bridge Puppy gets a treat in the calm before the storm
Last night, a beautiful breezy Friday in Milwaukee, we took to the Ring Street Bridge over I43 just north of downtown. We've been to that bridge maybe 15 times already. We know the folks in the neighborhood and they often join us on the bridge, or for chats before and after our action. It's in a tough neighborhood, but the police have never visited us there. We didn't expect anything to happen beyond some honking and maybe some yelled invitations to "get a job."
A typical police visitation works like this: folks on the right, with views antithetical to those of the OLB, will get notice that there is a bridge action. They have secret Facebook pages and other social media nodes that publish our location and the phone numbers of the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department and the local police in that jurisdiction (sometimes Milwaukee, West Allis, Wauwatosa, Menominee Falls). Elected officials occasionally post on those secret pages, so the network isn't just ordinary citizenry. Then the minions make calls to those numbers (not 911) claiming all kinds of things. The most popular is "driver distraction," but they sometimes claim there is a "riot on the bridge" or that "people are throwing things on cars from the bridge" or that there is "excessive honking." We know this because law enforcement tells us when we ask what the complaint is.
Once complaints come in, someone must be dispatched to check out the situation. Sometimes we have to remind the officers of our legal right to be there, but most of the time they are just checking in and are soon on their way. Everybody in law enforcement knows who we are. We've been doing this 10 months now.
Last night's message has a somewhat complex backstory. Workers at the locally-owned Palermo's Pizza signed a petition to form a union back in May, and the response from management was to threaten workers with an ICE visit. Workers went on strike, so management fired the striking workers (most of them Latino immigrants). Until recently, this has been a pretty local fight. OLB has gone out several times in solidarity with the striking Palermo's workers.
Now the story has gone national and the AFL-CIO has entered the negotiation process just this week. Trumka is involved, and this is no longer a little local story about 100 striking Latino immigrants.
photo by CM DeSpears
So OLB's message last night set off some alarm bells in Milwaukee. We don't know whose bells exactly, but once the alarms went off, law enforcement was dispatched. In large numbers.
I abandoned my letter (the "hyphen"; it was tricky to hold because as a repurposed equals sign, the dash wasn't quite in the right spot without some adjustments) and went to speak with the three Milwaukee police officers who had been standing at the entrance to the overpass but hadn't engaged any of the Holders of the Light. I saw five or more squad cars parked at the curb; more than the usual 1 or 2 that we get, with many officers just standing around on the street.
I asked the officers on the bridge if I could be of assistance, and assured them that we were aware of our legal right to be there, and that we'd be packing up in about 30 minutes. The police officer "in charge" pushed hard on the "driver distraction" argument, but I informed him that we were not a distraction and that our legal right to perform these peaceful actions had been re-affirmed by 4 police jurisdictions and the Sheriff's department over the course of the past 10 months, and we were standing firm. His two colleagues stood awkwardly in the shadows. I got the distinct impression they were not happy to be there.
Just as I asked the police officer to check with his superiors about our right to be present on the bridge, Sheriff Deputy Callies arrived, wearing a bright yellow safety vest, pushing officers aside and storming the bridge. Several other vest-wearing Sheriff's deputies followed, but were silent and hung back. I went to Deputy Callies and asked if I could be of assistance. He hollered "I'm shutting this down. If you touch me, I'll arrest you. IF YOU TOUCH ME, I'LL ARREST YOU!"
photo by CM DeSpears
His violent presence and yelling drew everyone's attention. Two young women associated with the striking workers rushed over filming with their cell phones. Deputy Callies violently grabbed each phone, hurting each of the young women, who rightly protested that he was confiscating their phones illegally. At this point, I turned on my video camera. Deputy Callies threatened to take that as well, but since it was tethered to my wrist he must have thought better of actually making a grab for it.
During the next 10 minutes or so, Deputy Callies threatened to have us all arrested for disorderly conduct, he sent officers down to issue parking citations to anyone who might be parked illegally on the street, he called in more backup and sent his deputies scurrying. On the street, a crowd was gathering. Local residents were defending our right to be on the bridge. Young men interrupted their Friday evening entertainments to check out the unprecidented collection of police vehicles: several Milwaukee Sheriff's SUVs, two or three Milwaukee Police cars, several motorcycle cops, a paddy wagon all parked and double-parked along the road, with more police and sheriff's vehicles arriving and then cruising on. It was too chaotic to get a count, but I would estimate at least 15 vehicles came by, even if they did not stay and disgorge their officers into the melee. There were reports of bicycle cops and a K-9 unit, but I didn't see them myself, since I was up on the bridge with Deputy Callies most of the time.
As I left the bridge, most of the signs had been turned off and people were leaving the bridge. Shortly thereafter, Deputy Callies slipped away in his SUV and escaped. In his wake, he left a crowd of sheepish police officers who quietly drove away, and one Sheriff's deputy who told us, somewhat anticlimactically, that we were doing nothing wrong and that we could return to the bridge. So we did! By then, many of our holders had gone home, so we took up a message of PEACE for a brief benediction over the highway.
Our stalwart volunteers were excellent. No arrests, no problems, everyone was polite and calm and orderly. Several long-time Holders stepped forward to tell the enraged Deputy Callies that what we were doing was legal, that we knew our rights, and that he was wrong. Even after he forced us from the bridge, they set up a playful "after" message along the overpass fence where we usually stage our message photo-shoots and zombie walks, then organized the PEACE benediction once we got the official okay from a rational Sheriff's deputy.
photo by CM DeSpears
Here is a video mash-up compiled from cellphone footage, our livestreamer and some brigadeer video. We're honored to put out a message that makes the power brokers uncomfortable.
And here is some of the massive force called to squelch our rights to free speech:
Lastly, if you are so inclined, you can support the striking Palermo's workers at their wepay donations site.