May 30, 2012 at 7:00 AM
Charge of the Overpass Light Brigade in Wisconsin
In the Wisconsin recall election, people on both sides have found creative ways to communicate their views. Here is a story of one way that politics becomes social — using old-school technology.
MILWAUKEE – Forty people stood on the Interstate 43 pedestrian overpass in the northern part of this city, clutching three-foot tall, wooden signs dotted with Christmas light lettering. In the receding daylight, all that could be seen was their message. That was the goal.
“Vote Barrett June 5″ spelled out the lighted letters. And then in smaller letters a few feet away: “Recall.”
Self-dubbed the Overpass Light Brigade, these protestors, co-founded by Milwaukee couple Lane Hall and Lisa Moline, were registering their positions for the state’s upcoming vote on whether to recall Governor Scott Walker and replace him with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Among the crew that night of May 26 were Greg Davis and his 14-year-old son Ben. Ben held a “B” while his father held an “R.”
“We’re just regular folks,” Davis said. “Not the people you’d see protesting at anything and everything.”
Participants chattered softly as they waved to passing cars below, but the scene was anything but quiet. Every few seconds a “honk” of agreement blurted from cars and trucks. The OLB calls these “democrobeeps.”
Brigaders came citing various gripes with the state’s governor.
“I’m just tired of having observed how many times Scott Walker has told outright lies,” participant Lisa Rowe said. “It bothers me to see someone like that in office.”
Davis said he’s upset with recent funding cuts to Wisconsin’s public education system. Walker made the cuts as a part of a plan to balance the state’s budget deficit.
“We’re mainly out here for him,” Davis said, resting his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “He’s about to enter high school and I’m very concerned about all the cuts in education — Walker’s saying it’s working when it’s really not.”
The OLB got started in November 2011 when local teachers sought a way to gather early support for Recall Walker efforts. To better publicize their message, Hall and a couple others used LED Christmas lights to build a protest sign that could be seen in the evening darkness, common in winter months. Their first effort simply stated “Recall Walker.”
“We took that out and it just got a lot of great exposure,” coordinator Joe Brusky said. “From there, this has just kind of blossomed.”
After those first few sessions the protestors learned that under a Wisconsin state statute, legally they cannot affix any signs to freeway overpasses that are considered government property. Instead, individuals must hold each sign. Thus was born the need for volunteers.
“In a way, that was a real boom for us,” co-founder Lane Hall said. “We had invented this clever, democratic way to to get our message out to the highway — once we had to have a person hold every sign, it moved into kind of a testimonial or a witness of the community, and that was really powerful.”
The activity is spreading. Other OLB branches have been formed in smaller towns around Wisconsin, and there is now one in Pennsylvania. Several people in the Milwaukee team drive hours to join the protests each event.
This past Saturday evening, other OLB protestors who did not have a sign to hold propped up a flag, or waved in a pageant-like manner to the traffic down below.
“It’s really grown,” Brusky said. “We’ve developed this wonderful community of people, many who have been active in the recall, it’s just been great.”
On Saturday, several participants were “brigading” for the first time. Some traveled hours to participate. The group protests two or three times a week on varying overpasses around the state, with their messages tailored typically for each evening.
“It’s uplifting to come out here after seeing the polls and reading the news,” participant Laurie Daft said.
After about an hour and a half, protestors received the signal to wrap up. The procession off the overpass worked like clockwork. Slowly, single-file, each sign-holder carefully walked off, with their dazzling letter continuing to face the street. From bellow, the letters seem to float off into the darkness.
While OLB usually receives support in urban environments, Daft said they’ve run into a few noise complaints in more suburban areas.
There are other, quieter ways to protest, but participant Sue Couillard doesn’t think they’d be quite as effective.
“You don’t necessarily see something that’s quiet and at street level, but everyone that passes by us sees us, and they respond,” Couillard said. “Just listen to the cars.”
Lindsey Meeks contributed to this post.