It’s nearing sunset on Aug. 27 and a festive atmosphere is evolving at the intersection of 7th and Ring Street in Milwaukee's central city area. People are arriving in cars, waving hello and exchanging greetings through their windows. Soon more than two dozen vehicles and 80 people are gathered in the normally quiet area, chatting in the cerulean glow of a perfect late-summer evening. Laughter hums in the air with the mosquitoes.
But this is a serious event, coordinated by an emerging group of activists whose novel form of protest has drawn international intention. At sunset, 19 volunteers from the crowd line up on the Ring Street overpass above I-43, each holding two- by three-foot cardboard signs bearing letters and punctuation marks made from strips of LED Christmas lights. Facing outbound traffic, the cards in formation spell out the words “Palermos – Negotiate!” – a show of support for striking workers at Palermo’s Pizza plant in Milwaukee. Drivers honk their approval in staccato and their disagreement in long, angry blasts.
The Overpass Light Brigade has conducted more than 70 such eye-catching demonstrations over the past 10 months. The effort was born of “the Wisconsin uprising,” as group co-founders Lane Hall and Lisa Moline refer to the massive demonstrations that overran the Capitol during early 2011 and the subsequent effort to oust Gov. Scott Walker earlier this year.
“It all began with a single lighted sign that said ‘Recall Walker’ during the beginning of the signature collection phase” of the recall process, Moline says. “We wanted something that would light up our efforts at night.”
The OLB is a mix of public art, political activism, propaganda and social networking, according to Hall. Both Hall and Moline, who are a married couple, are artists.
“This works in the very same way that advertising works,” Hall says. “This is guerilla advertising, guerilla propaganda. I think it makes some people think and question.”
While their medium of protest is low-tech, social networking has allowed their group to attract participants and grow. “We kind of feel like we’re starting a movement,” Hall says. “We’re the people’s bandwidth.”
Although there are only about 150 registered volunteers in Milwaukee and 80 in Madison, scores of others have shown up at the demonstrations after learning about them on the group’s Facebook page, which has over 5,300 “likes.”
More than one million people worldwide have downloaded the group’s posts, say the organizers. Protesters associated with the Occupy movement have staged OLB-style demonstrations from Harrisburg, Pa., to Hilo, Hawaii. A group called Light Brigade Maryland is currently staging marriage equality protests using OLB as a model.
The technique can be adapted to convey any message in a cost-effective yet dramatic manner, Hall says. OLB volunteers have held up signs spelling out, “Corporations are not people,” “Money is not speech,” “Health care for all,” “Mitts off Medicare” and dozens of other slogans.
Critics say the demonstrations encourage drivers’ to take their eyes off the road. But Joe Brusky, a Milwaukee school teacher and OLB volunteer who is also active in the Occupy movement says the group’s signs are safer than billboards, which are off to the sides of roadways and cause drivers to turn their heads. “Our lights are in one place right in front of the drivers,” he says.
OLB’s organizers say their grassroots protests are an economical way of countering the massive advertising expenditures of corporations supporting right-wing Republican political candidates and causes. They also believe their style of protest has the benefit of being appealing and accessible to the masses.
“This allows a demographic of people who want to be engaged in activism and don’t have the knowledge or the time to get involved in something bigger a chance to participate,” Moline explains.
One of the highlights of OLB’s history occurred when the nuns traveling with this summer’s Nuns on the Bus social justice tour joined in one of their demonstrations.
“One of the nuns celebrated her 82nd birthday standing on a bridge holding one of our signs,” Moline says.
A byproduct of the OLB movement is that it brings together disparate people who might otherwise never meet, Hall says. Participants in the Aug. 27 action come from all over the metro area and represent a range of ages, occupations and life experiences.
“I’ve made such great friends,” says Laurie Daft, a hospital lab worker who learned about the OLB from a post on the Daily Kos. She drove from Hartford for the Aug. 27 demonstration.
“This is something I feel comfortable doing,” she says. “I don’t like canvassing, I don’t like phone banks. But I want to do something.”
The Aug. 27 demonstration is a special one because it’s a makeup for an Aug. 24 action that went awry when an estimated 20 law-enforcement vehicles, most of them from the Milwaukee County sheriff’s office, interrupted the protesters. Sheriff’s deputies harassed and intimidated participants in an excessive show of force, according to several witnesses. According to them, the deputies claimed the demonstration was illegal and ordered the OLB volunteers to desist.
At least two camera phones belonging to volunteers were confiscated and never returned, according to a formal complaint that’s been filed against Sheriff Deputy Callies by OLB and the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera. The latter group has been organizing protests against Palermo’s, one of the nation’s largest frozen pizza producers, since its workers went on strike and a boycott was launched three months ago.
Peace Action of Wisconsin has joined OLB in demanding a full investigation into the incident. OLB and Voces have also begun a Freedom of Information request and sent formal letters to local elected officials asking for a full investigation.
The Aug. 24 protest was the first time OLB has encountered serious interference from public officials, its organizers say. And it’s the reason more than 80 people have turned out tonight, to “show we won’t be intimidated,” says Voces spokesman Joe Shanksy.
Ron Fry, a legal observer from the ACLU of Wisconsin, is on hand “to keep an eye on things, to record what happens and make sure people are aware of their rights,” he says.
OLB organizers hope their decisive reaction to the alleged harassment will discourage similar incidents in the future. They say they’re accustomed to a little heckling now and then from the public and consider that part just of the process.
Following Walker’s recall victory, OLB went out with signs that read, “We shall overcome.” The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and some passersby wept.
But a few Walker supporters accused the demonstrators of being out-of-state hooligans on the payroll of unions and progressive billionaire activist George Soros.
“I’m still waiting for my check from George Soros,” Moline grins. Then she looks around proudly at the crowd.
“It’s such a nice, festive atmosphere,” she says.