Overpass Light Brigade groups challenge free speech restrictions around the country

November 13, 2012
Kit OConnell
news photo

One Victory, More Conflicts to Come?

Though the Austin Overpass Light Brigade won the right to hold lighted signs over a highway once, it can expect further encounters with police.

Last Monday, I attended the Austin Overpass Light Brigade’s fourth gathering. As previously reported on Firedoglake, the group had been shut down by police at its previous two attempts. The message on election eve was DO MORE THAN VOTE, and occupiers came prepared for police interference.

First, they modified their signs to be wearable like over-sized necklaces. Next, they distributed misinformation — sharing a false start location and start time at an overpass where they’d been shut down. The real location was spread by word of mouth, at the general assembly, and by people waiting at the fake start location to redirect real help. Activists stood on a part of an overpass over a grassy hill, further forestalling objections that they could drop their worn signs into traffic.

Police took the bait — a half dozen police cars again appeared at the advertised start location, and a dispatcher could be heard reading Occupy Austin’s @OAalerts feed over the police band. Occupiers held their sign at the new location for almost 45 minutes before police arrived, called by an employee with the Texas Department of Public Transportation. The TX DOT employee at the previous attempt would say only ‘no comment,’ but this one was quite talkative. Though he would not give his name, he first cursed at Nathan B, a young teenage volunteer with the Peaceful Streets Project then tried to grab Austin Chronicle photojournalist John Anderson’s notebook while insisting Anderson was breaking the law because media is required, he said, to wear safety vest.

Though we argued with the officer’s insistence that we leave the overpass, the Light Brigade regrouped on the grass by the off ramp while waiting for a phone call to bear fruit. The call was to Debbie Russell, activist with the Texas American Civil Liberties Union. Russell had previous experience negotiating with police to allow displays of banners and signs on highways as long as they aren’t physically attached. She called her contacts at the police. As we watched, more police cars arrived. Some officers looked angry. Then a supervisor arrived, the discussion continued, and all police left.

According to a Facebook post by Debbie Russell:

Yes–well I talked to [Chief Acevedo's] assistant chief and he’s getting TXDot to provide what laws they think are in violation. The issue is the actual lumination of the sign, but according to how I’m reading the law (and how I think APD interprets it, but waiting for final word), such a sign is ok except if it impairs visibility/shines lights into people’s faces as they are driving. So I sent pics of our light brigade, others around the country, specs on the LED light strings – with a little science lesson on wattage/lumens, etc saying these couldn’t possibly be considered a public safety threat — at most they are 2-3x as bright as old fashioned xmas lights and the light is scattered/diffused — not directional. I’m waiting for them to take this to TXDot and circle back.

Though the future legal status of this action is uncertain, the Austin Overpass Light Brigade returned to the overpass. On November 5, thousands of vehicles along a very busy highway saw the message, many honking or cheering enthusiastically.

Overpass Light Brigade is Challenging Free Speech Restrictions

Austin’s Overpass Light Brigade can expect more encounters with police in the future according to Joe Brusky, a member of Wisconsin’s original Overpass Light Brigade. The original OLB frequently encounters police, though in recent times the encounters are generally not confrontational. Police are usually responding to a complaint, and come out to inspect the situation to make sure the signs are being held and not attached to the highway. Police have rarely if ever shut down Wisconsin’s events, though activists have sometimes made the choice to disperse rather than challenge police that arrived near the scheduled end of a display. There have been exceptions — most notably an incident of police harassment when the group supported a local labor dispute that may become the subject of legal action.

Brusky told me that he felt the Austin Overpass Light Brigade’s connection to Occupy was the source of the increased police pressure. The original OLB instead dates back to the Wisconsin Uprising. “I think it plays a role in how they handle themselves,” he said. In Chicago, the Overpass Light Brigade received thumbs up and support from police when they joined the Chicago Teachers’ Strike of 2012, versus more hostile treatment when they worked with Occupy Chicago.

I also spoke with Mike Bridges, an organizer of the Overpass Light Brigade in Fresno, California. Bridges got involved in activism through Occupy Fresno, but stressed that the Light Brigade in his city was was not an Occupy action. It is the work of a coalition of largely non-Occupy activists including Progressive Democrats of America and Peace Fresno.

Their first actions were in support of progressive Democrat Otto Lee, and were supported by advice from Wisconsin OLB founder Lane Hall. The Fresno Light Brigade successfully displayed their message ELECT OTTO LEE on a busy street in the River Park shopping area, then moved to an overpass for their second outing.

Believing (like Austin’s group) that the action should be legal, Fresno activists informed the police of their intentions. As they gathered, they were told by California Highway Patrol that the display would break the law and distract drivers. They moved back to River Park and subsequent displays have been in other public places off of highway property. Bridges acknowledged that a lighted display on a highway during peak traffic might be theoretically distracting, but their display is permitted in other potentially dangerous circumstances:

On a busy street corner I thought we were far more distracting. There was only a limited time that the people in the cars had to see the sign and people were practically breaking their neck’s trying to see it. Traffic on a freeway for the most part moves very one dimensionally, and on a street it is very complex. You have multiple directions of traffic including U-turns, driveways, and also pedestrians in the crosswalks.

Bridges expressed a determination to continue the Light Brigade in Fresno:

We are not sure where this format will take us, whether it will continue as an “Overpass Light Brigade” or just a Light Brigade that we do on street corners and other locations. I guess the main thing that will decide is the legality. We have limited legal advice and the only law that appears to be in the way is in regards to the “distraction of drivers.” … As I stated before it seemed much more likely to cause an accident at an intersection. One thing is certain. Now that folks have seen them in action, on display, and in the news, they are more interested in a Light Brigade no matter where we end up displaying it. … Whatever happens I expect OLB will continue in one way or another for a long time to come in Fresno.