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As progressive activists reeled over the anti-abortion laws rushed through the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature last month, the word went out in Madison.

About 40 area activists answered the call sent out over social media and email. They gathered at the Capitol as dusk fell on June 15 to take part in a signature Wisconsin protest that is attracting attention around the world and has inspired imitators across the country. Holding up boards glowing with LED letters, protesters spelled out a slogan they say summed up legislators’ antagonism toward women, epitomized in a bill requiring an ultrasound for anyone seeking an abortion:

Progressive activism like this is increasingly is being spelled out in illuminated messages in cities across the country. What started as a loose collective of activists in Milwaukee as part of the campaign to recall Governor Walker has morphed into the Overpass Light Brigade, which has grown rapidly and now has 26 chapters in North America. OLB demonstrations — where protesters stand quietly in still formation, spelling out a compelling slogan — offer an entry to activism for those without the stomach for more aggressive actions like the storming of the Wisconsin Senate chambers by abortion rights protesters last month, organizers say.

The recent provocative message on the Capitol lawn got a lot of reaction, said Carrie Riddle, who organizes OLB actions in Madison. She noted that it led to a conversation with a Capitol Police officer.

“He didn’t know what the word ‘demagogue’ meant,” she said. One passerby yelled at the protesters, and a group of college boys driving past started cheering. But most people were inquisitive.

“People came up and asked what was going on. We talked about it,” Riddle said.

And every now and then, she recalled, a car passing by would honk out what had become an iconic sound of progressive political action in Wisconsin: “This-is-what-democracy-looks-like.”

Like most OLB slogans, “THE VAGINA DEMAGOGUES,” came out of a brainstorming session among OLB married co-founders Lane Hall and Lisa Moline, both artists who teach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and fellow organizer Joe Brusky.

“Obviously we were thinking of ‘The Vagina Monologues,’” said Hall, adding that the group refrained from using the word “vagina” in other reproductive rights demonstrations that were displayed on overpasses. “Since so much of the legislation against women’s rights is about a woman’s control over her body, the word seemed very appropriate — it’s obviously been politicized,” he said.

OLB slogans are spelled out in 3-foot by 2-foot black letter boards with LED letters. Hall built most of them, and details the process in a video on the group’s website. Its collection of 65 letters includes the alphabet, duplicates of common letters, and punctuation marks like &, #, =, and +, Hall said. Some letters do double duty — an “R,” for example, can also be a “P” depending on which lights are switched on. That flexibility helps, but slogans are influenced by the availability of letters, as well as volunteers to hold them through what are typically 90-minute actions, Hall said.

The group uses social media to publicize its actions and those of its affiliates in cities from California to Massachusetts. Locally, they tap ranks of loosely connected activists of nearly 300 in the Milwaukee area and about 100 in Madison.

The all-volunteer group works to respond quickly to current events unfolding on the state and national stage. In Milwaukee, it displayed “TRAYVON LIVES ON” in honor of the unarmed black teenager shot by George Zimmerman, who was acquitted this week. In June, the same group held up a message declaring “DOMA = DOA,” when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. Photographs of OLB’s “WISCONSIN WEEPS” message at a vigil last August for victims of the fatal shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek went viral, attracting some 1.3 million clicks worldwide, Hall said.

Each of the chapters, in the Fox Valley, 15 states and Ontario, Canada operates independently. Yet Hall believes OLB’s influence will grow through joint campaigns with synchronized progressive messages. For instance, the group joined larger national “STOP MONSANTO” protests, part of worldwide demonstrations in May, to bring attention to the dangers of genetically modified food.

Hall and Moline first came up with the idea of an illuminated protest sign as they prepared for a late afternoon rally kicking off the Walker recall campaign in November 2011.

“We thought about taking advantage of the darkness, and making a sign that could be a beacon for like minded-people in a difficult and divided time in this state,” Moline said. “We did some hunting and found off the shelf in a hardware store some LED Christmas lights that were battery operated — they were great!”

The first illuminated protest sign was a single 3-foot by 4-foot board that read “Recall Walker,” said Hall. It was a magnet for attention from its first time out.

“It was such a great visual, people wanted to be part of it,” Moline said. “As we marched, we handed it off to strangers — it passed along person to person.”

The sign was photographed many times and images made their way to MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow, and the innovative lighted protest sign got national media attention. The sign is now in the Wisconsin Historical Museum.

To scale up the impact of their protest signs, the couple began building the boards with single illuminated letters that could be held up to spell out messages, starting with “RECALL.” To make their protests more visible, they moved their actions to pedestrian overpasses that span many thoroughfares in Milwaukee, and adopted the name Overpass Light Brigade. The word (and photos) of OLB spread through social media and soon the fledgling group was invited to other cities like Racine, Kenosha and Madison.

“We’ve created a tactical tool that’s out there and people — from either side of the political spectrum — can adopt it,” said Hall, adding that it is progressive groups who are using it now.

One reason for the group’s success has been that OLB’s low-key but powerful protests are an opportunity for people to dip a toe into the pool of political activism with little risk of being overwhelmed, Moline said. The actions, often called “bridge parties,” are a good place for community building, she said. “Since you can’t distract drivers while holding the sign, you’re standing still and can have a conversation among people who came together over something that has meaning for them.”

The actions draw a diverse group, said Hall.

“On any night, we might have public school teachers next to professors, next to city workers and ironworkers, labor activists and African-American activists. We have a strong Latino component, too,” he said.

State Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, learned of the group on Facebook, and joined in a couple of OLB overpass actions before she was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 2012.

“I’ve always been a big supporter of the arts, and this seemed like a creative means of expression,” she said. The nature of the action is symbolic of what it is all about, too, she said. “One letter by itself doesn’t mean anything, but if you bring them together it sends a strong message.”

Lane credits Brusky, who like many OLB activists comes out of the Occupy movement, with ramping up the group’s social media use to spread its message beyond Wisconsin; the unsuccessful recall election in June 2012 meant the group would need to broaden its focus.

Today, the group live tweets some protests. The profile picture on its Facebook account recently featured a wavy, reflected “WE ARE WATER” slogan in protest of legislative action jeopardizing the state’s waterways. Shots of the group’s “IRON MINE = GENOCIDE” action at the Capitol this spring protesting a mine that Lake Superior Ojibwe say threatens their way of life are featured on the OLB Vimeo channel. The overview video also includes a time-lapse sequence of a protest start to finish, as well as clips of affiliate groups (called the Light Brigade Network) across the country.

The group’s public profile has moved from the small stage of the protest sites — which Hall calls the “people’s bandwidth” — through social media, to traditional media as varied as Fox News and the New Yorker magazine.

The group is also the subject of a short documentary, “OLB,” which had three screenings in Madison and Milwaukee this spring. And Hall and Moline are spreading the word about how to start up an OLB chapter, participating in a national Allied Media Conference in Detroit in June.

OLB has retained its practice of still and silent protests, even when not on an overpass where a commotion might distract drivers, Hall said. A commitment to a non-confrontational protocol in interacting with police has meant they seldom halt protests nowadays.

“Our sense of civility I think has served us well,” Hall said. “We’re out there because of an issue; we don’t want to make the police the issue.”

The model of non-confrontation seems to have served at least one chapter well.

The first half-dozen actions of the Overpass Light Brigade – Austin were shut down quickly by police, co-founder Joe Cooper said. But quiet persistence paid off, and group’s recent protests have not been obstructed by police, he said. “This is a really easy way for someone to get involved in political action without risk of arrest.”

As in Wisconsin, recent actions by the Austin OLB chapter have focused on women’s reproductive rights, including a “GO WENDY GO” demonstration in support of Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis’ 11-hour filibuster that stalled a recent anti-abortion bill.

The illuminated letters are an unexpected sight that seems to disarm observers, even when they convey controversial messages, Cooper said.

“It kind of opens people’s minds, even if it’s not something they agree with or would get active on. It’s an uplifting approach,” he said.

Despite any tolerance OLB’s approach may foster, in Texas as in Wisconsin, the battle over reproductive rights is not over. Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry ultimately signed the abortion restrictions Davis delayed in a special session. And Wisconsin legislators are drafting a provision, included in Texas law, that would bar abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The Overpass Light Brigade may want to break out “THE VAGINA DEMAGOGUES” again. 

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