In 2011, Wisconsin state politics were thrust into the national spotlight when tens of thousands of residents protested a budget repair bill that would limit collective bargaining. Governor Scott Walker's unpopular anti-union legislation was met with weeks of protests and an occupation of the state capitol in Madison. While these protests did not retract the bill, which was passed into law the same year, they did inspire a now-iconic medium for sending social justice messages: signs made from black board and mini-LED lights. These single-letter signs are the invention of the Wisconsin-based organization Overpass Light Brigade, a group of activists whose photogenic signs went viral during the 2011 Wisconsin protests.
Since the Overpass Light Brigade debuted its first LED sign—which read "Recall Walker"—in 2011, the Brigade's organizational ethos has spread far and wide. The Brigade's philosophy is to bring "visibility for grassroots and progressive causes" using non-violent and artistic methods of protest, according to its website. Light Brigades have since formed in Minnesota, Hawaii, Croatia, and the United Kingdom; images of signs reading "Resist Fascism" and "#NoDAPL," among other messages, are frequently posted on social media and make appearances in the news, garnering attention for their causes and providing lessons in mass-scale activism.
In an interview with Pacific Standard, Joe Brusky, a photographer and social media and membership organizer for the Overpass Light Brigade, and Kelly Hayes, a writer and founder of the Chicago Light Brigade, discuss community activism, what inspired the organization's LED signs, and how the signs enable activists to realize their collective power.
The Overpass Light Brigade sends many different messages: Signs have ranged from "No Water for Profit" to "Unlearn Racism" to "NRA Death Cult." How do you end up working on so many issues?
Joe Brusky: We tend to focus on things that are in the news, things that are trending, because we want to bring visibility to issues that matter to us. We'll often reach out to organizers that are already working on campaigns related to issues in the news. And we'll say, "Hey, are there some ways that we can support your campaign?" and [we'll collaborate]. I work for a labor union, so we've had educators holding signs with messages about the privatization of public education. We collaborated with the family of Dontre Hamilton, an African American who was [shot] by a police officer in Milwaukee; his family has held signs multiple times. A lot of the time, the actual holders are people who are involved in these issues.
We like when our messages or our actions are working with campaigns that are already on the ground, as opposed to just doing something completely out of the blue on our own. It tends to be better when it's with a campaign that's already in the works.
Do you see the Overpass Light Brigade as part of a broader movement of art taking on systems of oppression and social justice issues?
Brusky: I do the photography for the OLB. And I never really considered myself to be an artist before we started [taking] these actions. We've met a lot of artists around the country who are inspired by our work. For instance, we put non-commercial creative commons licenses on our photos, which means anyone can use the photos as long as they're not making money off of them. So a lot of non-profit organizations and journalists [at outlets] such as Common Dreams use our photos regularly. The Progressive will use a lot of our stuff. And people will riff off of it. Other people will use our photos to make memes or posters and spread ideas that way.
The Overpass Light Brigade was born in Wisconsin, but now has an international network of brigades doing similar work. Why did this method catch on so quickly and go so viral?
Brusky: I think there are a lot of things at play. The visual of the signs is great for social media, and they pique the curiosity of people who see the signs both online and in person. They want to know more about the message that's being held up. And that's part of what we like about it. We put a message up on a bridge, people see it, they go home and they want to know more. It gives people an easy entry point that piques their interest and forces them to find more information.
But I think the biggest thing that comes out of it is the community that the brigade brought together. We've had many organizers working on their own campaigns who love to use the lights because they meet new people who are also interested in the same issues they're working on. Standing on a bridge together and collectively holding a message everyone believes in creates real solidarity.
What was the inspiration behind using this specific kind of art to convey social justice messages?
Brusky: It started during the Wisconsin Uprising in 2011, when there were massive protests at the state capitol over Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill. Lane [Hall] and Lisa [Moline], the co-founders of the Light Brigade, were trying to think of something creative to do at the kickoff for the protests, and they knew that nobody would be able to see protest signs in the dark. They went to a hardware store for materials and saw some LED Christmas lights and thought, "What if we make a sign in lights that says 'Recall Walker'?" They made one and everyone loved it. It was featured on Rachel Maddow that night.
The Overpass Light Brigade is known for the iconic light signs, but at least some chapters also do mutual aid projects. Can you speak a bit to the other work that goes on behind the lights?
Kelly Hayes: In the past, the Chicago Light Brigade has done a lot of work around educational issues. When we were part of a major action outside the juvenile detention center, we collected notebooks for the children inside. When we exposed [that there were] dangerous lead levels at a Chicago public school, we didn't just want to shine a light on what the city was getting wrong, we wanted to uplift the students, and remind people of what we should be investing in. So we collected books and and organized a volunteer day. Chicago Light Brigade is part of a larger community, and we love that community. So things like collecting books for Chicago Public Schools students or reading to children at picket lines so their parents can do street outreach it's just part of what we think organizing should look like.
What would you say is the overall message of this project?
Brusky: That we have collective power. On the level of individuals, it's hard to accomplish anything. And a lot of people think of activism as passing out flyers or knocking on doors, and those activities aren't for them—they hate it. But they love standing on a bridge and holding up an important message because it makes them feel like they're doing their part to raise awareness. This work empowers people, it makes them feel powerful. And our actions are fun—we call them "bridge parties." It's a really great community where people have forged lifelong relationships just by coming out to hold signs on a bridge. I think that's probably the most powerful part about this work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.