Austin Police insist that Occupy Austin is breaking the law when it holds lighted signs on highway overpasses.

I spoke with two occupiers, Corey Williams and Joe Cooper, about their experiences.

The Overpass Light Brigade began in Wisconsin during the “uprising” of 2011, and has since spread to at least 10 other locations. In this simple, nonviolent action, protesters hold lighted signs on the sidewalk of a freeway overpass while night time traffic passes underneath. One of the newest divisions is in Austin, Texas; it formed in early October during Occupy Austin birthday week. Though police drove by the first display, which proclaimed UNFRACK THE WORLD, occupiers successfully held signs for about an hour at an overpass on the south end of the city.

Lighted protest sign: LOVE > $$$

The new Occupy Austin Overpass Light Brigade at Tent City Rising, October 6 2012.

But police shut down a second attempt that week, and another more recent mobilization.  At the second Austin OLB the message began as LOVE > $$$. Police arrived as the group began to rearrange letters to make a repeat of the UNFRACK message. The officers refused to cite what laws were being broken, but expressed concern that signs could be dropped from the overpass railing on which the activists were holding the display. While regrouping, the Light Brigade consulted with long-time Austin activist Debbie Russell who referred to a previous consultation with Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo:

[Y]ou can’t have signs that when holding, are “over” the roadway–you have to hold them inside the railings such that if it was dropped, it falls on the sidewalk and not below on the freeway. Some officers know this, some don’t, but Acevedo has very specifically said this is the case and a few years ago … he gave this mandate to his officers so they’d know. They’re out of practice tho.

Another data point: one afternoon a month at 4:20pm, the Texas Hemp Campaign displays a cannabis legalization banner held on the sidewalk of a busy overpass. Though sometimes monitored closely by police, they allow the display to continue.

If the issue was the danger posed by signs, activists decided to try yet another approach. The third attempt occurred on Saturday, October 27. It was the closest Saturday to Halloween, a night when police are typically busy downtown patrolling the club district for drunken costumed revelers. It was on a similar busy weekend closest to Halloween in 2011 that police made dozens of arrests at Occupy Austin’s standing encampment. In keeping with the symbolism of this anniversary, approximately a half dozen squad cars were waiting.

The message on that night was to be LOVE > FEAR, a response to recent hate crimes against queer people and people of color. This time, the Overpass Light Brigade used an overpass at St. Johns on Interstate Highway 35. This location is across the street from the abandoned Home Depot we attempted to encamp during the occupation’s birthday. Most importantly, this overpass is completely fenced in. It would be impossible to drop signs onto traffic.

Immediately, officers arrived and attempted to shut them down but the display continued for about twenty minutes. While part of the group held the signs, others demanded police cite a specific law that was violated. As the perceived threat of arrest grew more immediate, the OLB took down their signs and waited as police returned to squad cars to look up the law. Eventually, with the help of a Texas Department of Transportation employee summoned to the scene, they cited a portion of the Texas Transportation Code which applies to SIGNS ON STATE HIGHWAY RIGHT-OF-WAY. This law, a class C misdemeanor when broken, says:

A person may not place or maintain a sign on a state highway right-of-way unless authorized by state law.

“Sign” means an outdoor sign, display, light, device, figure, painting, drawing, message, plaque, poster, or other thing designed, intended, or used to advertise or inform.

An exception can of course be made with a paid permit or other Department of Transportation approval. I am a gonzo journalist and not a lawyer, but parts of the code suggest it is meant to apply to permanent structures. The DOT official summoned to the scene refused to offer any comment or explanation. Occupiers again dispersed with no arrests.

Austin Overpass Light Brigade on October 27, 2012: LOVE > FEAR

Like a new series of movie nights held in a public park, Occupy Austin‘s Joe Cooper said the intent behind the Overpass Light Brigade was to create an easy action that would be inviting to newcomers:

We have a history of civil disobedience actions, and I still consider that a valuable tactic. But, simply having people get together, talk about what message they want to express, what kind of vision they have of the future here in Austin (and the world), is valuable. I had no idea we’d be running into police every time we do this, and I’m still pretty confident we’re not breaking any laws; but, APD seems to believe anything Occupy-related is illegal and needs to be shut down.

Corey Williams added:

It’s most definitely had a chilling effect. A lot of people end up feeling uncomfortable when police show up and it makes it harder to interface with passersby that might be interested in what we are doing. Most people see cops and think,’Don’t want to go over there.’

Corey is no stranger to police interaction — on eviction night, his laptop was destroyed during an arrest while livestreaming (he now uses a laptop Occupy Austin won from #OccupySupply). I reported his arrest at a Chalkupy action in August and he was briefly detained with me in October. But Corey says the Light Brigade will continue. The next action is expected to happen near election day, and I will attend. This time, plans have been kept off social media as much as possible. A new @OLBAustin twitter is expected to share news of the action.

Joe Cooper:

The people of Austin love it. We get honks, happy shouts, people stopping to talk to us, etc. It’s a fun, safe, creative, way to get people thinking, and APD is clearly in the wrong in trying to shut it down. The kind of Austin I want to live in doesn’t shut down community art projects like this.

More photos: Austin Chronicle photojournalist John Jack Anderson covered the October 5 and October 27 actions.

Thanks to Jeff Zavala at the Zgraphix.org / Austin Indymedia Center team for video coverage of this event. LOVE > $$$ photo by Kit O’Connell, all rights reserved. LOVE > FEAR by Jeff Zavala, Zgraphix.org / Austin Indymedia Center, used with permission.