You are browsing the archive for Wisconsin.

Overpass Light Brigade Is Challenging Free Speech Restrictions

7:14 am in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

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.

Lighted signs on an overpass over a busy highway

Austin Overpass Light Brigade over Interstate Highway 35 in south Austin.

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
Read the rest of this entry →

Austin Overpass Light Brigade Faces Police Repression (#OATX)

3:04 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

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:

Read the rest of this entry →