“Lights, Camera, Protest” was the name of the presentation Professor Lane Hall gave one recent Friday at the American Geological Society Library, presenting the Overpass Light Brigade, or OLBs, a network of groups using an artistic form of protest by using LED signs over highway overpasses.
The idea was coined six years ago during the Gov. Scott Walker recall, when protestors put together signs with LED lights to spell out words and held them over highway overpasses. The purpose of these ‘Light Brigades’ is to directly advocate or get a message across for a cause, usually in a propagandist manner, says Hall.
Hall says the name “Light Brigade” was coined from a joke made when they first started using LED signs.
The movement spread out after the Occupy Movement and has been used all across the country and the rest of the world, making appearances at major protests like the Standing Rock protest, and even the Milo Yiannopolous’ speech at UWM last year. There are over 50 OLBs across the country, networked out through Facebook and other social media. Although there are Light Brigades across the country, they all stem from the first Light Brigade in the November 2011 recall in Milwaukee.
John Lane Hall, 60, is a professor in the English Department at UWM. With his flannel shirt and utility belt, one would think he was a geology teacher collecting samples, but his specialty is English and Literature. He earned his BA in English at Colorado College, and a Masters in Fine Art at UW Madison. He teaches English and Modern Literature, and specializes in ‘Tactical media and activism,’ according to his online profile.
Hall started the movement six years ago during the Walker recall election. He says partner wife Lisa Moline invented the idea of an artistic, peaceful protest. He says, “Light brigades made night time useful for messaging.” However, during the day, they are not so effective.
A Light Brigade appeared at the Standing Rock protests, a major protest movement at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation over the Dakota Access Pipeline being built across North and South Dakota. A Light Brigade appeared here with the word, “Protectors,” spelled out across their LED boards. Lane says this was in response to the negative connotation with the word “protestor,” because of incidents of protestor violence in the past. The term “protectors” also refers to the Standing Rock protest itself, and the protestors adopting the name protectors of the water supply in that area.
“It was the most complex, difficult, and rewarding project that I’ve had in years,” Hall says.
Anyone can use light brigades, whether they are left wing, right wing or neither. “We don’t have a patent on it,” says Hall. Since Light Brigades are so DIY, anyone with any disposition could make their own signs and display them publicly.
Light Brigades have shown up in non-protest events, such as vigils, events, and performances. After the Sikh Temple shooting, a Light Brigade showed their respect with a vigil message there. They have appeared in an event called “Powershift,” a youth climate movement.
Andrew Kincaid, 48, is a UWM professor who teaches European literature and cultural theory, and he has also been active in the OLB scene since it started in 2011. He was also at Professor Hall’s presentation about OLBs. “I am very interested in the work they do,” Kincaid says, “I’m interested in how people present and think about what OLB does. It’s very bad when students and faculty don’t attend. I wanted to support Lane.”
Since anyone is allowed to attend OLBs, many different type of people unify under similar a cause. “It’s a loose affiliation, or a spontaneous gathering of like-minded people who want their voices heard,” says Kincaid. “I was meeting people who I would normally not meet, people who are involved. I enjoyed it.”
“I think it’s very creative, and I think it’s important, and I think it’s inspiring. It inspires people to make connections with people they would not meet,” Kincaid said.
He also says, “One of the main points that got me excited about OLBs is they use public space. It makes people think about the use of public space.”
OLBs are very DIY and accessible, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if a new OLB group not affiliated with the original popped up on campus. Kincaid said if a new OLB popped up on campus, it would be fine. “That means the OLB had done its job and motivated other people,” he says. “It’s cheap to do, you can do it anywhere. The joy is seeing where it sprung up.”