A weekend ago members of the Overpass Light Brigade (OLB) gathered on a hillside overlooking the Dane County Airport. The lit dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol was visible miles in the distance as OLB celebrated the past year by starting to film a documentary about the group. Not feeling well I only stopped by briefly and then headed home, while others camped out all night in the cold and took turns holding letters that together formed messages of love, peace, and progressive politics. In a nice twist at one point during the night all of the letters were laid out randomly underneath the stars “spelling nothing,” as the OLB Facebook page said, “full of potential for future messages, bearing witness to the sky.”
It is that kind of intellectual and emotional consideration that makes the Overpass Light Brigade so compelling. The messages are not simply political talking points, but well-considered thoughts brought forth in light. Despite the simplicity of holding letters together to form words and phrases there is something elementally powerful about the Overpass Light Brigade. The OLB ordinarily holds political messages on overpasses above highways in Milwaukee, Madison, and elsewhere, but it has also held signs of peace and signs of empathy after tragedy. It has taken its messages to places in need of support and solidarity. It responds to the moment in which the holders currently live, making it more resonant with both the message holders and the message receivers.
Each time the group shows up on a bridge somewhere the message is utterly new, fresh, and meaningful. It is one of the reasons why so many people want to be a part of it. Hundreds of people have held the lights since the group’s inception and thousands upon thousands have seen the messages, honking wildly, waving, and even occasionally raising a middle finger or screaming. I held the “C” in “Recall” the first time the OLB came to Madison, until I relinquished it so that I could get photos. Several times since then I have held letters on bridges or elsewhere and I am proud to be one of the countless who have done so.
Those who assist earn the title of Holder of the Light and I think that is part of the draw. It is considered (and feels like, and is) an honor to be a Holder of the Light. Everything about the group is grass roots, from the creation of the letters to the decisions about the messages and locations, to the people who participate. The Holders of the Light own the experience. In addition, it feels familial. There is a cameraderie and a deep respect among the light holders. There is shared passion and shared experience which creates a bond.
And there is something deeper than just holding a board with a letter created from LED lights. There is symbolism in the nature of the act. Each individual is important to the success of the evening’s message, yet there is only meaning if all of the individuals work together, a microcosm of what our society should be but all too often is not.
Further, and incredibly significant, it is light. The holders are shining a light both literally and figuratively onto the collective consciousness of our cities, our state, and nation. What passing motorist can fail to reflect upon a message of light? What holder could not feel honored to be a part of spreading light into the dark recesses of our nation’s soul? I hold that light and the Overpass Light Brigade in deepest respect and deep in my heart.