Freeway signs

Reprinted from An Activist’s Guide to Freeway Bannering, from the Backbone Campaign.

Freeway bannering is a powerful tool for activists. It’s inexpensive, most of the required material is reusable, and it’s an effective way to reach thousands, even tens of thousands, of people in a short period of time.

A few general tips:

• Keep messages brief enough to be read and comprehended at 65 mph.

• Go for numbers. Having a crowd of people gathered around the banner—especially when wearing bright safety vests—helps increase visibility.

• Do it safely. Do not suspend signs directly over traffic where they could fall onto the freeway. If there is fencing, hang the sign on the inside of the fencing if allowed by local law enforcement.

• Keep letters at least 8 inches tall so they can be easily read.

• Construct banners so that they can survive high winds. Freeway overpasses in particular tend to be windy spots.

• Watch your backdrop. Make sure there is nothing directly behind the banner that could make it hard to read.

• Although this method of making banners makes it possible to change messages reusing materials, keep in mind that it can take several hours to make the change, depending on how many helpers you have—so you may not want to change messages frequently.

• If the police request you to leave, you can either leave or request a ticket. The ticket will give you the opportunity in court to argue that freeway bannering is a free speech issue. Most officers won’t give you a ticket, but they may make safety requirements—such as not hanging the banner over the fence or tying the banner to the overpass.

• Be prepared with enough volunteers to hold up the banner on the poles—you’ll get more notice and response from traffic if you have people with the banner.

• If it is a windy day, have extra volunteers so that as people get tired, they can be relieved.

Freeway bannering was the first tactic adopted by the group of artists that preceded what later became the Backbone Campaign. Similar efforts to intimidate people using bannering as a communication method failed in 2002. At one point the activists used a non-functional Walkman to convince the police that their efforts were being recorded and they’d be held accountable. The face-off lasted for more than an hour and by the end the Yesler overpass had seven SPD and State Patrol vehicles and more officers trying to convince those bannering to leave – but who refused until they were shown an actual law that they were violating and given a ticket to dispute in court.

In the end it was the police who had to do an about face while the Sergeant in charge agreed with the demonstrators that it was a freedom of speech issue and that as long as nothing was attached to the overpass or draped over the overpass – that they could set up their banner and continue their vigil.

According to Bill Moyer, Executive Director of the Backbone Campaign:

“These threats will be couched in language of public and traffic safety. These are issues we take very seriously and would never do anything to endanger passers by. The fact is that we also take our Bill of Rights quite seriously. There are many distractions while driving including giant sexy billboards, bumper stickers, cell phones, children and more, but none of those are going to be made illegal. There is a tradition of this kind of speech by candidates, businesses, and demonstrators of all types. The fact is that our activities are legal, and the only reason we are being confronted is the nature of our message. Well folks, regular people don’t have access to Clear Channel billboards, the corporate media ignore the messages we are delivering, and even the political parties have so constrained debate that there are very few venues for us to reach each other. The overpasses are one of the last and we plan to stand firm as long as there are people that love what America claims to stand for- Freedom.”