Show Them a Sign

Interfaith vigil at ICE detention center in, Richmond, CA; at right is
Rev. Deborah Lee of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity.

In 2011 or so, I saw the former Lutheran bishop of the New York metro area talk about the importance of showing up. He was talking about the days following 9/11, and the need to show solidarity with Muslim people at that time. He said, "The best advice I got at that time was, 'People watch where you put your body.'" (You can see Rev. Bouman reprise his remarks at a 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering.)

I think that talk by Rev. Stephen Bouman had special meaning for me because I remember being in the NYC area on September 11, 2001, and seeing the events of that day close up.

And I think those remarks galvanized me in a direction that I was probably already going at that time to get out into the street and show up for protest.

got police state?
indefinite detention

Another influence on me at that time was a crusty old radical who said, "It's good that you come to the demonstrations; it would be even better if you brought a sign!" In other words, he was telling me, let people see where you put your body and spell it out for them. After that, I made something of a fetish of cooking up ideas for signs that would get people's attention and, perhaps, provoke them to think.

Some of my happiest memories of Chicago are of working on signs on the floor of the narrow hallway outside my room -- a room which, itself, did not have enough floor space to accommodate a poster -- and talking to other residents of the building about what I was doing. ("Another demonstration today, Joe?")

Come to think of it, riding the CTA bus to protests carrying a huge, colorful sign was also an integral part of the whole experience. I got some funny looks -- but so what? It made me happy to spread the word in diverse directions.

My signs were creative but not professional. In fact, I considered their roughness a virtue. I had learned a lesson from a college friend, Bob Boorstin, who appeared in the documentary, The War Room, urging the Clinton campaign to encourage hand-painted signs (instead of mass-produced ones) at the 1992 Democratic Convention because hand-painted signs are better for conveying what real people are saying.

That said, I got a lot of pleasure out of making my signs, and re-discovered a love of drawing.

(Yes, love of drawing is at the root of it. And so I suppose a lot of credit should go to my sisters, who encouraged me to draw, and to my kids (especially Alanna) who put up with endless drawing expeditions to the Art Institute of Chicago and other destinations.)

This sign about the bombing of Gaza by Israel was very detailed!

There is a tension between the detail and the big message, the trees and the forest. Sometimes I didn't spend enough time on making sure the main message was instantly clear.

I thought the sign that our church took to the marriage equality rally in Springfield was a great example of a clear message. It was actually a banner with a few simple words -- "Logan Square Supports Marriage Equality" -- and signed by hundreds of people in our Chicago neighborhood who saw it at a summer festival that took place several weeks before the rally.

Logan Square Supports Marriage Equality

It was simple -- but it also required some careful thought and planning.

(PS - the Marriage Equality Rally in Springfield reminds me -- whenever you're talking about signs, you also need to be talking about the question of who photographs the signs! -- a whole topic unto itself!!)

I also had some forays into the quasi-sculptural -- why say it when you can show it?

Down With Drones!

I think my favorite was the entire wall of signs we made to evoke the barrier wall erected by Israel.

"The Women Weep" in the shadow of the containment wall
34th Annual 8th Day Good Friday Justice Walk in Chicago

(Here are some detailed images of the barrier wall protest and the signs we made.)

One thing that provoked my thinking to go to the next level -- from 2-dimensions to 3-dimensions -- was the drone model provided by Nick Mottern of KnowDrones. We used it at many protests.

Drone model at Air and Water Show protest in Chicago.

One of the big parts of my Chicago life was "Occupy Palm Sunday" -- and that opened up more avenues for sign-making.

I was hungry and you fed me
Occupy Food Justice!
hambre y me disteis de comer

When I got to Berkeley, I discovered that First Church Berkeley was using massive puppets to perform public witness on Palm Sunday.

Jesus prepares for Palm Sunday 2018 at FCCB
(with a little help from Rev. Rachel Bauman)

You really get a sense of how powerful this is with video:

This reminded me of an experience that occurred sometime around 2007 -- one that pI think rattled me into recognizing the need to get out into the street and speak out: attending Palm Sunday service at Christ Church Chicago and walking alongside a real donkey through the neighborhood as Pastor Tom Terrell held a bullhorn and called out to the neighbors, "Hosanna!"

Another thing this reminded me of was Bread and Puppet Circus, and a trip in the early 1980s to see a pageant on a hillside in Glover, VT. The pageant, as I remember it, told the story of an Armageddon-like catastrophe -- nuclear war? -- and then the return of life afterwards. (I wonder what seeds that planted in my brain.)

When we got to Madeline Island, I learned about a Jingle Dress dancer puppet.

Inspiring! (You can read more about it here.)

Perhaps my next chapter will involve making giant puppets . . . (?)

To be continued . . . .

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