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Sign Theory

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For eight years and four months now, a group of miscellaneous folks has been standing at the top of Burlington's Church St., Monday-Friday, from 5-5:30 PM with a range of signs generally protesting the growing number of wars and their causes. We've probably made the Guiness book for person-hours demonstrating in less than mass events.

The good news is that we are now very well lit during winter nights. The better news is that very few drivers give us the finger anymore, and there are a lot of thumbs up and V-signs from passing cars, even from bus and UPS drivers. The best news is that as the signs evolve and get more provocative, more walkers stop and talk with us about what's on them. In my experience, it's the best opportunity I've ever had to talk with folks beyond the choir about various issues.

The bad news is that most of the folks doing this for the past eight years are people who were doing it during the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war and the Ban the Bomb campaigns, i.e. geezers. And we're dying off. This is a war of attrition, and THEY seem to be winning, with always more enemies to be manufactured, and the bombs to accompany them.

I've been scratching my head about where the pool of new people might be. It doesn't seem to be "the kids". We occasionally get a bunch that come down from UVM or St. Mike's all enthusiastic and committed, but for some reason they're off to something else before the week is out. I've made requests at peace demonstrations, but that doesn't seem to turn up anybody new. This morning I got a new idea -- to not only invite writers -- to our vigil, but also worldwide -- to join us, or begin to do it, but more importantly to use their skills to invent a new language for signs.

Here's some of what I've learned over eight years:
-- Signs like STOP THE WAR, or PEACE, etc. are basically invisible. Passers- or drivers-by simply say "Oh it's a peace demonstration," and whether they yawn or not, they dismiss and reduce the messages to a known issue, and shove them in the pigeonhole, where they quickly evaporate. How to revivify these kinds of signs?

A most successful tactic has been to hold a PEACE sign upside down. You can't imagine how many people in cars and across the street try to be helpful by signaling that we should flip it. And flip it we do -- and on the back is another sign that says SIGN OF DISTRESS. Most people get that it's like an upside-down flag, and give us a thumbs up. But the main point is that, although probably members of the choir, they have actually seen the sign, and actively participated.

The question then is, how to invite such participation in all the signs, how to make them visible, how to make them create teaching moments. I've made a few attempts:

Long before the word was common in the Bush-Cheney days, I would hold a sign that simply said IMPEACH. At that point, the objective was simply to get people thinking about the tactic; its object became more and more obvious. Now, when anyone holds a sign that simply says IMPEACH, many people stop and say "Impeach who? Obama???" This leads to rich discussions with all sorts of people. While most don't realize that Bush and Cheney can still be impeached, most current questioners are astounded that we might be calling for Obama's impeachment. And here we get a chance to talk about the difference between the many Obama policies we disagree with, and the high crimes he is involved in -- actual, legal, impeachable offenses concerning upholding the Constitution, conducting several illegal wars, violating the Geneva Conventions, the Arms Export Control Act and the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. This is an invariably rich discussion, with real information transfer.

Another concept I am trying to get out there for passersby to think about is fascism. I hold a Got Milk? parody sign which reads GOT FASCISM? Hard to believe, but people do come up to ask "What's fa...sissum?" One then gets into it at an appropriate level.

HAD ENOUGH YET? invites "Enough what?" and my answer "Well, what have you had enough of?" and its sequelae. HAVE YOU HAD A BAILOUT YET? invites much sharing. ONWARD AND DOWNWARD has gathered "What do you mean?" HOOD ROBIN TO THE RESCUE leads to "Rob from the poor to give to the rich." and "Oh, yeah." WHO IS NEXT? (with a bomb falling) yields various guesses...; BARK MORE, WAG LESS, OUR PROBLEM IS CIVIL OBEDIENCE -- and sometimes IF YOU VALUE YOUR FREEDOM, THANK A PROTESTER.

You get it: signs should be get people thinking, and get them to stop and talk. And so to the point: WRITERS v. WAR(S). Who better than writers of various kinds, especially poets, to come up with such few-word provocations, to make two or three signs, and to use them in public on a regular basis.

For those in the Burlington area, I invite you to join us as you can at the top of Church St., and bring your signs to share with others. If you can't get there, send me your texts, (mestrin@mac.com) and I'll try to make a usable collection and get it out to other groups.

For folks out there on FaceBook and other social networking sites, here's a node to organize your own local groups around. It's clear that the national government and the main stream media will not speak for us, and that we have to take an increasingly active and "in the streets" approach to public education. Let's unsheathe the power of the pen as part of the struggle.

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Marc Estrin is a writer, cellist and activist from Burlington, VT, and author of the novels Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa; The Education of Arnold Hitler; Golem Song; The Lamentations of Julius Marantz, Skulk, The Annotated (more...)
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