Light Boards, Lock Boxes, and Resistance

By Kelly Hayes

As someone who organizes in the city of Chicago, I’ve seen a lot of powerful protest imagery in the past year.  I’ve seen students lock arms and form blockades to resist the closure of their public school, and teenagers who shut down traffic with a die-in, as they demanded a South Side trauma center.  I’ve seen spontaneous acts of resistance, and well planned spectacles.  Chicago is a city in crisis, and those who have been victimized by austerity, racism, ableism, and indifference have painted a thousand pictures of their struggle.  But today, as I write these words, I am contemplating imagery that was dreamt of and acted out by friends in another state, some months ago, and the images that have played out since.  This reflection is not an easy one to put into words, because my heart is aching for them right now, but I think we all need to take a moment, and make sure that these images are burned into our minds, because if they are not, those pictures will have been painted in vain, and that is something I will never accept.

First, I should mention what I’ve been doing this year.  I’ve spent a great deal of time getting Chicago’s branch of the Overpass Light Brigade up and running.  It’s been wonderful, and I think we have created some great imagery, for some very important causes.  But one of the reasons that I believe in the tactic of using LED light boards to create shining messages in the dark is that I think it’s a wonderful first step for people who might otherwise shy away from direct action.  It’s low risk, it’s beautiful, and for many of us, it’s inspiring.  It’s also encouraging to folks who are out in the trenches, so to speak, doing much more high stakes work for a cause.  It’s my hope that easing into actions like the creation of LED banners will help some people begin a path forward into some of that more radical work that needs to be done out there. 

Photo by Sarah-Ji

It’s the imagery of that more radical work that I would like to talk about today, because three brave women, who created one of the most powerful images of protest that I laid eyes on last year, were taken to jail yesterday, pending sentencing for multiple felonies, for having done something I believe many more of us must do.  They courageously created radical, intense imagery of resistance, and they put themselves and their liberty at stake to do so.

How did this happen?  Well, last summer, these women, and their friend Chris Wahmoff, had the audacity to stand up to Enbridge, a company whose reckless practices have repeatedly ravaged ecosystems and destroyed lives in the pursuit of profit.  In 2010, pipeline 6B ruptured in Kalamazoo, Michigan, causing the largest inland oil spill in American history.  According to Chris, the Kalamazoo River became a “wasteland” overnight.  To those who witnessed this catastrophe, the implications of the disaster were clear:  This was their wake up call.  This “wasteland” was a snap shot of what was going to unfold all around us, everywhere, unless a powerful opposition sought to change the course of history.  Chris, Lisa, Vicci, and Barb were ready to play their part in that resistance. 

Last summer, on his 35th birthday, Chris rested his back on a skateboard, and rolled himself into pipeline 6B, and remained there for ten hours.  His demand was one that has been echoed repeatedly by his group, the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands.  The MI CATS demand the removal of pipeline 6B, which moves bitumen through the now highly contaminated area of the 2010 spill.  The MI CATS also demand that Enbridge complete clean-up efforts around the Kalamazoo River.  According to the MI CATS, the river still holds over 180,000 gallons of bitumen oil and a host of other toxic substances that have left the river in ruins. When I asked Chris about the incredible photo of him that was taken just before he rolled into the pipeline, he said that he didn’t even realize that the picture was being taken at the time.  It was actually captured by his dear friend Lisa Leggio, who now is now locked away in a county jail, awaiting sentencing for her own act of resistance.

Lisa, Barb, and Vicci barely knew each other before they locked themselves to construction equipment on July 22nd of last year to halt repairs to pipeline 6B.  They used lock boxes to make their removal from the site more difficult, and to create an image of powerful, radical resistance.  For those who are unacquainted, a lock box is a device made of PVC pipe, or some other core tubing, that is usually layered with chicken wire and other materials to make the device’s destruction a more complex task.  Activists lock their arms inside these devices to make it more difficult for authorities to move or separate them.  The imagery created by this action sent a clear message:  we must take whatever peaceful action is necessary to thwart the destruction of the natural world we live in.   

Often times, when activists see the necessary tools assembled to cut them out of these devices, they unlock and surrender to authorities, as the process of being cut out is both dangerous and unpleasant.  Barb, Vicci, and Lisa, however, chose to take their action a step further.  They chose not to move upon being given a final order to do so.  They chose to be cut out of their lock boxes.  They sat quietly, flashing each other nervous smiles of encouragement, as hoods were placed over their heads to protect their faces from the sparks flying off the lock boxes as they were destroyed.  Lisa told me later that she could feel the heat of the sparks hitting her face, and she imagined what it must be like for people who are subjected to state violence who never had the privilege of choice.  She recognized the fact that she and these women had made a choice, and she saw it through.

Photo by Jake McGraw

That day, a twenty two year old woman, a thirty-five year mother of two, and a sixty year old grandmother showed us what it meant to be immovable.  They showed us what it meant to be courageous.  And that is something that the system simply cannot allow.

As word of yesterday’s guilty verdicts spread, Enbridge released the following statement: “Safety is always the top priority on worksites, and it’s important that the public share this priority for their own safety and for the safety of our crews and contractors. We hope this decision will serve to deter others from creating unsafe situations in the future."

It was a statement that just as easily could have read:  Dear activists, don’t fuck with us.  We will send your heroes to prison.  We will dismantle your communities.  We will break you, by any means necessary.  It’s our world, and you’re just living in it.

Mere acquaintances at the action’s onset, Barbara, Vicci, and Lisa are now incredibly close.  They saw each other through the stress of this week’s trial. Sharing the same bedroom every night, travelling in the same car, and sitting down to every meal together.  There is a familial bond between them now that is unbreakable, and every effort that the state has made to divide them has only deepened that bond.

Chris Wahmoff, who has stood by his friends throughout their journey through the courts, is a man with very conservative roots.  Chris says that his politics were transformed by his experiences with the Occupy movement.  The communities that were created by that movement, which was largely imagery driven, brought Chris into the company of people with ideas he had never contemplated, and his sense of what kind of action was needed to make change began to shift.  “It was spiritual,” he says, “and I was changed by it.”

A few short years later, Chris would find himself with his back to a skateboard, rolling into pipeline 6B.  The charges against Chris were ultimately dismissed, but the charges against Barb, Vicci, and Lisa remained intact.  Chris was especially close to Lisa, who spent 600 hours in six weeks doing relief work for Occupy Sandy.  A fireman who had worked at ground zero on 9/11 was so moved by Lisa’s efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that he gave her the fireman’s patch he had received in honor of his work on the day the towers fell.  “That’s who Lisa is,” said one of her comrades in activism, “that’s the mother who was taken from her children yesterday.”

Last summer, both Barb and Lisa participated in a light projection action with me and some of my colleagues from the Backbone Campaign.  We danced through the streets in downtown Kalamazoo, singing and projecting messages like, “No Tar Sands” and “Climate Cooking Crooks” on various buildings.  Lisa and I held hands for several blocks, belting out the words to “This Little Light of Mine.” 
I saw Lisa and Barb dance and sing that night, and share a happiness with each other, and with us, that only comes through the shared experience of a beautiful moment in time.  They knew that the legal consequences July 22nd were looming in the distance, but they were not afraid.  They were joyful.  They were beautiful, and in my eyes, they were celebrated, just as heroes should be.

Photo by Kelly Hayes

Not long after, I talked with Lisa about the fact that many of the activists who heard her tell the story of their lock box action saw her as a hero, and she told me how uncomfortable she was with that characterization.  She didn’t want to be a hero.  She wanted to be one of many taking radical action.  “It’s not about your comfort level,” I told her, “it’s about the fact that these people need heroes.  They need inspiration.  If you want them to step up, you’re gonna have to let them look up to you and what you did.  It’s what they need, so deal with it.”  She just laughed a little, and said something, “Would you just stop being right, already?”

When I look back, it brings a smile to my face, and a tear to my eyes to think that what most of us needed that weekend was to feel inspired by our heroes, and what our heroes needed was a simple light projection action.  They needed us, and we needed them.

Tonight, I am co-organizing a solidarity action for the MI CATS that will take place here in Chicago.  It’s an Overpass Light Brigade action that will celebrate the courage of my friends who are sitting in jail right now, and spell out a demand for their freedom.  The jail’s correspondence policies will only allow us to send our friends bare, white postcards bearing written messages, but I am confident that we will find a way to show them those images soon, and I am hopeful that those pictures will lift their spirits during this difficult time, and remind them that we are still here, inspired by them, and moving forward. 

Photo by Justin Bianchi

Addendum:  On March 5, 2014, Vicci, Barb, and Lisa were sentenced to time served and 13 months probation. They have been reunited with their friends and family, and plan to continue their peaceful efforts to protect the natural world. They credit the activist community, including the 60,000 supporters who petitioned the court for leniency, for their release. As he waited for Vicci, Barb, and Lisa to be processed out of state custody, MI CATS member Chris Wahmhoff spoke of the tremendous support the women had received. "It wasn't this fucked up system that freed these women today," Wahmhoff said as he stood outside the courthouse. "It was all of you. It was your love, your support, and the power of the people that made this happen, and we love you and appreciate you more than we can say."