Published on Tuesday, July 25, 2006 by the Boston Globe
Overpasses Become Activists' Podiums
`Highway blogs' Come, Go Quickly
by Mark Pothier
It takes only a bedsheet and 18-gauge wire for Bruce Macdonald to stir road rage in some motorists.
For eight months the Cambridge lawyer has been stringing homemade banners from highway overpasses, including those crossing Interstate 93 and Route 128. His neatly painted messages usually take short jabs at the Bush administration or the war in Iraq.
Like noxious fumes and traffic snarls, a well-placed road sign can't be ignored by a driver, he said. Tens of thousands of cars can stream beneath an ``Impeach" or ``U.S. Out of Iraq" banner before it is ripped down, usually by a passerby or road crew. ``If they stay up a day they're doing well," Macdonald said. ``Some people get upset ."
Macdonald, 59, is one of an increasing number of ``highway bloggers" -- loosely connected activists who favor bridges over websites as posting places for their antiwar slogans. They say it is an easy, inexpensive way to reach large numbers of people, especially those who may not be receptive to their opinions.
While highways have long been used to publicize everything from political candidates to marriage intentions, after the disputed 2000 presidential election a small group of self-proclaimed ``freeway bloggers" began plastering California overpasses with signs criticizing President Bush. Since the Iraq war began, the campaign has gained popularity nationwide, especially on the East and West coasts.
Patrick Randall, a pseudonym for the California man cited by several local highway bloggers as their inspiration, said in an interview that he considers major thoroughfares ``rivers of humanity." They allow him to reach a captive audience with roadway-reading material more stimulating than ``Happy 50th, Carol" or ``Huge yard sale, next exit!"
In the past six years, Randall said, he has lugged about 2,500 cardboard antiwar signs to freeways and fastened them to fencing and beams with bungee cords. He has honed the on-site installation process to a frenzied 10 seconds. Because the reaction to ``Osama bin Forgotten" and other foot-high slogans is often visceral, the 44-year-old Bay Area resident said he uses a fictitious name in public.
``I get a lot of hate mail and death threats from right-wingers," he said, ``and I have family."
Randall promotes freeway blogging on his website, freewayblogger.com , and through a two-minute instructional video, ``How to Reach 100,000 People for Under $1.00."
In addition to keeping the word count low, there are some basic rules to highway blogging, according to Macdonald: ``No swears or anything anyone would say is in bad taste, and be careful that you don't drop anything on the roadway."
On a recent evening, he placed two banners on the Recreation Road bridge over Route 128 in Weston: one reading ``the war is a lie," the other ``and you know it." Twelve hours later they were gone.
Affixing banners or signs to overpasses is prohibited in some states, including California and Rhode Island, but Massachusetts does not have a written policy. How long a sign remains ``is up to the discretion of highway crews," said Jon Carlisle , a Massachusetts Highway Department spokesman.
``In general, if any of our maintenance crews see political messages, we take them down," Carlisle said. ``Nonpolitical ones, we judge them on a case-by-case basis." Those that hang from the outside of fences are immediately removed, he said, because they could fall onto passing vehicles.
But bloggers say the state's tolerance of some people's handiwork -- especially the ubiquitous greetings for military personnel returning from overseas -- means it is obligated to allow antiwar messages as well.
``The interesting thing is who makes a decision as to which messages are appropriate. There are some `welcome home' banners that have been up for months and are loose. MassHighway doesn't think that's a priority," said Macdonald, who started highway blogging in response to what he described as the prominent public display of ``pro-war" messages.
Earlier this month, he attached two antiwar banners to a bridge on Route 93 in Wilmington , alongside American flags someone else had already secured. Two days later, only the flags remained.
A 36-year-old Kingston highway blogger who asked not to be identified said he believes antiwar messages are unfairly targeted.
``Those signs for the troops are wonderful," he said, ``but I sort of see them as political, too. Maybe there's an implicit message -- supporting the war." He uses Route 3 overpasses on the South Shore that are not near exits. The lack of an off-ramp makes it difficult for someone to track down a sign they find offensive, he explained.
A Rhode Island blogger who asked for anonymity because he fears retribution from local and state officials said he began securing antiwar messages to bridges because ``there are so many blogs and endless websites, and I had a strong feeling that I wanted to do something in the real world."
Highway blogging is a ``growing movement, reflecting people's frustration and their feeling that they're unable to speak out in any way," the 44-year-old healthcare worker said. ``And I love low-tech solutions to things. This is essentially the opposite of what we're expected to do culturally, which is to pay for advertising space."
Bloggers acknowledge they have no way to assess whether their messages change minds. And they concede most motorists probably pay the same heed to protest signs that they do to speed limits.
``If nothing else," Randall said, it is energizing to act against the war in Iraq. Highway blogging is ``kind of a tonic for the troops on my side," he said.
At least most of the time.
Macdonald said he once draped two banners from an overpass: ``Honor the Warrior" and ``Condemn the War." After he left, someone played road editor, leaving only the first one intact. Macdonald was not pleased when he came upon the truncated message.
``I had steam coming out of my ears," he said.
© 2006 The Boston Globe