Occupy Everything: Human Banners As A Form Of Artistic Protest
This past Fall, after the white supremacy marches on Charlottesville, I wrote an article that ended with a call to action. I asked that people speak out for what they believe in, that they take a stand, that they do something to better our world. Do not sit back and be silent. We are living in a volatile time. Silence is surrender. We can do better. We need to.
Last month, many of us took to the streets, protesting in Women's Marches across the nation. Some are wary of marches, though. In the last few years, we have watched some protests turn to riots, coming at us in blips on a newscast or across social media and the internet at large. Personally, I am not one to be out in that mess. I have children and, while I want to fight for them, I also have a mindset of self-preservation. I can’t be here for my children if I get arrested, severely injured, or possibly even killed. While I have attended some marches, it has been a select few that I had to really feel out before committing to my attendance. So, to the people who aren’t out there in the front lines - I get you. I’m right there with you, and this was/is my appeal to you:
“Not everyone is a fighter, a rioter, a take-to-the streets protester. That is OKAY - but we have to do SOMETHING. I don’t have all the answers here; There is no simple solution. I do know, though, that hate is born of fear and most fear is based in the unknown. So go out there! Get to know people and let people know you! Engage with the world! Participate in civil discourse! Create art! Break down those barriers! Fight the good fight! And regarding the children - GIVE THEM YOUR TIME! Volunteer at a school, start some kind of program, be a mentor - DO SOMETHING to invest in our youth and teach them how to LOVE - and that they are LOVED! THIS WILL INSPIRE THEM! You - WE - can make a difference! Sitting still and silent is NOT an option unless you’re okay allowing the hate and fear to grow.”
After the events of the Fall, I found myself returning to the San Francisco Bay Area to participate in a couple of protest events. I had attended one of these types of events with a friend in the spring and enjoyed it. This time I was headed out to two taking place on the same day, and taking my kids with me.
Today, I am writing about these events to present you with another option of activism. What events am I talking about? Human banners. Falling somewhere between a street protest and an art project, this is one of my favorite ways to take a stand.
Human banner events are great for many reasons:
If you’re discouraged from an actual march because of.. You know.. The marching part.. Human banners are stationary. But you still get the big crowd, the interaction with like minds, and some really cool photos.
You get to be out in nature, chillin’ on a (usually) beautiful day. These events take place in parks, on beaches, etc. and so they’re nice places that you already want to be spending your time anyway. Show up early or stay afterward and enjoy the outdoors.
Bringing your kids is safe and easy. You don’t need strollers. They aren’t going to be complaining their legs are tired. Bring a blanket, a couple toys, and some snacks. You’re golden. A lot of people also bring their dogs. It’s like a giant picnic.
Those are just a few of the reasons I love attending human banner events. I personally have been in 3 banners in the last year and am planning to attend another this April (more on that later). I don’t consider myself any authority on the matter, though, and so I reached out to someone who is so we could tell you a little more.
Brad Newsham is the man behind the human banner events I have attended. He has been organizing these events in the San Francisco Bay Area for over a decade now. What started as a flashing thought so many years ago has lead to a number of events, now with thousands of people in attendance at the most recent ones. I reached out to Brad with some questions to help you understand not just what a human banner is, but also how they came to be (at least, the protest banners he has organized in the Bay Area), what is involved in putting on one of these events, and how you can get involved. Below is the information Brad has graciously provided. By the end, you will be both informed and entertained.
First of all, Lizette, thank you for asking. I’ve been doing these events since 2007, and this is the first time anyone has ever asked questions of this sort. I always found that a little strange, given all the many mundane, uninteresting, rather ordinary things that get reported on by the media — a few months ago I saw a long interview someone had done with a guy who walks around Hayes Valley in SF with a parrot on his shoulder and who has become a sort of celebrity this way, and I found that interesting, but I thought: How come no one in the media has ever approached me like this? News folks often call right after an event to ask if they can use our footage and photos (my answer is yes, always — that has always been the case with our artwork — anyone can use the photos and media we get from the helicopters). In the few days before an event I’ll often get calls from someone in the media asking if they can ride in the helicopter, and when I tell them that the pilot insists there be only one person in the helicopter they promptly disappear. But you’re the first to ask me these sorts of in-depth questions. A Chronicle reporter did show up to one event in 2007, and wrote an article, but did not show any indication that she’d put the sort of thought into these events as you obviously have…
So… THANK YOU for asking!
Q: Can you explain what a human banner is?
A: Human banners are a form of “aerial art” that have been around since who knows when. The Nazca Lines in Peru date from approximately 1500 years ago, and you have to be in the air decipher them. I thought I came up with this idea at least semi-independently, and was not aware that anyone else had ever done something quite like this, but then shortly after we pulled off the first event back in 2007 people started sending me images of soldiers who, back in the early 1900’s, were assembled into the shape of a beautiful eagle so that they could be photographed by a photographer from atop a tower built by the US Army. I wish I had that sort of support team behind me! It would make my job a lot simpler. People also emailed to tell me that I should get in touch with a man named John Quigley, who I’d never heard of, and when I looked him up I discovered he’d been making "aerial art” all over the world for years.
Q: What is the purpose of a human banner? When did you organize your first one? What made you decide to organize a human banner rather than some other form of protest?
A: My inspiration for the first events came to me on Saturday, October 21, 2006. My wife and I were sitting at the kitchen table with our then-nine-year-old daughter, who out of the blue asked us whether we’d ever heard of Google Earth. And instantly, before I could reply, the image of people using their bodies to spell out IMPEACH! on Ocean Beach in San Francisco — "Nancy Pelosi’s backyard” — burst upon me in a lightning bolt flash (long story behind this, but that’s the short version).
The purpose? My purpose with that one was to give the Impeach-Bush-and-Cheny movement some imagery. Prior to that first event (January 6, 2007 — two days after Pelosi became Speaker of the House), the impeachment movement consisted, as far as I could see, of a bunch of people sitting at their keyboards pounding out bluster and blowing off steam day after day, and I thought: "This ain't workin’! What would help?”
It took several months, and then the idea jerked me out of my kitchen table chair that Saturday afternoon. It took me 11 solid weeks of work to pull off the first event — 1,000 people, Ocean Beach, helicopter overhead, and a few days later postcards in the mail, with San Francisco and Golden Gate Bridge showing in the background. The whole thing put a ton of stress on my family, which was NOT my purpose, but the event did come off spectacularly.
The purpose, again… In general, in life, I think things should be fun. I get tired of rallies where someone (or an endless string of someones) screams at a crowd from a stage. Those huge events do have elements of fun — mostly being among a crowd of like-minded people — but prior to my “inspiration" coming to me, I asked myself, “What kind of event, if I heard about it in advance, would I be eager to be a part of?” And these events… well, you’ve seen the looks on people’s faces afterwards. You’ve gotten a postcard afterward in which you’ve seen what we looked like from the air and maybe you’ve been able to spot yourself way down below, in a sea of people, doing your little part, with a smile on your face… YOU know… And while I cannot claim that these events have nudged the political needle in any truly significant manner (in some tiny way, maybe, but never to the degree that I’ve hoped), my question to myself over time has evolved from simply “How do we get our message across?” to something more like “How do we bring the maximum number of people together to have the maximum amount of fun we can have while trying to send a message that is important to us?”
Other people’s purposes for their “human banners,” their “aerial art,” may very well be different, but I think that any human banner organizer knows that if the element of fun is missing, no one is coming to your event.
Q: What sort if planning goes into organizing a human banner?
A: To have SOMEONE committed to an event is, I think, that event’s crucial component. If you don’t have a group of people or, at bare minimum, one person willing to say, “I’m responsible for this event — if this thing flops, if this thing unravels and turns into a disaster, into a public failure, I’m willing to say, ‘I’m 100% responsible for that!’” then you don’t have an event. That’s the key element. Somebody’s gotta be willing to stick their neck out.
After that, you need to do a lot of phone calling and running around. Getting a permit. Hiring a helicopter. Lining up a photographer(s). Web help. Finding supplies. Figuring out how to FINANCE the thing. Renting porta potties. Buying toilet paper! Making sure you’ve got a megaphone. Making sure you’ve got backup plans for just about everything. For example, at last February’s RESIST!! event, my bullhorn failed just as the crowd was arriving! I had a backup with fresh batteries, and that one somehow failed almost immediately, too. But up in the car I had a third one, which worked. And someone else had brought a fourth one for me, just in case.
You’ve gotta figure out how to attract a crowd! And media! You want your message to go out. You want to have fun doing this, but you don’t want to do it JUST for fun — there’s gotta be a bigger purpose, and that’s where the image, the message, becomes very important. But no matter what message gets chosen, somewhere in the course of organizing the event, the question of whether the event will succeed or fail temporarily overrides the importance of the message — you’re just hanging on for survival, hoping that you don’t REALLY have to stand up and say, Yep, that was a cluster-screw-up and it was all my fault…
Q: How has your planning process progressed as the size of your banners has grown over time? What are troubles you have run into?
A: I’ve learned that past success is not a guarantee of ANYTHING! You cannot coast. I have to address each detail as thoroughly as I had to address the details of the first one. I’ve tried to coast a time or two, tried to cut corners, tried to con myself, "Yeah, that element worked out rather miraculously before, so really it’ll probably work out again” — and each time it’s blown up in my face.
The biggest problem, except for last February’s "RESIST!!" — which truly was an unbelievable miracle, fueled by people’s massive disgust at the surreal direction of our country — has always been crowd size. When I design an image, I always have to take my best guess at how many people will show up, and figure out how to deal with too few or too many. Too many has only been a problem that once: "RESIST!!" The largest previous event had attracted 1,500 people.
At other events we’d laid down on the sand to fill in the image, but at RESIST!! we were standing up, squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder, with 1,500 people in the underline alone! It was the most effortless event I ever put on. I had announced it “by accident” eleven days earlier, when I hit the wrong button while fiddling around with a Facebook event page, my very first use of that incredible tool. I’d been getting emails from people saying, ‘Please, can we do another beach event?’ — and I was contemplating it, and by accident I hit the wrong button. Within — honest — about five seconds someone registered! Within 30 seconds three or four had registered. Within two hours, 350! I turned off my computer until bedtime, and when I checked, there were exactly 900 people registered and I went to bed thinking, “Well, I guess I really AM having an event that day!”
As I drove away from that event, with my phone ringing and ringing, I thought: “I’ve been out of my body for eleven straight days. If I die this minute, it’s fine — this is exactly how satisfied and complete and loved I want to feel when I do die — exactly this way.” I’m of course glad I didn’t die, but that afternoon… well… it was a bit much for my little old body — I didn’t get over it for a couple of weeks. Each one of these events has been priceless to me, but that one was simply un-effing-believable: WHAT JUST HAPPENED? It’s maybe a mirror image of the feeling that a majority of the country has been experiencing since the night of November 8, 2016.
But you asked about troubles. As a general rule, no matter how much organizing or worrying I do, or how many sleepless nights I spend in the run-up to an event, there is always something that I could not anticipate — or that I failed to consider. At midnight before the very first event, someone who presented himself as a nautical expert assured me that I’d misread the tide charts and that at showtime there would be waves crashing up against the seawall in front of which I was hoping to spell out "IMPEACH!" He was wrong, but he cost me a night’s sleep. On the night before another event, a woman sent me a photo of a group of her neighbors who were organizing a secret counter-protest in the driveway outside her apartment building — another sleepless night. And in 2012, when I had 500 people all lined up and spelling out "FUKUSHIMA IS HERE!” and with all of us lying on the beach at noon and waiting for the helicopter, I got a phone call from the pilot saying that he’d been threatened with a $10,000 fine if he flew over the part of the beach where we were all waiting. “Can you please move everything down the beach a quarter of a mile or so?” Hah! There’s always something. Last year it was the too-many-people element. That’s my favorite problem, however...
Q: What type of responses have you received from doing these human banners? From participants, the media, the general public, etc.
A: The participants absolutely love them. I can see it on their faces. I get emails all year long saying, “When are we going back to the beach?” When participants get a postcard in the mail a few days or weeks later, they are reminded of their happiness — people tell me, and sometimes I see, that they have several postcards on their refrigerators, sometimes a decade old now, and that’s just very, very humbling and satisfying to me.
The media is really spotty and hard to figure out. Like I said, you are the first person to ask me this many thoughtful questions — ever. After the first event my phone lit up with media from all over the world — this made the head spin, blew my ego up to the size where my family could barely stand me — you gotta watch yourself — but the novelty factor has worn off and I really never know which media are going to show up, or none at all. Channel 5 has been very good lately. Channel 7 used to put up the ABC helicopter, but it’s been years now. I like to think, and most of the participants like to think, that every one of our events should be the lead story on the evening news, should be at the top of the front page, but the media have their own pressures. After one event where a local station had all but promised to put up its helicopter and then did not show, I called and asked what happened, and my contact said, “Ah, sorry, man — there was some breaking news about the OJ case (or maybe the Scott Peterson murder trial?) and we had to go cover that. Try us again next time…”
I often run into people who say they desperately want to attend one of these events but hear about them too late, and I haven’t figured out a way to address that. My biggest problem is that I am absolutely horrible at forming an organization. I think one of the attractive things about these events is their ad hoc, irregular, perhaps “underground” nature, and I have a fear that if they get too organized and official they might lose some of the "heart” that makes them so much fun. It’s just us people out doing this cool thing on the beach with a helicopter and hopes that the whole world might see our message. There’s no regular schedule. I was involved heavily in San Francisco taxicab politics for two decades and I think I developed some sort of allergy to ridiculous meetings and personal squabbles. It’s certainly been simpler to work mostly on my own. But it’s so much harder, too. A few years ago I said, ‘No More.’ I put out the word that if any organization wanted my help, my experience, my commitment, I would be happy to contribute all of that, but someone else was going to have to take overall responsibility for the event. And so far that’s how five different events have taken place. I have LOVED that. I coach the groups, and I handle the helicopter and photographer and the day-of logistics and the outlining of the image and the directing of the crowd, and someone else handles the finances, the postcards, the media, the porta potties, the event permits, and everything else.
I would like to shout out to my partner in almost all of these events, Travis Van Brasch. Travis just showed up in 2007 and pitched in, and ever since, whenever he’s in town, he’s been right there with me, as a sounding-board and planner in advance, and he’s become crucial on the day-of. He could do one of these without me, if he wanted to. Anyone could, really.
Last August, on the day that all the white-supremacist riots were expected in Berkeley and at Crissy Field, I helped TWO different groups pull off events that same day.
The dozen women behind Contra Costa Women’s March got a thousand people together to spell out END HATE! in Walnut Creek in the morning, beside a 30-by-50-foot USA flag I’d rented for the day. As soon as that was finished, Travis and I rolled up the flag and drove 27 miles to Ocean Beach and that afternoon helped a different group of a thousand people form a huge red heart around the same flag. That was quite a busy day, and lots of media came out for both. 2017 was a good year for media.
The events are not a big secret any more, and I’m happy about that. It makes my job easier. I was actually able to sleep well before each of those 2017 events.
Q: Can you tell us about your inspiration for what words or images you have chosen for the human banners you have organized?
A: I always sit with this one for a while, and I usually listen to all the input I get from people before making a final decision. Brevity is usually a key concern, as you can make a nice “thick” image with fewer people if you keep the message short. “IMPEACH!" was pretty workable and obvious. You want people to get the message in a blink, if possible. For DUMP CITIZENS UNITED! (2009?) at least ten groups agreed to use their mailing lists in support, and they all wanted input on the message — some said they would only play if I used specific wording, and I think I lost a couple of groups over that. When I announced that we were going to transform the “O” in "IMPEACH NOW!” (2007) into a peace sign, several people decided not to attend — a peace sign was to hippie-dippy for them. When I announced we were going to have a US flag at a couple of events, same thing — it was too something for certain people, but I love recapturing the flag from the knuckleheads who think they’ve hijacked it from the rest of us. I always have an eye on "What will bring people out?" If it’s a message people don’t support, it’s easy for them to find something else to do in the Bay Area that day. And I am acutely aware that without a crowd I’m just an idiot with a bullhorn strolling along the water’s edge.
During the BP Oil disaster — the so-called “leak” of a couple of million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 — I designed a big beautiful parody of the BP sunburst logo that required at least 2,000 people, but it was foggy that day, and maybe no one understood the message, and in the end only 450 showed up. That was my second “disappointment” — now I’ve also had a third — and it sobered me. Bottom line: I do give a lot of thought to the political climate and the shaping of the message or image.
Q: Tell us about your vision for the upcoming Earth Day banner.
A: Last week I hiked “my secret” trail" at Pt Reyes to a rocky outcropping 500 feet above the Pacific. From there I can see about 12-15 miles of coastline. I live for these hikes. Last week I wanted some alone time to examine my motives. "Why am I doing this event?" Along my secret trail I usually encounter zero other people, and this was such a day. I saw my fair share of the world when I was younger, and last week as I stood up there, all by myself, surveying my kingdom, I felt so humbled, and these words came to me: “It is an HONOR to live on this planet…” And that’s the sentiment I am trying to convey with the Earth image. I know that there are millions and millions and probably billions of people who share exactly the same sentiment, and I see my job here as being, literally, to "create a space" for them to powerfully and beautifully share that sentiment in the company of thousands of similarly appreciative fellow Earthlings. And just yesterday I was hiking on my favorite trail in the redwoods above Oakland, again thinking about this event. And it came to me that much of the world still looks to the USA for leadership, and those who do have got to be wondering, “What the hell is going on over there?" We can imagine the red-hot messages they’ve been getting from New York City — Trump’s wild and crazy hometown — and the toxic confusion they feel coming out of Washington DC, and the Weinstein vibes from Los Angeles, but it seems to me that they haven’t heard from San Francisco. I would like this image to serve as a reminder to everyone everywhere that on November 7, 2016, there was a widespread agreement that global warming was our biggest common problem. We’ve been massively distracted since The Election, but the underlying reality has not changed. This lovely planet is our only home, and when this current craziness has passed, and I like to think that it will, we’re all going to have to find our way back to each other and to the business at hand. We’re going to have to figure out how to get along with each other and move forward together or… well, we see the alternative reality shaping up in front of our eyes, under our feet, at our shores, in our air and water, every minute of every day. Someone seeing a photo or a video of five thousand people forming a beautiful image of planet Earth with waves washing up on the nearby beach and with the Golden Gate Bridge and the City in the background will have a moment where they’ll think, “Ah, yes — thank God for the Bay Area!” Or something like that… And maybe: “I wish I’d been to that event — THAT looks like fun!"
Brad’s next event is coming up on April 21st at Ocean Beach in SF. The goal is to have 5,000 people in attendance and I'll be one of them. We hope to see you there! The event page will be set up soon, but for now you can follow Brad on Facebook or join Brad’s mailing list to receive updates on this and future events.
For anyone who is not local to the Bay Area or is not able to travel to these events, human banners are and can be organized all over the country. You can search Facebook events for “human banner” to see if there are any nearby you, or organize one yourself! If you would like more information on organizing a human banner in your area, you can send your questions and ideas to Brad.