I put this sign up about three years ago, in the first weeks of the war. It was inspired by hearing one of the talking heads on cable say "Of course, now that troops are in harm's way, you can't be sarcastic." Really? I thought to myself, I hadn't heard that one before... once troops are in harm's way an entire branch of rhetoric is off limits to the public? What utter bullshit.
So I painted this sign and hung it on a retaining wall next to I- 5 in Mission Viejo, right in the heart of Orange County.
The story during that particular news cycle was this woman: Shoshana Johnson. The videotape of her interrogation by the Iraqi Army was being played relentlessly on cable news: a young black woman, scared out of her wits, trying to answer questions like “Why did you come here?” “Why did you come to kill Iraqis?”
She was practically beside herself with fear, her eyes darting and moving around constantly, waiting for the shot or whatever it was that might kill her at any moment, while the news anchors clucked and gasped at the human drama and spectacle.
Of course, as Americans we knew damn well what people staring death in the face looked like, and it was nothing like this. If we’d learned anything from years of watching television, it was that people faced death with incredible stoicism - jaws set firmly with a steely gaze in the eyes and perhaps one slight swallow or lump in the throat to betray any sort of fear. So what was this? What in the hell was this this twitching, stuttering, pop-eyed freak show doing on our TV sets?
For possibly the first time our TVs were showing us what it looked like when someone was genuinely in fear for their lives, and we didn't like it. Not one bit. And something in the tsking, headshaking and hollow, practiced gravity of the newsanchors voices describing this one scared woman made something inside me snap. Suddenly the whole stupid fucking infotainment media spectacle that constituted the lead up to the war was lain bare: All the charts and graphs and speculation from experts and pundits, the dramatic music and big graphic arrows spreading over maps... all of it exposed for the bullshit that it was in the eyes of this one frightened woman. And then they had the gall to tell me I couldn't be sarcastic? Fuck You.
The sign took about half an hour to make and about ten seconds to hang once I figured out how to get there. While not exactly easy, getting to the wall from the backside required little more than a few minutes of driving around, a quick scamper down a hillside and trudging through some brush.
I don't know how long I expected the sign to stay up - a couple of hours maybe - but when I drove by three days later and saw it was still there, I couldn't believe my eyes. Three days. Three days perfectly visible to five lanes of heavy traffic, over 150,000 cars per day, and nobody, but nobody had taken the ten or fifteen minutes it would've required to go take it down.
I'd hung plenty of signs before that one, and seen a lot of them stay up for days, but seeing that one - a great big 8 by 10 foot "Fuck You" up for three days in the darkest heart of Republican Orange County - became a defining moment for me. Those of you who've hung signs and seen them stay up know what I'm talking about: it's incredible. The only explanation for it is that everyone driving by thinks someone else will take them down, and nobody does.
Unfortunately though, the same "Not my job..." mindset that keeps signs up may well be what dooms this art to being little more than a novelty act. If you see a sign you don't like, it's your job to take it down. If, on the other hand, you don't see any signs at all, it's your job to put them there. The next guy ain't gonna do it for you.