Peace Reporter

October 16, 2004, Saturday

Viaggiare Informati

By: Alessandro Ursic

Reporting from the United States:

For four years, an anonymous Californian calling himself the "Scarlet Pimpernel" has been papering the state's highways with anti-Bush signs, read by millions of motorists. He has created more than two thousand of them and
now has found hundreds of followers ready to do the same in the rest of the U.S.A.

October16, 2004

Even if it is the society of free expression, finding a way to let people know what you're thinking is not at all easy. It requires getting through the filter of media, which selects opinions based on its editorial line. You can try opening a blog on the internet, at times defined as "the information superhighway," but in the end, only those who think like you will read it. Is there a way to get your own ideas out to the most people possible? In California someone seems to have found it: with cardboard, paint and yes, the highways. But the real ones, where every day, hundreds of thousands of vehicles travel. And millions of potential readers.

He is a 42-year-old man who lives near Los Angeles and calls himself the Scarlet Pimpernel, or Freeway Blogger, from the name of his website. In
four years he's created 2200 large signs and has posted them a little like a couple's friends would do in the days before the wedding: attaching them to overpasses, around trees on the far side of the guard-rail, and on street
signs. For the army of motorists who traverse the Californian highways every day, it's impossible not to read these messages. And how very precise they are: each one is against the Bush administration.

To help understand this guy: after the interminable soap opera in Florida and the victory of the Republican candidate in the 2000 election as conferred by the Supreme Court, the Scarlet Pimpernel placed his first creation on a bridge: a sign which read, "1776-2000 Rest in Peace." He was referring to democracy. "My father taught me that democracy is where you
count the votes," he explains, "my next sign said 'we had a chance to show the world what democracy means, and we blew it." With the war on terrorism and the military intervention in Iraq, the imagination of the Freeway Blogger has become more whimsical: on the streets
of California and also at times of Arizona, there have followed clever plays on words like, "Rumsfailed," "Osama Bin Forgotten," and "Quagmire Accomplished"(after the "Mission Accomplished" of the president on May 1,
2003), but also direct accusations like "Bush Lied" and reflections such as, "Real soldiers are dying in their streets, so you can play soldier in yours."

n some cases, perhaps if they are set up in somewhat hidden places, the Scarlet Pimpernel's messages remain in place for several weeks, even. Most times, however, they get torn down after a few hours by employees of Caltrans -- the California Department of Transportation -- which, after a lost lawsuit, has decided to remove any unauthorized sign from the streets, or by someone who simply supports the current president. "I've been caught in the act by the police on four occasions," he says, "they've just asked me to leave and I've done so. Two times I've been stopped by men who didn't agree with me. But they didn't insist too much, maybe because I'm fairly big."


To carry on his mission, on the other hand, this kind of free-thought rebel doesn't require too much time. He arrives on the scene with a van loaded
with signs and everything necessary to hang them up. Sometimes he puts up an orange vest like those used by Caltrans technicians, to look like a
construction worker and be less conspicuous. To get away as quickly as possible from the scene of the "crime," he always has his skateboard with
him. In not even a minute, he does what he has to do and then leaves again, with the sign he'll make the next day already on his mind.

Between planning, creating and posting, the Scarlet pimpernel's job really and truly is full-time. It earns him nothing, although he succeeds in
getting by thanks to an inheritance. But above all it has been the principal cause of his separation from his wife, who one year ago gave him an ultimatum: "Your family or your signs." Now the 2-year-old daughter lives with her mother in northern California.

Behind such passion, understandably, are strong motivations. "I've travelled a lot and have seen enough poverty to understand that I have
enough money to live," explains the Freeway Blogger," and this makes me almost unique in the U.S., where even the richest citizens never seem to
have as much as they want." At a certain point in his life, the Scarlet Pimpernel therefore asked himself a question: "What is the most useful thing I can do to alleviate people's suffering? To bring warm clothes to people need them," he thought. He then began to gather free clothing and blankets, bringing them to the poor of the Mexican highlands.

"In four years I made that trip twenty-five times, transporting tons of clothes and helping about ten thousand people," he tells. "Later on, when
Bush was by that time intending to attack Iraq, I asked myself the same question as years before. And this time the answer was: get Bush out of the
White House. The idea of the signs came to me, and then I decided to continue on this path. When Bush is no longer the president, I will return to helping the poor."

How effective his campaign will be, however, will with difficulty depend on the signs placed on the overpasses of California. The Golden State has
traditionally been a democratic stronghold, and here Bush has practically no hope of winning. But thanks to his blog, Scarlet Pimpernel has succeeded in
spreading the word, finding other people interested in creating and hanging anti-Bush signs even on the streets of states where the candidates are even.
The 13th of October he has therefore called the Day of Freedom of Expression: up until now, people from 120 cities in 38 states have joined the effort, and who knows how many will join in the remaining week.
"There's a good probability that on that day more than a thousand people will put their posters and leave their mark on the country's highways,"
rejoices the Freeway Blogger.

With the polls still favoring Bush, maybe all that won't be enough. Even the Scarlet Pimpernel realizes this. "I can't predict what effect the signs will have on the election," he says, "but I know one thing: I have
discovered that even I have a voice in this society, and I don't have to wait for newspapers, radio or TV to give me space. All I need is cardboard
and some paint. Anyone can do it."