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Reading Between The Signs

An abrupt pivot in local traffic signage.

By Charlotte Murtishaw

The thousands of carefully masked protestors flooding the streets of Northampton, Amherst, Greenfield, Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee, Westfield, and beyond over the past weeks are proof enough that the incomprehensibly everyday crisis of police brutality has upstaged the once-in-a-lifetime crisis of coronavirus, but more banal little indicators litter the world as well. Take for instance, an abrupt pivot in local traffic signage: Last week, digital displays across western Massachusetts changed overnight from messages directing readers to the state coronavirus resource website to a plea to “HELP OUR HEROES PLZ SLOW DOWN.”

Contacted by phone, an employee at the Hadley Department of Public Works could not offer a reason for the change, but noted that signs on Rt. 9 and highways are under the jurisdiction of the state DOT, and local road signs were likely under the direction of the municipal police. The MA DOT press office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, which might have cleared up lingering questions: In the middle of a public health crisis, a sudden spotlight on speeding seems incongruous, and the sentiment is overall puzzling.

The ambiguity of “heroes” could be a Rorschach test: Are the heroes the police who would likely respond to the scene of a crash, or the EMTs and hospital staff who might tend to a victim? Both? Are violence workers and care workers ever equally moral parties? Is it on individuals to reduce the workload of a dramatically overburdened and underfunded healthcare system? More pressingly, is it on individuals to keep the taxpayer-funded police cruisers idling all night? On one hand, unpacking the sign is pedantic; on the other hand, if it’s time to defund the police (it is), it’s also time to place a moratorium on messaging which promotes a narrative of blue heroism.


A VMS on Rocky Hill Road, Hadley. Our generation’s “for sale: baby shoes, never worn”? Something to think about. 

If, ultimately, the sign’s intent was as an invocation to save the police the stress of dealing with fast driving, the message is astonishingly dissonant with the moment. Forget speeding, which has almost certainly not become an urgent and new problem overnight, especially as public health guidance is shifting; the message seems like a weird syntactical method of forcing motorists into a relationship of adulation which the police have neither attempted to earn nor deserve. Nationally the police have regularly murdered a staggering number of Black people in cold blood, run over civilians, and shoved senior citizens to the ground; locally, they pepper-sprayed a fifteen-year old girl. Hērōs, the Greek root of ‘hero’, translates roughly to “someone who definitely does not incite unnecessary violence against and say weird stuff about hamburgers to people asking for basic human rights in the face of preventable tragedy,” but nevertheless, here we are. Up and down I-91, and even in eastern Massachusetts, almost every other digital traffic display (with the exception of one useful sign noting the construction at exit 19) was subject to the same weird, petty assertion of institutional control. (While the state roadways have since moved on, Hadley’s signs seem stuck on the heroic.)


I-91, Holyoke

Zooming out, a lot of signs exist to make obvious the subtle (“turn here”), while a lot exist in direct defiance to the obvious. A sign is the laziest way of trying to rewire reality: not by materially changing the conditions of the reality, but simply by hoping the reader has the right levels of social conditioning and self-doubt to readjust their perception. Take this scene:


You shouldn’t let signs lie to you — Björk

Endless arguments about the validity of concepts like trespassing and property aside, the gate carries its own semantic absurdity. The deedholder probably paid about a thousand bucks to install the gate and sign, but its efficacy is bunk: Almost any car would be able to drive around it on either side. More insidiously, this banter between signs, symbols, and reality regularly plays out on corporate stages.


Ceci n’est pas une valid argument. DON’T GO TO RESTAURANTS.

If June is Pride month, it’s also a month for ignoring messaging from anything big enough that its values and voice has to be manicured and channeled through a marketing or PR department. That being said: Not all signs. While the institutional is being rejected – like a body rejects a bad hamburger – the vernacular is flourishing. The intersection of coronavirus and the public murder of George Floyd is significant in a number of ways; not only have protests broken out after a dramatic expansion of free time and energy across the country, but across the political spectrum, coronavirus has laid bare the complete vacuum of government institutions, support, and resources in times of emergency. In short, the system being overrun just as its hollowness is revealed is hardly a coincidence. Formerly leftist lingo like “mutual aid” has become commonplace vocabulary; people, as always, are filling in the cracks, which requires not just enormous empathy but a strong vision of what justice and a dignified life looks like. In a commodity culture, when someone sits on their floor with a Sharpie to make a sign, it’s because what they want to see on that sign isn’t reflected in mass messaging or even common practice. Unlike corporate sloganeering, protest signs are prefigurative, forecasting a possible future, one which doesn’t restrain itself and often abandons the supposedly-inalterable structural principles of the world. The protest sign is a temporary autonomous zone of the mind.


Looking from the back of a rally it’s possible to catch glimpses of the pre-lives of the homemade  signs: packaging for fruit snacks, tennis balls, an air conditioning unit. The recycled boxes are ironic reminders of the promise that the detritus of capitalism can be–are–transformed and repurposed as a new foundation. Corporations know this, which may explain why the Northampton branch of Bank of America was unnecessarily boarded up for Saturday’s peaceful protest.

In 2017, following the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, someone spraypainted “KILL WHITE SUPREMACISTS” on the old Getty station at the juncture of Rt. 9 and Bay Road. The structure was quickly scrubbed clean.


Between then and now, an enormous Pride gas station bloomed on the adjourning lot, offering free coffee for cops, direct security livestreams to the police station, and an array of black-and-white-lettered headscratchers from “HANDCRAFTED LATTE’S” (whose hands?) to “ROSES ARE COMING“ (Valentines Day, but make it ominous) to “WE HONOR ALL KFC MEAL DEALS” (pandemic profiteering). The latest sobering update to a only-slightly-more-dilapidated Getty (ACAB/RIP GEORGE FLOYD) is a reminder of how little has changed three years after Heyer’s murder, give or take a new gas station.

But if there’s any sign of hope, it’s that this time, the walls have yet to be whitewashed; and that people are not letting go of their grief over needless death or guilt about personal complicity; and that protestors are gathering almost daily to demand justice despite the danger of infectious disease, which is very real and present regardless of what the state says for the sake of the economy; and that Northampton, along with other municipalities across the country, is openly discussing cutting police funding. Perhaps most impressively, nearly 600 people showed up to the Northampton City Council proceedings to demand a reduced police budget two nights in a row, which is a goddamned miracle to just about anyone who’s been to a local government meeting before. Probably at least that many will be at the rallies in Northampton and Greenfield tonight continuing the pressure to defund. And now is not the time to stop, or even slow down.

Charlotte Murtishaw is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. She recently reviewed the local film Shelf Life

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