Drive just about anywhere in Los Angeles and eventually you’ll pass under a laminated black-and-white sign: "NO ICE," it will yell in capital letters.
"ICE" as in Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency that polices the U.S. border.
These handmade proclamations pop up on bridges spanning freeways across Southern California, secured by zip ties.
When I ran into an old white guy tying one of the signs to a fence, I was surprised. “You’re the 'NO ICE' guy?!” I said. “Yeah! You want to help?” he said, smiling back. He tells me his name is Jack Gerrittson, and he gives me his phone number.
A few months later, I call him and ask him why he puts up signs. He answers resolutely, “I’m against ICE enforcement of separating families.”
Gerrittson is 81, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what would drive a man his age to climb up on bridges and overpasses all over Los Angeles.
Inside his one-room cottage early one morning, Gerrittson is finishing up his breakfast -- half an avocado and a bottle of Mexican coke. Standing 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders, he grabs a dozen rolled-up signs, a yellow rope and a fistful of zip ties.
The guiding force in Gerrittson’s life is his hatred of ICE. He estimates he hangs around 500 signs a year, even though he doesn’t drive. He lost his license after a second DUI conviction, so he relies on friends and family, and sometimes even a reporter like me, to cart him around L.A.
We hop in my car, Gerrittson in camo pants and a cowboy hat from the 99 Cent Store, and we head to one of his favorite spots.
We pull off and park on the shoulder of a service road. Gerrittson has to cross a busy street, but in his 80s, he’s not as nimble as he used to be.
I tell him he has to run if he wants to make it across the street as a car zooms toward us. He picks up his pace a bit and yells, “I fall down a lot when I walk, so I don’t like to run.”
Hanging the signs isn’t a simple operation. Like a master mountaineer, Gerrittson has developed an elaborate system. There are ropes, hooks, zip ties and a razor blade.
He is halfway through hanging his sign when a truck driver blares his horn. “When they see me putting it up, they’ll honk at me," he says. "It’s an indication of approval, I think."
Gerrittson likes the fact that in California, a center of resistance to federal immigration policies, he can broadcast to tens of thousands of sympathetic commuters every day.
“That’s the rewarding part of it, the positive response that I get,” he says.
But not everyone responds positively, and people can cut the signs down if they don’t like them, like in this video uploaded by Robin Hvidston, in which she cheers on a man tearing down a sign in Azusa.
But Gerrittson doesn’t mind that his signs get ripped down. He says it adds to his struggle. "Your life is redeemed not by winning a struggle, but by struggling," he says, quoting a Mexican proverb. "That is what redeems you, the struggle for what is right. I’m taking chances."
His protest days go back to the Vietnam era, specifically a 1967 protest in Century City that devolved into a bloody melee. He says his distaste for authority dates back to run-ins with a bullying sergeant during the Korean War. “I had a sergeant kick my ass one time. Leaned me up against a jeep and kicked my ass,” he says with a laugh
But his opposition to ICE isn't just about being anti-authoritarian.
Gerrittson has a strong connection to L.A.’s Latino immigrant community. He’s been married three times, each time to a Latina. Through them, he spent time south of the border, and by the 1990s, he started transporting people north.
“I’ve been anti-ICE ever since they captured me transporting illegal aliens,” he says.
Gerrittson tells me about the night he was waiting in a truck near the border. Once he heard people climb in the back, he took off. He was pulled over, arrested, and later charged with transporting undocumented migrants.
At trial, he was convicted of one count, fined $800 and sentenced to two years probation. After handing down the sentence, the judge had a simple question for him: “Mr. Gerrittson, why are you taking these people to Los Angeles?” Gerrittson, on the verge of tears, responded, “Your honor, if you could see the face of a wife when I bring her husband back, you would understand. If you could see the faces of the children when I bring back their father, you would understand.”
Gerrittson is too old for night runs on the border these days. Putting up signs is more his speed.
Standing over Interstate 5, he has just finished hanging a sign. As we leave, I look back at his sign and notice something wrong and point. It takes him a second to realize that he has hung this "No ICE" sign backwards, and he lets out a loud cackle. “Oh well,” he says.
Gerrittson knows that his signs won’t make ICE disappear, but he is fighting for the California Dream he believes in: the right to speak freely and to help immigrants fight for their California Dream.
This story was produced in collaboration with an advanced reporting class at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Students spent a semester examining what the California Dream means to Angelenos from different walks of life.