In the back of a large white van parked on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, across from the mansion that houses the Russian consulate, Lucky Tran sits hunched over a laptop. Two members of Tran’s team are positioned nearby, ready to document what comes next in photo and video. “I’ve scouted the area,” Tran says, his face swathed in LCD light. “It should be fine, but we don’t want to overstay our welcome.” Tran stands up and adjusts the cranks protruding from the vehicle’s roof. Soon, the image of three heads in balaclavas, accompanied by the words “Free Pussy Riot” written in ransom lettering, appear emblazoned on the consulate’s limestone facade.
“I love those ladies,” says a lone bystander. “I work in that building or else I would scream.”
It’s Thursday, August 16, and tomorrow three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot will face sentencing in a Moscow courtroom on the charge of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for donning ski masks, stepping onto the altar of a prominent Russian Orthodox Church and reciting a prayer for the Virgin Mary to banish Putin from power. The next day, the women were handed a two-year sentence; their lawyers have since appealed. Meanwhile, their case has drawn international attention and the balaclava has become an iconic symbol of anti-authoritarianism everywhere.
For Lucky Tran, projecting on the consulate is an expression of international solidarity with the imprisoned feminists. He and his accomplices are introducing a twist to the typical protest narrative with a new way to fight back — in this case, for free speech — creatively. “Sometimes you go in front of a place, a consulate or the Stock Exchange, and you hold a sign and they put you in a freedom cage and the system is okay with you just sort of standing there since they’ve isolated you. But,” adds Tran, “we can subvert their symbols of power; their huge buildings, their huge signs. We can directly challenge their power by projecting something straight onto this fortress of greed.”
Our presence in front of the consulate does not go unnoticed. A man steps out from the entryway of the mansion, his suit and tie profile partially lit by streetlight. He stares at us for a few moments, then steps back into the shadows. “Okay, time to go,” Tran calls out, his head poked through the hatch in the van’s roof.
The documentarians hop back on board. The crew’s designated getaway driver, Molly Campbell, presses the accelerator, and we are off. As the rickety van bounces through Manhattan, the group’s photographer, Jenna Pope, posts her snapshots onto Facebook. Soon, the Pussy Riot emblem, cast bright and defiant over the Russian flag, will have spread around the world. Tran hails from South Australia, but has lived and worked in New York for years, while Campbell and Pope are both native Midwesterners, drawn to the city by Occupy Wall Street’s mass rebellion last fall. Pope explains, “I’m the type of person that when I see something is going on I have to jump into the thick of it, I can’t just sit by and watch.”
It’s just another night for the Illuminator and crew, mowing through “the fortress of greed” that is Manhattan. But nights like these might not last much longer. The group’s benefactor has become its repo-man.
Cold, hard cash
The Illuminator is the brainchild of activist and artist Mark Read. On November 17, shortly after the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street’s encampment from New York’s Financial District, Read and company gave tens of thousands of demonstrators marching over the Brooklyn Bridge a light show on the walls of the Verizon building. “It Is the Beginning of the Beginning” and other Occupy slogans illuminated — bat-signal-style — the concrete tower along the East River, lending fresh hope for the future of a movement that two days earlier had suffered a violent police raid. Authorities searched frantically but were unable to find the source of the signal, which emanated from the apartment of Denise Vega, a single mother of three living in a nearby housing project.
The building embossed with Verizon’s logo was a juicy political target for Occupy. The corporation was (and still is) involved in an ongoing labor dispute with the Communication Workers of America, seeking to slice union members’ pensions and healthcare, reduce pay and increase hours, despite receiving federal bailout funds, paying no taxes and receiving $951 million in rebates from 2008 to 2010. Verizon has spent vast sums fighting the union and whitewashing the company’s own image, but on November 17, its business card in Manhattan’s skyline was co-opted with dispatches for economic justice.
“That made a big splash,” recalls Read. “Afterward, me and my co-conspirators got it in mind to do something mobile.”
The projections may have been a hit, but the Occupy movement as a whole was facing big challenges at the time that slogans wouldn’t solve. With the encampment gone, images of Occupiers huddled against the cold on one of the most valuable patches of concrete on the planet ceased filling the news cycle. With Occupy dead to the press, donations slowed to a trickle. That’s when Ben Cohen’s name — the Ben of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream — began cropping up in activist circles across the city. Here was a multi-millionaire who sympathized with the movement, who was willing to put up some cash. The only catch was, the money would come from Cohen directly, and not through Occupy’s General Assembly or Spokes Council, two bodies that had been established during the occupation to ensure a democratic decision-making process.
Debates raged over the implications of taking the ice-cream man’s cash, at times threatening to split the movement. Some activists took a pragmatic view, arguing that money is money and expressing frustration at the tedium and inconstancies of the movement’s own assemblies. They pointed to Cohen’s movement-building fund as a way to bypass all the anarcho-bureaucracy surrounding Occupy and get projects done. Others were skeptical, warning that Cohen was undermining the movement’s democratic structure. The case of the Illuminator is one example of how, months later, that contentious debate has played out.
Mark Read says he met Cohen at a meeting in January, and the millionaire agreed to put $37,000 toward the Illuminator van. “Ben described himself as a steward for the movement,” Read remembers. “And that was really important to me. I didn’t want to build a really cool toy for a millionaire. I wanted to create a political project for Occupy Wall Street.”
Rocky road ahead
With funds at his disposal, Read got in touch with some welder buddies of his at the Madagascar Institute in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, he also pulled together an array of activists and formed a collective to manage the van’s operations. All along, the idea was for the Illuminator to be a resource for the Occupy movement. In addition to its namesake, the rooftop projector, the van also doubles as a library on wheels during the day. “The vision was to have this very spectacular kind of declarative thing,” says Read, “but to also have a library which would open up a conversational space in the spirit of Occupy to discuss ways to get out of the crisis we face — the environmental crisis, the economic crisis — these terrible problems that our political leadership seems so unwilling or unable to address.”
Viewed in this light, the Illuminator is like an ambulance — only, instead of a siren, a projector protrudes from its roof; instead of bandages, the van carries books as a way to heal social wounds inflicted by the 1 percent. Since their formation, the crew members have worked to aid activists and communities engaged in on-the-ground struggles — whether they be feminist punks imprisoned in Russia, or tenants in Sunset Park, Brooklyn challenging a slum lord — by shining light on injustice and opening up a dialogue. “Wall Street has its tentacles everywhere,” says Lucky Tran, who designs and orchestrates many of the crew’s projections. “The best thing we can do is highlight that they are everywhere. We can bring the ideas of a discursive, open, horizontal space to neighborhoods everywhere and point out that all these grievances are connected.”
The Illuminators have faced difficulties in their efforts, but nothing has held them back. There are no laws in New York City against light projections — though that hasn’t stopped the police from stalking the activists. Tran says police often find excuses to stop the van, like accusing passengers of not wearing seat belts. During one pull over, an officer from the First Precinct in Lower Manhattan allegedly told a member of the Illuminator crew that Commissioner Ray Kelly himself had given orders to keep on the van’s trail. For Tran and comrades, the attention is a sign that their subversive activities are having an impact. “Policing in this city is not content-neutral, especially when it comes to Occupy. When you’re successful, then you’re threatened more.”
What’s putting the breaks on the mobile projection unit, however, isn’t the cops. Despite providing the backing for the project to get off the ground, Ben Cohen has given the Illuminator crew notice that on October 1 he’ll be repossessing the van. While Mark Read had expected Cohen to be just another member of the newly-formed collective, as the project went through birth pangs, the ice cream man got cold feet. The van hit snags both technical and logistical; there were problems keeping the Illuminator’s battery running for extended periods of time after an alternator blew out and, since most of the crew were volunteers with day jobs, the van was only leaving the garage three or four nights a week.
Read says Cohen was beginning to express disappointment as early as April Fool’s Day. “After agreeing to operate democratically, according to the principles of Occupy, he decided it wasn’t going the way that he wanted it to go and started to assert his rights as property owner.” Rather than work in collusion with activists immersed in a variety of Occupy projects, Cohen wanted the van to simply cruise about town advertising projects dear to his heart, which of late has been a get-money-out-of-politics campaign.
Eventually, a dual-custody agreement was drawn up wherein the van would divide its nights between Read, Tran and comrades, and someone hired by Cohen to follow his orders. On October 1, that agreement expires, and Cohen gets full custody of the Illuminator. In a response to written questions, Cohen said, “If somebody offers anybody money to do anything, nobody has to take it,” adding, “We will never accomplish any of the changes we seek if we continue to spend our limited time and energy battling with ourselves.”
Nonetheless, for Read, his experience with Cohen offers a lesson that he hopes other activists can learn from. “There are people with money who want to be helpful, and I think Ben Cohen is amongst them. The problem is control. People who have succeeded in the business world are often accustomed to a high degree of control. Our grassroots movements don’t really work that way, with a top-down hierarchical style. They work slower and organically and conversation is really important.”
To preserve their autonomy, Read and company have launched a crowd-funding campaign to collect contributions from multiple donors. They plan to use what funds they collect to create a fleet of projectors slapped to bicycles and to spread their technical knowledge to activists in other cities. The activists see crowd-funding as a way for themselves to be held accountable going forward by a movement of their peers rather than a wealthy individual.
“Ultimately,” Read says, “it’s people who make up a movement, and it’s up to us to decide what that movement looks like. In the words of Paulo Freire, ‘We make the road by walking.’”
Yet if Freire, that renowned educator of the dispossessed, ever came across the Illuminator, parked in Harlem with shelves of free radical lit for the taking, or overshadowing the facade of skyscrapers in Manhattan’s financial hubs of power with rebel light, he might say, “We make the road by driving.”
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