Occupy's 'Bat Signal': Working to Keep the Movement in the Spotlight
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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.’”