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

Ben & Jerry's founder Ben Cohen, who helped finance the project, has threatened to repossess the Illuminator van. But that's not stopping the Illuminator team.

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.