Benjamin Wittes/Benjamin Wittes
Anti-war activists engaged in a light beam battle against Russian diplomats in Washington, DC, on Wednesday night in a show of disapproval over the country’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
Activists spent hours projecting the Ukrainian flag onto the exterior walls of the Russian Embassy with ultra-bright light.
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a leading protester, said the group was protesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the killing of Ukrainians.
“We wanted to follow the rules and how we expect these properties to be treated,” he told NPR. “[We] also wanted to invade it and make it look like they couldn’t escape the glare of the world’s judgment.”
Wittes said the Russian Embassy, located about 3 miles northwest of the White House, has been an attractive target for some time. It is a tall white building with windows extending from top to bottom in slender columns. He remembers looking at the Embassy and thinking, “It looks like a big projection screen.
A floodlight operator at the Russian Embassy spent nearly four hours trying unsuccessfully to dim two huge blue and yellow flags projected against the wall outside the embassy.
Secret Service agents watched protesters across the street carefully maneuver flags up and down and side to side in an effort to be as ‘intrusive and invasive’ to the occupants of the building. embassy as legally possible, Wittes said.
Little did he know that Phil Ateto, another DC activist, had had the same idea.
Ateto is an organizer with the Backbone Campaign, a free speech advocacy group that promotes change through protests, with experience in light projection protests. But the equipment needed for this type of event is not cheap.
It took just under a dozen protesters, including Ateto and Wittes, to set up 14 lights, four gas generators, stalls and more Wednesday afternoon. In total, there was $10,000 of equipment used.
However, Ateto got the lighting for free through Keith Gifford, the equipment hire manager at Atmosphere Lighting, who said he had no qualms about lending protesters the tools they needed. .
“I think making things a little uncomfortable for the Russian government officials in town here might not be a bad thing,” Gifford told NPR. “It’s publicity and awareness of the problem. It annoys Putin in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone.”
Set the plan in motion
Protesters spent several hours setting up the lights on Wednesday afternoon.
By the time the sun went down, they had a searchlight ready to roll on the roof of a building across from the Embassy and another set up on the lawn in front. But soon after he started blasting the building with blue and yellow, the property manager asked Wittes and Ateto to turn off the lights and come down from the roof.
The pair doubled down and used two lights at ground level. Wittes documented the protests through a series of posts and a live video on Twitter, which had more than 2 million views Thursday night.
In the video, Wittes can be heard recounting a cat-and-mouse game between Ateto operating one of the lights and presumably a Russian Embassy staff member using a white spotlight. Protesters turned on the lights for around four hours, only stopping when the generators ran out of gas.
All in all, it was “an interesting little adventure,” Wittes said.
Wittes isn’t done yet, he says. Following a recommendation from another protester, Wittes plans to plant sunflowers, which have become a representation of the Ukrainian resistance, in a vacant lot opposite the embassy on Saturday afternoon.
“The idea is to make embassy staff look at Ukrainian nationality symbols even as they try to erase them,” Wittes said.