At night, Fifth Avenue in Manhattan is overtaken by an odd contamination: not the everyday smothering of dirt and smog, but searing glow of street lamps and 24-hour storefronts that virtually bleaches out every surface. But last Tuesday, a team of renegade artists cut through the light pollution, as a nondescript white van stalked the corner of 47th and Fifth and peaked a boxy slide projector above the roof on an improvised platform — the post-Occupy armored vehicle of the activist response team known as the Illuminator. Silent projections of slogans suddenly lit up the facade of Leumi Bank: “Dignity strike,” “Financing Fascism,” slashed lines tallying up the number of days some 1600 people on the other side of the world have gone without food, who have been refusing food since mid-April in Israeli jails, to demand the one thing they prize more than their individual survival: the dignity of their people and freedom from occupation.
After Leumi, the Illuminator crew repeated the ritual at different sites with various relationships to the Israeli state and settlement building, another Israel-affiliated bank, the Israeli consulate, and City Hall. The group has staged similar actions at cultural institutions known to partner with Israeli state organizations, including the Guggenheim and Brooklyn Museum.
The protests aren’t mass rallies; they’re quiet bursts of resistance, framed for social media images that create freeze-framed, muted testimonies to the wider struggles and conflicts, playing a sort of hide-and-seek game with authorities and compensating for small numbers with tactical style. Last year, they staged a takeover of the Natural History Museum with a rogue tour to “celebrate” Columbus Day, which pointed out how each exhibit iconized the crimes of imperialism. They’ve also combined their historically-inflected protests with contemporary campaigns against gentrification and racist police violence in marginalized city neighborhoods.
With the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strikers — about 1500 empty stomachs who have galvanized a global campaign of defiance — the group’s light projections use stealthily translate the prisoners’ corporeal suffering onto a deceptively branded urban facade. It’s a complementary embodiment of the strikers’ deprivation, which in turn connects them back to estranged homeland from behind bars.
The Decolonize activists are working in a sharply different social landscape: they can move relatively freely, in one of the richest cities in the world, they operate within less visible constraints—the infrastructure of the financial industry, the surveillance and policing networks extending the talons of the carceral state across a society increasingly imprisoned by fear.
At the corner of 47th and Fifth, skulking around with a few other co-conspirators — mostly young veterans of local art and activist scenes — while waiting for the first light beam to deploy, Decolonize this Place co-founder Amin Husain said, “we just wanted to pay them a visit and let them know we know where they are, and let other people know that these are targets as long as the Israeli government doesn’t adhere to the demands of the prisoners, because there’s been a media blackout on this story,” For Husain, who abandoned his Wall Street job a few years ago to dive into the world of creative protest, the collective’s brand of digital-era agit-prop reflects older forms of subversion, from the classic “silent protest” of mass mourners in the public square to our human chains that wield voluntary self-restraint to act out and invert the violence of the state. “there’s agility in movement, to some degree, Husain says. “Because words over time stagnate.”
The Dignity Strike is one of many solidarity efforts around the world seeking to amplify the demands of the Palestinian prisoners: due process of law, family visitation, adequate medical treatment, and access to educational texts and basic schooling. But aside from these very simple quality-of-life demands, their chief goal in denying themselves food is simply to be recognized as human beings. Palestinians have survived a generations-long military assault aimed at erasing them from a contested landscape. Decolonizers in the US are making their singular struggle visible by distilling it into a universal vernacular resistance to colonialism in every corner that its money and ideology occupies. That means mobilizing against anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies under Trump on American soil, exposing long-buried colonial legacies in the monuments displayed in galleries and parks, or holding teach-ins on public school campuses the reclaim the urban spaces that are being privatized by corporate financiers.
The group’s Dignity Strike manifesto explains the connection between political complicity and the control of public space:
Far from an isolated and remote struggle with which we might choose to be in solidarity, the occupation of Palestine and the movement against it bear deep affinities with movements against displacement and dispossession in the United States, from Standing Rock to the Bronx….We are all implicated, to the point of complicity, in this toxic relationship between settler-colonial powers, which threatens to grow even closer with the new Trump administration.
So all these restive particles come together in a wave of light on Fifth Avenue, where the Decolonize team projects global voices in a way that physical bodies could never travel, breaking through the blinding glow of a midtown strip.
“Part of why we’re hitting multiple targets is actually the complexity of what does apartheid and occupation look like, and the role of Money. So it’s just like, this is a bank…with an art institution that does branding, and then city hall that is supposed to be representative of the interests of people, but yet they’re in the lobby’s pocket….we’re trying to do this mapping.”
Our feet can’t move freely across sites of shared struggle, but resistance still finds a way to follow every oppression, wherever it unfolds.