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Meet the activists who projected a giant Ukrainian flag on Russia's Embassy in D.C.

Benjamin Wittes and a group of demonstrators in Washington, D.C., teamed up to project two large Ukrainian flags against the Russian Embassy for nearly four hours Wednesday night.
Benjamin Wittes
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Benjamin Wittes
Benjamin Wittes and a group of demonstrators in Washington, D.C., teamed up to project two large Ukrainian flags against the Russian Embassy for nearly four hours Wednesday night.

Anti-war activists engaged in a light beam battle against Russian diplomats in Washington, D.C., Wednesday evening in a display of disapproval over the country's ongoing war in Ukraine.

The activists spent hours projecting the Ukrainian flag on the Russian Embassy's exterior walls with ultra-bright light.

Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and one of the lead demonstrators, said the group was protesting Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the killing of Ukrainian people.

"We wanted to be respectful of the rules and how we expect these properties to be treated," he told NPR. "[We] also wanted to invade it and make it feel like they couldn't get away from the world's glare of judgment."

Wittes said the Russian Embassy, which sits about 3 miles northwest of the White House, had been an enticing target for some time. It's a large white building with windows running from top to bottom in slim columns. He recalled looking at the embassy and thinking to himself, "It looks like a big projection screen."

A spotlight operator at Russia's embassy spent nearly four hours unsuccessfully attempting to outshine two enormous blue and yellow flags projected against the wall outside the embassy.

Secret Service officers watched as the protestors across the street carefully maneuvered the flags up and down and side to side in an effort to be as "intrusive and invasive" to the embassy's occupants as legally possible, Wittes said.

Little did he know, Phil Ateto, another activist in D.C., had the same idea.

Ateto is an organizer with the Backbone Campaign, a free-speech advocacy group that drives change through demonstrations, with experience in light-projection protests. But the equipment needed for this type of protest isn't cheap.

It took just under a dozen protestors, including Ateto and Wittes, to set up 14 lights, four gas generators, stands and more Wednesday afternoon. In total, there was $10,000 worth of equipment used.

However, Ateto got the lighting for free through Keith Gifford, the equipment rental manager at Atmosphere Lighting, who said he had no qualms about lending the protestors the tools they needed.

"I think that making things a little uncomfortable for Russian government officials in town here is maybe not a bad thing," Gifford told NPR. "It's advertisement and bringing awareness to the issue. It annoys Putin in a way that doesn't harm anyone."

Putting the plan in motion

The demonstrators spent several hours setting up the lights Wednesday afternoon.

By the time the sun had set, they had one projector ready to roll on the roof of an apartment building across from the embassy and another set up on the lawn out front. But shortly after they began blasting the building with blue and yellow, the property manager asked Wittes and Ateto to kill the lights and get off the roof.

The pair doubled down on their efforts and used two lights from ground level. Wittes documented the protests through a series of posts and a livestream video on Twitter, which had over 2 million views as of Thursday evening.

In the video, Wittes can be heard narrating a game of cat and mouse between Ateto operating one of the lights and presumably a Russian Embassy staff member using a white floodlight. The protestors ran the lights for approximately four hours, only stopping when the generators ran out of gas.

All in all, it was "an interesting little adventure," Wittes said.

Wittes is not done just yet, he said. Following a recommendation by another protestor, Wittes plans to pant sunflowers, which have become a representation of Ukraine's resistance, in a vacant lot across from the embassy Saturday afternoon.

"The idea is to make the embassy staff look at symbols of Ukrainian nationhood even as they try and erase it," Wittes said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.