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Sunday, July 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘We can’t breathe’ projected on Spokane County Courthouse

UPDATED: Fri., June 5, 2020

A small team of activists used a projector to shine “We can’t breathe” on the tower of the Spokane County Courthouse this week. (Courtesy of Audwyn Cromwell)
A small team of activists used a projector to shine “We can’t breathe” on the tower of the Spokane County Courthouse this week. (Courtesy of Audwyn Cromwell)

A small team of activists used a projector to shine “We can’t breathe” on the tower of the Spokane County Courthouse this week in the aftermath of protests locally and across the nation against police brutality.

Spokane resident Steve Parker and his team shined other templates on the building that read “#SayTheirNames,” “Racism is the deadliest virus” and “#DefundThePolice.”

The group behind this statement and projections of protest that have gone viral in other cities across the nation is Backbone Campaign, based on Vashon Island in Washington.

Backbone Campaign has teams shining messages in about 37 U.S. cities, said Deputy Director Amy Morrison, from Spokane. In Washington D.C. this week, a projectionist shined “Demilitarize the Police” on a military style police truck.

“He was also using his light just as a spotlight, showing where there were snipers located on the roof and in windows,” Morrison said. “Cops with guns pointed at protesters. The crowd was really grateful because they were invisible otherwise.”

Parker and other projectionists in Spokane planned to project Sunday night before unrest broke out downtown. With tear gas and rubber bullets flying, Parker said they didn’t want to risk damaging equipment or getting hurt.

The team won’t decide whether to project during protests this Sunday until they’ve assessed their safety.

But in the relatively calm evening Thursday, couples stopped to take pictures and talk with the projectionists.

“The last couple that stopped to see us last night stayed there about 15 or 20 minutes and they were quite emotional,” Parker said. “The husband was a friend of David Novak who was killed by Spokane police in 2019.”

In January 2019, an officer shot Novak after he heard three bangs he believed were from a semiautomatic pistol. Novak, who was actually unarmed, did not comply with orders to get on the ground, said Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, who cleared the officer in August 2019.

Parker said for Spokane, national issues of police brutality are personal because of cases like Novak’s and the death of Otto Zehm. In 2011, a jury convicted Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. of needlessly beating Zehm, a man with developmental disabilities.

Bill Moyer, executive director of Backbone Campaign, said he’s been involved in activism for years, but something’s different now. People are paying more attention to Backbone’s projections, he said. This week at a protest in Seattle, he was pepper sprayed for the first time in his years of activism.

“I think a lot of new people are coming into the movement,” Moyer said. “I think things like projection, it’s satisfying for people to take space that stretches boundaries but still is righteous and legal. And a lot of folks aren’t used to being activists, they’re coming into this as frustrated folks.”

In this moment, Morrison said it’s important to provide simple messages. Though some of their projectionists use digital projection to incorporate more color and videos, the simple templates Backbone sends to its teams might be more effective.

“You only get about four words so you have to know what’s going to resonate with people on a heart level,” Morrison said. “We’re asking ourselves, what’s the message people have been feeling but haven’t articulated yet in their own minds?”

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