Protesters bring out the big gun, lightly

In the old days, a high-tech protester might amaze friends and intimidate foes by using a fancy stencil to paint uniform letters on a placard.

Welcome to the 21st century.

The bleeding edge of protest technology is known as the Finelite Scrolling Image Projector — a multi-image, generator-powered "light cannon" that can beam a message across the side of an eight-story building from a moving vehicle up to 250 feet away.

"It was kind of amazing," said Kaitlin Nichols of Jamaica Plain, a supporter of the Stop the Biolab Coalition, a community group protesting Boston University’s plan to build a federally funded lab to study lethal biological agents in the South End.

This month Nichols and a small team of under-30 activists deployed the projector for several days from the back of a truck, blasting anti-biolab messages in gigantic letters onto the sides of blank walls and local landmarks.

Although the lighting technique is dramatic and arguably intrusive, authorities had no complaints with the illuminated messages, according to the activists.

"They didn’t really care about the projections on the buildings. There’s no laws or rules about it yet," Nichols said. The nuisance factor of the noisy generator that powers the project was a different story. "Usually the projections would be up for 15 or 20 minutes before we’d have to take them down."

The idea of beaming public messages originated with the Ruckus Society , an Oakland, Calif., network that provides training and advice to mostly left-leaning activists of various causes.

"The question for us was, how do we use the resources we have to get the word out to as many people as possible?" Nichols said.

The projector didn’t come cheap, although Nichols said it cost less than traditional advertising. With rent and the cost of shipping the Finelite from an LA industrial lighting specialist, the total price ran to about $2,000, she said.

"It usually took two people to project and the rest were giving out fliers explaining what was going on," Nichols said. She said that while handing out fliers can be a tough sell on the streets of Boston, the novelty of the projection helped break the ice.

"If there’s a giant projection there, they’re like, ‘Oh! I’ll take the flier!’ " she said.

Nichols said the Finelite might come into play again as the biolab controversy continues. Because of the learning curve with the technology, the protesters lost a couple of days on the rental as they figured out how best to use the machine.

"I don’t think we fully used it. By the end of the week, unfortunately, we were just getting the hang of the projector," she said. "Doing it again would definitely be more effective; we’ll be able to project in more places and project more of the time."

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