Image bombing for justice

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Rachel Sheldon (left) and Alistair Elliott of Never Again Tennessee set up a projector on the fourth floor of the State Street Garage. Photo submitted.

A group of local activists staged what was believed to be Knoxville’s first-ever “projector bombing” Thursday night in downtown Knoxville. Organizers said they were opposed to the pending execution of Pervis Payne, a Tennessee death row inmate who is believed by many legal experts to be innocent.

The crew of a half-dozen masked protesters from Never Again Tennessee, an activist group whose name is an allusion to the Jewish Holocaust and who focus on immigration and prison issues, drove to the fourth floor of the State Street Garage about 9:15 p.m.

For the next 15 minutes they scrambled to set up a 4,100-lumen video projector. They drew no attention from passersby or police, as they looked like any generic group of young people cutting up after a night on the town.

Suddenly a 50-foot tall video message appeared on the back of the Regal Riviera building: “Pharaoh (Governor Lee) Let Pervis Payne Go.” The column of light projected the phrase onto the opposite structure in letters that could be seen from as far away as the Weigel’s station on Summit Hill Drive. 

Most of the crowd on the sidewalks below seemed perplexed or bemused by the display.  After around a half-hour of rotating messages onto the wall on the other side of State St., the group hurriedly disassembled the projector and took off in different vehicles.

The idea of using a projected image as a type of graffiti that can me made to disappear at will has an obvious appeal to protesters. It was first pioneered in Europe a few years ago and has since become a popular tactic among activists because gets a message across without committing acts of vandalism.

Miriam Greenberg, a Jewish activist from Knoxville, said the Passover holiday was meant to be a time to reflect on injustices suffered by others.

“As an organization centered on Jewish and immigrant voices, Never Again plans many of our actions around Jewish holidays,” Greenberg said. “Liberation is a common theme for Passover, which is why we chose to focus on fighting for Pervis Payne’s sentence to be commuted. Aside from actions like this one, we are also running a campaign asking people to call Governor Lee and ask for his sentence to be commuted.

 “As a Jew, I am disgusted that an innocent man could possibly be executed so closely following the Passover holiday.”

According to the Innocence Project, Payne was sent to death row for allegedly killing his girlfriend’s neighbor and her toddler daughter in Millington, Tennessee. Legal experts have since cast doubt on the evidence used to convict him.

There are 48 men and one woman currently on death row in Tennessee, according to the state Department of Correction.

“Payne didn’t have a chance,” said another one of Thursday night’s group, Rachel Sheldon. “His disabilities make it so that he was easily taken advantage of by the state. Even as an innocent man he had no way to defend himself against the charges. The actual murderer may still be out there on the streets.”

A projected message on the rear of the Regal Riviera on Thursday night. Photo submitted.

Published on April 2, 2021