A Strange, Surreal Vision of Solar-Powered Riots


Watching tens of thousand Bay Area residents take to the streets yesterday, including thousands from the University of California, Berkeley, it's impossible not to hear the echoes of the 60s and 70s protest movements centered in the region. It was not surprising to see many #occupyoakland supporters tweeting, "We're making history today" because the East Bay has so much existing protest history. There's a tradition into which people can connect their current struggles.

That said, this protest is at least trying to break free from the warmed-over Dylanness of many marches. That got me thinking about other attempts at outsider protests and a strange piece of fiction by solar pioneer Steve Baer called, "The Sun Riots." Baer, who has run a successful solar company for decades, imagined a protest in a dystopian future that used the sun as its weapon against authority. I'm not endorsing the violence, but I think everything from the tone to the metaphorical message bears inspection.

The lower floor offices of city hall and the police department have been gutted by fire. Black streaks surround the windows which are now shiny with aluminum foil. The police are still unable to confiscate mirrors; the matter is in the courts.

A week earlier at a demonstration a large van was driven next to the crowd. The driver, a swarthy man of about 40, opened the back doors and began passing out one foot square mirrors. "Give 'em some sunshine."

A few dozen mirrors began playing beams of sunlight on a police car that had been dogging the rear end of the demonstration. The officers were caught by surprise. The driver managed to back the car down the street, but not before his partner, panicked by the glare and the rapidly rising temperature, had jumped out and run. More and more mirrors were out in the crowd now. The crowd glinted like a bank of crystals.

The mirrors couldn't reach the police car, which had found protection behind a drive-up liquor store. The man with the van now stood on top of the store. "Let's burn it up, yeh -- this!"

His voice is hoarse and breaking. A few mirrors flit across the van and the man on top. More focus on the tin side. The man climbs off. People are pulling the last mirrors from inside the van as the others begin to focus on it. There are 800 mirrors out in the street.

The crowd is silent. The blob of brilliant light on the side of the truck is fringed with trembling squares of light flitting in and out of target. You can hardly hear a noise. Then the sheet metal side of the van "oil cans" as the van swells. A few more moments and smoke appears. The crowd has results. That was at 11:0am -- by dark there have been 100 fires.

The police appear with arc welders' masks. They fire on the protesters. The demonstrators disperse, but the light keeps coming. More mirrors appear on the street. Funny shaped mirrors -- mirrors with ornamental frames, tiny pocket mirrors in the hands of children.

Smoke is seen from another part of town. Television crews arrive. The footage in the evening news across the nation is over-exposed -- an occasional clear image and then the picture goes white and overexposed.

The mirror crowds are completely silent. They move everywhere on foot. A secretary at City Hall says, "They just looked so funny -- a whole crowd of them standing just as still as could be holding onto those mirrors and then pretty soon the store across the street was burning."

"Get those damned kids with mirrors off the street."
"But officers, I'm just usin' this mirror 'cause I'm comin' my hair -- no law against combin' your hair, is there?"

Dozens of youths in the street combing their hair peering into gigantic foot square mirrors.

And that's it. Just that snippet. What a strange mix of metaphorical energy policy statement and protest fiction.

Image: From Sunspots, by Criss-Cross Art Workshop.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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