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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

An Olympic Moment

September 24, 2008

By Ernie Grimm
San Diego Reader
Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008

Jacob Blumenfeld delivered what was arguably the most courageous
performance by a San Diegan at the recent Beijing Olympics. And he
didn’t compete in swimming, track and field, or gymnastics but in the
far more dangerous game of international protest politics.

Like hundreds of thousands of international tourists, Blumenfeld, who
grew up in Del Cerro and the College Area and attended San Diego Jewish
Academy and Patrick Henry High School, flew to Beijing during the
Olympics. He looked forward to seeing the bustling capital and to
sampling food from its street vendors. He was disappointed. “I didn’t
see any poor people or vendors in the streets,” he says. “They’d all
been pushed out of the city for the Olympics.”

But street food wasn’t Blumenfeld’s real reason to visit China. On
August 19, at 11:48 p.m., he and four collaborators displayed a banner
in the plaza outside the Beijing National Stadium, better known as the
Bird’s Nest. It wasn’t just any banner. The canvas sign stretched 15
feet from end to end and stood about 4 feet tall. The 3-foot English
lettering, done in hundreds of blue light-emitting diodes, spelled out
“FREE TIBET.” The right side of the banner bore the same message in
Chinese characters.

In a video of the event, posted at, Blumenfeld’s
silhouette can be seen holding up the right side of the banner. In the
background stands the illuminated Bird’s Nest. Above the center of the
banner looms a three-pillared tower capped by the Olympic rings. The
video is only 20 seconds long because that’s all the time it took for
Chinese authorities to show up, tear down the banner, and arrest
Blumenfeld and his associates. (The cameraman, who was filming without
lights from 50 or so feet away, escaped detection by the authorities.)

“We didn’t expect to hold it for very long,” Blumenfeld, now a doctoral
student in New York City, says, “but we didn’t think it would be that
short either. But the point was that we would get it up and there would
be a photographer who would take the photo so that the message ‘Free
Tibet’ could get out to press globally and then to Tibetans who are
trying to make it.”

Their protest broken up, Blumenfeld and his coprotesters, all members of
a group called Students for a Free Tibet, weren’t allowed to leave.
“They took our banner down,” Blumenfeld recalls, “and they kept us on
that spot. It was pretty late, so they cleared the park of anyone that
wasn’t police. And they had tons of people taking pictures of us —
police photographers, I think. So we just sat there. We had a phone on
us, so we used it. We were talking to the media and our organization. We
were doing interviews on what we were doing and why we were doing it,
talking about Tibet and China. And they let us do that for about 30
minutes while they were calling their superiors. After about half an
hour to 45 minutes, they put us in a van and took us away. They took us
to this building nearby the Bird’s Nest. I couldn’t really read the
name, but it was some kind of university research building or something.
It had some kind of astrophysics name on it. They took us into this
building, and that is where they did the interrogations on us.”

The thought of interrogations by the Communist Chinese government inside
a research facility is enough to make a man nervous. And Blumenfeld
confesses to being a little scared. “But the fear was that they wouldn’t
tell us what was going to happen to us. We didn’t know if we would be
there for a week, ten days, or more.”

Blumenfeld’s fears were allayed by the fact that six groups of pro-Tibet
protestors had already been arrested in Beijing, “and almost all of them
were deported within a day. But there was a group that got grabbed the
same day as us; they stayed for five days.”

The university building the group was brought to, Blumenfeld says,
“wasn’t a cell, it wasn’t a police building, it was just some building
that wasn’t being used at night. When we got there, we stayed together
for a while, and they filmed us a lot more. Then they separated us, and
they did interrogations of each person for about an hour each.”

The questions were along the lines of “ ‘Who are you? Where do you live?
What work do you do? Have you been in China before?’ They had one guy
questioning me, and then three guys next to me, and one guy filming.
Three of them were in blue police uniforms. I don’t know if they were
local police or federal police. The guy who was the head guy, he was
wearing a polo shirt, and he was smoking. He didn’t speak any English,
but I felt like he was the authority in the room. One guy was asking me
questions in English, very bad English. And he would handwrite
everything that he would ask me.”

One question was so simple that Blumenfeld didn’t quite know how to
answer it. “He asked, ‘Where did you get this slogan, “Free Tibet”?’ It
was hard to understand what he meant by the question. A lot of times, I
said, ‘I am here because I care about Tibet and I think that Tibet
should be free and so do a lot of other people.’ But I never went into
any details about our action really.”

Blumenfeld says the interrogation was not the classic
bright-light-in-the-face scene one sees in movies. “For us it wasn’t
that bad, but some other people did get that. The group that protested
after us, they got some really bad treatment. They were tied to chairs,
and they were interrogated for, like, ten hours at a time.”

The Chinese officials seemed to assume that a bunch of activists in
their 20s — Blumenfeld is 26 — couldn’t be acting on its own initiative.
“They asked who was our leader, who organized this, if we got paid to do
this, did the government send us. They thought someone must have paid us
or that we were just tools of the Dalai Lama or something.”

After the interrogations, the interrogators attempted to reeducate
Blumenfeld and his friends on the subject of Tibet. “After we did the
interrogations, we just stayed in this room for, like, six hours trying
to sleep. And then this one guy just kept talking to us. He was trying
to befriend us, and he told us all these crazy things about the Dalai
Lama. How he is a big murderer and how the Tibetans kill people — just a
whole lot of crazy things. After a while we were on friendly terms and
we weren’t scared anymore, so we just told him, ‘That is not true.’ ”

After a night spent intermittently sleeping and listening to Chinese
propaganda regarding Tibet, Blumenfeld and associates were put in a van
and driven to the airport, where they were flown to New York at the
expense of the Chinese government. “They put us on an Air China flight.
They walked us all the way to the gate. It was funny, as we were at the
airport, there were almost always 10 to 20 police around us, but all in
plain clothes. We ran into another group of people being deported at the
airport. It was two British guys. We ended up walking to the same
terminal, and we noticed that they had all these people circling them,
and they said, ‘Oh, yeah, we are getting deported too — for scalping
tickets.’ ”
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