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 freetibet2008.org, 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.”