The eyes of the world are focused on China today as the Summer Olympic Games open in Beijing. One big question centers on whether the Olympic Committee and the Chinese government will allow any public protests during the Games. We speak with an activist who was arrested in China and deported after unfurling a Tibet independence banner close to the main Olympic stadium. [includes rush transcript]
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The eyes of the world are focused on China as the Summer Olympic Games open in Beijing today. One big question centers on whether the Olympic Committee and the Chinese government will allow any public protests during the Games.
Earlier this year, the International Olympic Committee threatened to punish athletes who take part in protests. In an internal memo, the Olympic Committee said, “rules for athletes clearly state that the venues of the Games are not a place for proactive political or religious expression.”
However, some athletes have spoken out. On Thursday, more than forty Olympic athletes signed an open letter calling on the Chinese government to protect freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom of opinion in China as well as in Tibet. Signatories include Cuban hurdler Dayron Robles, US runner DeeDee Trotter, and Blanka Vlasic, the Croatian women’s world high jump champion.
International activists have managed to stage a few public protests in Beijing in recent days. On Wednesday, two American and two British activists with Students for a Free Tibet were detained after scaling two 120-foot-tall lampposts to unfurl Tibet independence banners close to the main Olympic stadium. One banner read “One World, One Dream: Free Tibet” in English, and the second read, “Tibet Will Be Free” in English and “Free Tibet” in Chinese.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by one of the activists, Phill Bartell. He was deported from China Wednesday and has just arrived in San Francisco. Phill Bartell is a tattoo artist who lives in Boulder, Colorado. He’s Buddhist. We’re also joined here in the firehouse studio by sportswriter Dave Zirin.
But, Phill, let’s turn to you first. What did you do in China?
PHILL BARTELL: Hi, Amy. Good morning. Let’s see. We approached the Olympics zone there, where the Bird’s Nest is and everything, and we managed to climb two of the major polls there on the intersection and deploy two banners, getting a message across to the worldwide media and to the Chinese government in solidarity with Tibetans protesting their brutal occupation of Tibetan Autonomous Region.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what happened once you unfurled the banner? What was the response of the Chinese authorities?
PHILL BARTELL: At first, there was a lot of confusion. I think they weren’t expecting anything of this magnitude to happen so close to the Olympic site. There was a lot of heavy security, especially in the days leading up to the protest. And fortunately, that morning, we were able to deploy and get our message across without much interference from security. And once we did get it up, they did — eventually, after about an hour or so, they brought in some fire trucks and a lot of police came and started screaming at us to come down. And eventually they used the fire trucks with ladders to bring down the banners after we had already come down. And then we were taken into custody and taken to a police station.
AMY GOODMAN: Phill Bartell, why is this so important to you? And how, ultimately, did they get you out of the country, the Chinese government?
PHILL BARTELL: Well, this is an opportune moment right now. This is the first time in major history that China has such a spotlight on it and there’s such an international interest, especially from the media and the world around the Olympics. So we basically took that interest and used that spotlight that they’ve been trying to use to propagate their illegitimate claims on Tibet and kind of sweep Tibet under the carpet of China, and so we used that spotlight to bring attention to the world of what’s going on in Tibet right now, all the atrocities with Tibet’s — I mean, Beijing government basically right now is trying to show the world that, you know, this wonderful situation is happening in Tibet, when we know that, you know, foreign journalists are not allowed inside. No one is allowed to enter Tibet. Lhasa is in crackdown. People have disappeared. There are major, major human rights abuses going on there, and it’s not very far from the Olympic venue. And so, we really wanted to bring that to light and raise the Tibetan flag at the Beijing Olympics. And it’s working.
AMY GOODMAN: Phill Bartell —-
PHILL BARTELL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much for being with us. He has just returned from China -— or I should say “deported” — where he was protesting on behalf of Tibetan independence. Phill Bartell is an activist with Students for a Free Tibet.