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Outside the RNC: showing free speech to a Chinese student

On Labor Day I was at home cooking supper with a graduate student from China when we heard on the radio about riots in downtown St. Paul. We looked at each other in shock. We had just returned from downtown, where I had proudly shown my visiting student America’s best example of democracy: Americans of different races and beliefs peacefully protesting government policies. It was a message I had tried to communicate to my students when I’d taught in China, and I had utterly failed. They had flatly disbelieved me.      

I now was hosting a student from China who was eager to see the events surrounding the Republican National Convention. I had worried when we arrived in Rice Park at 1 p.m. about getting caught up in violence, but there was no hint of it. My student excitedly took photos of the MSNBC broadcast stage outside Landmark Center.

“All these people out here,” she observed. “In China, when leaders meet; no one can come.” She then wondered if she could take photos of the many police and security people.  

I’ve lived in China and I understand taking photos can get you into trouble. I also saw that our own police and security people looked tense. I stepped forward, hands open in the universal show of no weapon, and asked an officer if my student from China could take his photo. He was pleased, but he wanted to know if he should smile or look tough.

“Smile,” I said. “You’re representing America.” He seemed perplexed for a moment, and then he beamed.

A gasp at signs for Falun Gong
We strolled around Rice Park until my student gasped at the sight of a couple of women with signs supporting Falun Gong. When I stopped to take their literature, one woman explained about the persecution of the followers of Falun Gong in China. When she realized my student was Chinese, she made it very clear she was not against the Chinese people, but against the Chinese regime. My student listened with a furrowed brow and took the literature.
 
Around the corner, we were offered free hats and a disc with a photo of Michael Moore looking happy on the cover. “What’s it about?” I asked. The two young men explained it was a very funny movie that gave an alternative to the liberal bias of the media. I told them I didn’t agree there was a liberal bias and explained why. They listened closely and looked a bit shaken. I assured them I would watch the movie and said we must always keep talking to each other – always. They happily agreed. When we were out of earshot, my student examined the disc, frowned and asked if it was legal. I assured her it was.   
 
I knew a peace march was scheduled but saw no sign of it, so I consulted a park ranger. “Be careful if you go in that direction,” he admonished.  In fact, I was quite worried about getting caught in a crowd. When panic sets in, people get foolish. However, I can’t imagine a better way to learn about democracy than watching American protesters. It didn’t take long to find the mass of peace marchers.   

My student was thrilled.  No wonder, because it was real America, a beautiful nation of disagreement. 

Amazing array of issues
Some of the marchers were marching against the Iraqi war; others carried a huge inflated world to represent environmental issues. There were Oromos demanding Ethiopia get out of their country, Code Pink demanding America get out of Iraq. Somalis carried a sign I couldn’t read; a group of Hmong people marched for immigrant rights. Along came George W. Bush dressed as a groom holding the hand of John McCain dressed as his bride. My student was amazed.

“Is it legal?”

“Yes it’s legal.”

Out came her camera and we stepped into the march to get a good photo. We returned to the curb. Above us was one helicopter. “Security?” she asked. “Yup,” I replied. She was impressed. “If this was China, there would be 20 helicopters above.” 

Then we watched Israelis with a cause written in Hebrew; a few Jews for Jesus; people representing President Bush, Vice President Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wearing prisoner stripes and chained together; and angry-looking people carrying black banners written in another language. I had to jump into the march again to ask them what they were saying; it was a list of names of allied Iraqis who had died in Iraq.

Police looked tense
No one was getting unruly, but I saw the police were tense and had lined up shoulder to shoulder blocking cross roads. I thought it was an extraordinary number of police, but my student disagreed. “There would be many more in China.” 
 
We walked miles in downtown St. Paul on Labor Day. We saw some 10,000 people in the march and walls of police – and all were peaceful.  I only saw one man and woman, dressed in very good clothes, arguing with the police. The man and woman had badges on lanyards around their necks. They were trying to cross the police line, but the police would not allow them, despite their angry admonishments to allow them to get back to the convention. That was the first time that day that I thanked the police for their work.

“It’s hard work,” I said, “Thanks for doing it.” Their faces softened; they nodded, appreciative. I quickly took my student to the other side of the street; I was worried there would be trouble.
 
A long walk home
We had to take a long, circuitous route back to my car, as the police would not allow us to walk back to the Rice Park area. We didn’t mind. My student was thrilled with her photos; she plans to send them to her friends in China. Along the way, I often thanked the police. I saw men and women doing a hard job, standing tensely with heavy gear fastened to their uniforms on a hot day. They had to be ready to take action but do nothing for hours. It’s a strain on a human being.   

During the three years I taught in China I longed for dissent; I hungered for the cacophony of American voices in disagreement. Free speech is the crux of democracy, and to live in a democracy, to practice free speech, you have to be strong. It takes strength to calmly listen to people saying absolutely revolting stuff. I tried to explain that we do this in America to my students in China, but they never understood. How could they? What they had seen on China Central TV was footage of American police in riot gear tear-gassing and clubbing American citizens. 

Yes, that’s part of democracy, too, until we learn to speak and allow others to speak, until we learn to listen and until we are heard. May we be strong enough to keep learning. Democracy scares the Chinese. Let’s not let it scare us. 
 
Reva Rasmussen is a nurse and writer in the Twin Cities. She blogs about China at blog.revarasmussen.com.


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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/03/2008 - 08:55 am.

    This was an interesting article; a guided tour for one student from China through the streets of downtown St Paul; site of many demonstrations of dissent the last few days and more to come. It was like a “Dick and Jane” version of what-happens-here…’Dick’ being the cop, and ‘Jane’ being the protestor.

    All I can say is…run Spot run.

    What was missed was what could have been one great souvenir for the observing foreign student…one of those empty tear gas containers rattling in the gutter near Mears Park

  2. Submitted by Tom Poe on 09/04/2008 - 09:07 am.

    Some would call the article, interesting. I call it appalling, if true. Hopefully, Reva will have the good sense to have the Chinese student type in the URL, wwww.democracynow.org and spend a few minutes watching, reading, listening to Amy Goodman’s account of her arrest during the time she was on her tour.

    I hope Reva takes a moment, and visits the site, http://twitter.com/coldsnaplegal, and reads back to the posts that were coming in while she was touring the dissent. I really hope Reva makes time to take her Chinese student to their offices, and discusses the topic of dissent in our country, today. It’s a great responsibility to host a Chinese student. It’s even greater responsibility to be honest. In America, we don’t have to ask a policeman for permission to take their photo.

  3. Submitted by Reva Rasmussen on 09/05/2008 - 01:51 pm.

    Tom,
    I very much appreciate your comments and concerns. I had been reading about Amy Goodman and all the arrests everyday. I understand that those arrests are a danger to us and the news is true.

    I also assure you that my story is true. It was astonishing to me when I got home to hear of the riots because they happened while I was not far from that area. Just goes to show that one cannot know what is happening when one relies only on your own experience.

    My point was that I saw 10,000 people peacefully marching. The reason I asked police to take their photo initially was because I could see how tense they were. It’s always good to approach tense people carefully. Maybe we should not have to, but it’s reality. Also, I wanted to keep thinking of the police as people like me, and remind them that I was a real human being. That’s why I kept talking to them all day.

    On our way home, my student and I stopped at the Guantanamo Cell at West 7th street and Walnut street. Amnesty International gave us a full explanation of the unlawful detentions and torture that have taken place in the name of democracy.

    I lived in China for 3 years. I was in China during the WTO meetings in Seattle in the year 2000 (or was it 2001?). China did a fabulous job covering what dissent looks like. I will never forget the photo in the Chinese newspaper of police in full riot gear clubbing demonstrators. Underneath was the headline in Chinese and English: This is democracy. Most Chinese think democracy is a joke. They don’t believe that 10,000 demonstrators can march for peace and make fun of our leaders. We did this on Labor Day. Despite the rioting elsewhere, we made fun on the hooligans.

    In American we are still struggling to practice democracy and free speech. I explained to my student that the Bush administration has attacked democracy in America. I said in my article that free speech is difficult to live up to, even to those of us who are totally committed to it.

    By the way, my student was offended by the article. She states that although she understands we have more freedom in America, no country is perfect and the Chinese are proud of China. She was not there to learn about democracy and why can’t Americans accept the Chinese having a different system?

    All I can conclude about all the above experiences is that we must guard free speech and keep working at tolerating each others’ thoughtful or even thoughtless opinions. We need to respect those countries that don’t have and don’t want democracy. We need to keep talking.

    Reva

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