Friday, March 14, 2008

The spirit of Ghandi or: how to break into prison

I woke at 4:30. Today's the big day. We plan to cross the Kangra district border soon after dawn, the action expressly forbidden to us by the police on the first night. The previous evening, over the best meal of the march, I asked my friend Leki how the monks felt with the possibilities of tomorrow looming over them. He replied beautifully in a slow speech as he searched for the words, "We are ready. We have been talking about this for three days. We have no fear. They can beat us, they can kill us but we will continue until we reach our home. We are ready."

And on the next morning, their courage never faltered. We turn a corner to see about 100 police officers across the road with two police vans next to them. The 100 monks walk in two rows towards the officers and quietly sit in front of them. The support marchers sit behind them with your faithful correspondent sitting next to a monk, arms locked together. The police quickly grab the poet/activist Tenzen Tsundue and I heard it took eight policeman to shove him into a vehicle. Then the officers started to slowly separate the passive monks from each other.

It did not appear that many of the officers relished this job. The monks carried photos of Ghandiji alongside the Dalai Lama's beaming face. I think the officers respected the monks for their nonviolent resistance but they had a job to do. Some monks simply went completely limp while other hung onto each other for dear life. About twenty strongly resisted by grabbing onto anything to slow their progress and giving the officers a difficult time. Every monk sat quietly with a determined look on his face until his turn came to resist the officers.

Tibetan girls near me quietly cried. I saw in photos afterwards how they put up one of the toughest fights. Only female officers could touch them and it took them a long time to separate as they cried, clinging to each other. One of the girls dove underneath a police van as she got drug close to it. She held onto the underside until they finally forced her off and into the van.

It took quite a while to drag most of the monks to the van before they reached those around me. Officers tried to pull us apart and I lost the arm of the young man next to me. I grabbed the monk in front of me and clung to his back like a cancer. My meager wrestling skills finally pay off because the officers never separated us. They had to get a bunch of officers to carry the double body over to the van. I loved my partner. We worked together so well. As they shoved us completely into the van feet first, he planted his leg against a seat and pushed back. That allowed me to get my foot on bar and push back farther. He got his leg on the first stair and pushed us all the way out of the van again. This really pissed them off and I got a good kick to the back by one asshole. I kicked him back before yelling an apology. Nonviolence does not come to me easily. More cops came over to help with us and two people later told me they didn't get taken because so their cops left them to help force me and my partner into the van. After a lot of pinching and shoving, they pushed us in and closed the door. Eight other foreigners got put onto the bus and I can't wait to upload a video of my good friend Jim, an older man (sorry Jim) who made it tough as hell to carry him into the van, shouting peace slogans the entire time.

The monks in the bus chanted and sang while tears ran down many faces. Tears of frustration and sadness, not of fear. These young men impressed me like few others I have ever known. These warriors fought back without using the easier path of violence. Not only do they plan to quietly resist the Indian police who handle them with kid gloves, they plan on marching into China with no embassy to protect them and no assurance that they will survive. They simply want to go home and will give their lives for this cause.

At the prison, everyone quietly marched through a corridor filled with rebar (remember this for later) to the three cells set aside for the monks. Only Jim and I entered the cells because we would not leave the monks. Our cell leader quieted the patriotic chants to announce a hunger strike. I held hands with the young man on either side of me, drawing comfort from their fearlessness, as I sang Amazing Grace over and over.

The police soon came into to release me. I said not without my friends. I should not be treated any differently from them. To each visitor, I just said the same thing once and then stared straight ahead. Tara, a visiting professor from Emory who teaches Tibetan history at a university here, came in as my liaison. I know she wanted to be inside these cells as well but they asked her to be the contact for the foreigners. I'm glad because I respected her opinion. She came into to tell me that the march organizers would prefer I not get arrested but I could stay if I felt like it. Anybody in my position would have done the same. You could not have looked at the other men in the cell and done anything differently.

I kept refusing the police advances until Tara came again. She simply said come with me. I thought we might be going for registration of some sort before I would return to the cell. As I turned the corner, I saw all the other foreigners standing by the stairs to the outside and I realized I could not go back. I almost felt sick to my stomach. I did not want to leave them. Once outside, I asked Tara if the march organizers had any good reason for me to not be arrested and possibly generate a little more press coverage. She had no idea why they might want me free and she understood my feelings on being outside. Well, then if they had no good reason for me to be free, so be it.

I bought two bottles of water and waited at the entrance while the other Westerners sat outside the door to the jail to sing songs and stage a sympathy hunger strike. Once the cops moved closer to the entertainment, I sprinted through the front door and down the stairs. I took the corner fast and scared the hell out of two female officers as I almost ran into them. I sprinted down the corridor, tripped on the rebar and face planted onto the concrete. I thought they had me but nobody but the women had reacted yet. I turned the next corner and came in sight of the cells. Many officers milled around outside and I tried to rush the door to get the water inside. Some cops grabbed me from behind and I tried to whip the bottles into cell. I managed to hit the head honcho in the shoulder. I shouted my apology as I lost my shirt in my struggle to get closer to the door. I managed to grab a Tibetan hand reaching out through the officers and that's all I needed. They yanked me into the cell and rushed me back to my old seat in the corner. It felt great to be back.

Soon, two men working on the march came in to tell me that I should not be arrested. They said a journalist can do more good on the outside. I replied I'm not a real journalist and I'll sadly generate much more coverage by being in prison. I said I'd only listen to Tara. They worked at me for a few minutes before they left. Tara came in and told me that I just refused to listen to the main march organizers. She told me she understood how I felt but it's best for the cause if I came out. So, in one of the most moving moments of an emotional day, I went around and hugged goodbye to each of these fearless young men. Three friends from a farming village in Karnatka. A monk who barely escaped the chinese police when he fled from Tibet years ago. The guys on either side of me in the cell. My partner during the arrest. A young guy from Nepal with a peach fuzz mustache who can't resist giving the peace sign to everyone in sight. Many had tears in their eyes and two gave me their flags to keep safe. As I reached the stairs to the outside, I sat down and bawled.

I must point out, I am not trying to paint myself as brave for running back into the cell. I simply wanted to see my friends again. I know I am almost untouchable here. With my American passport, I can't expect worse than deportation. These men jeopardize their relationship with one of the only countries in the world that will accept them. They have everything to lose and boldly walk forward, heads held high, proud to be on their way home. All I did was pull a silly stunt. These young men are the truly brave peaceful warriors.

Of course, a large curious crowd gathered as the police drank chai, the foreigners sang and the chaiwallah makes a killing. I spent most of the day by myself. I did a radio interview for a station out of LA that focuses on Tibet issues. After a long day of waiting, as my chapped lips kept bleeding with every smile, they finally transferred the prisoners to the court where they initially got detained. As the support marchers followed the imprisoned monks, I returned to Dharamsala with a few others so I could produce the flurry of posting you now have to digest.

Here's some coverage of the arrest:
The excellent CNN video of the arrests taken by one of my new friends with a camera. CNN has several more videos but I think the lack of voiceover makes this one more powerful. Don't worry. I'm not in any of them. All you can ever see of me is a swarm of cops. There's not one good shot of me from the whole day.

Here's two links for my radio interview where I like the sound of my own recorded voice for the first time (as for my own live voice, I've been told lately that I might be addicted to it):
Link MP3
Link online radio (requires registration)


Unknown said...

"passively resisted like a banshee"
nice, lex.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant photos!