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James Powderly Back in NYC, Deported From China During Olympics Closing Ceremonies

Released after six days in jail, artist James Powderly and other activists for Tibetan rights were deported from China as the Olympics closing ceremonies were concluding on Sunday night in Beijing.

As reported on the Students for a Free Tibet website, the Chinese government, bowing to international pressure, released the detainees earlier than expected, in an effort to defuse bad publicity that had cast a shadow on the Olympic games.

Powderly has been debriefed in Artnet regarding his activities in Beijing, his arrest, his time in a Chinese jail, and his planned art activism going forward.

From the article:

The real cloak-and-dagger part of Powderly’s adventure began when he arrived in Beijing on Aug. 15 without a finished device. "I assumed that I would do the prototyping in Beijing," he said. On Aug. 16, he made contact with a member of Students for a Free Tibet, and did a "suitcase swap," giving the activist a container of LED lights and batteries he had brought into the country, while the SFT representative gave him items he could repurpose to create his device, including a laser printer and transparencies. On Aug. 18, at an apartment on the outskirts of the city, he finished his prototype, testing it out by projecting two small-scale messages out of his window, using the test slogans "I<3 China" and "Free Beer" (both insider references to the power of wired activism). It was, he says, the only artistic project that he would get to do in China.

By this time, Powderly says that he had also become aware that he was being followed, having noticed a woman tailing him at the Beijing Wal-Mart Superstore, where he had picked up materials to complete the laser. Seeing the same woman once again on the subway, Powderly had pretended to be falling asleep, then threw himself abruptly from the car at his stop, believing that he had thereby lost her. Later, he met with a group of fellow activists at a bar to discuss the possibility that they were being surveilled -- only to be greeted outside by the same woman, and a large team of secret police. Powderly was seized, along with the other "Free Tibet" activists: Brian Conley, Jeff Goldin, Tom Grant, Michael Liss and Jeffrey Rae.

The six Americans were taken in SUVs to what Powderly describes as a "Russian Hotel," where they were interrogated extensively. "They alternated treating us politely, telling us it was a mistake and asking me what it was like to be an artist," then changed gears, "telling me that I was going to die in mainland China," Powderly recounts. "They would give you all the water you wanted, but they wouldn’t let you use the bathroom. They would give you cigarettes, but they wouldn’t let me take my medicine for Crone’s disease." He says that the Chinese secret service had emails, text message communications and transcripts of their phone calls, already translated into Chinese. After hours of interrogation, the six were driven to Chongwen Detention Center outside of Beijing, where they were stripped, given medical examinations and uniforms, and put into the general population.

Actual jail time is highly unusual for American activists detained in China. In fact, even the activists who successfully unfurled the LED "Free Tibet" in front of the Olympic Stadium on Aug. 19 were simply deported after a few hours. Powderly and his cohorts, on the other hand, were summarily sentenced to 10 days for "disrupting public order."

In jail, he says, they were kept in a state of uncertainty as to their fate. Powderly was held in what he describes as a 10 x 5 meter cell, shared with numerous other prisoners. Among his cellmates was "Emmanuel," a Ghanaian man who had a PhD in economics who spoke Mandarin and English, but who had overstayed his visa, and a man named "Roger," who was from Cameroon, and who also had an expired visa. Another cellmate was a 51-year-old Mongolian man who claimed to have no idea why he was there. None knew how long they would be held.

Activities in Chongwen were strictly regimented. "Thirty minutes standing, thirty minutes walking in a circle, two hours of nap, and so on," Powderly recounts. Each day, he was taken to the "Inquisition Room," which the artist describes as "blood-spattered, really like something from a movie," where he was sat in a metal chair and asked the same set of questions about what he had been planning and what he was doing in China over and over again. "After a while, the questions became pretty pointless," he said.

After four days, Powderly and the others were allowed to go to the U.S. embassy, where they were told that there was little that could be done for them. They could only hope that the Chinese would hold them for no longer than the 10-day sentence. After six days, the six activists were released and Powderly returned to New York. As a parting gesture, the Chinese secret service agents who drove him to the airport took the $200 from his wallet.

Powderly Coverage Mushrooms!

The Rocketboom interview embedded above is now featured in hipster sites across the internet. Newspapers are picking up the story, mostly smaller, niche or arts-related organs, but the mainstream is bound to follow. It's interesting to see how a story gets altered, both on facts and emphasis. There is a bandwagon mentality in journalism, a laziness and tendency to hyperbole. The internet puts this tendency on steroids.

A story filed today in The Brooklyn Paper contains the following:

Powderly said that prison guards believed — correctly — that he was the man who assembled the laser but not the protest’s organizer. They accused him of trying to “murder China,” he said.

“We know that you didn’t murder China, but you made the knife and you’re going to take credit for it — unless you show us the hand,’ they said in some kind of rehearsed English line,” Powderly said.

Safely back in his Grand Street apartment, Powderly told The Brooklyn Paper how he was deprived of sleep, water, food, and medicine, cuffed into painful positions, and had $2,000 stolen from his bank account — “non-lethal methods of waging war on people” that he considers “just as insidious as waterboarding.”

Notice how an initially reported $200 lifted from his wallet has become $2000 stolen from his bank account.

Police brought the Americans to the basement of an upscale restaurant where they were each held in individual rooms and interrogated for 26 straight hours.

“They were grilling us about who we were and what we were doing,” said Powderly, who had successfully assembled a laser in Beijing and projected “Free Beer” on a wall, but had not yet made any kind of political statement when he was arrested. “We had all agreed in advance that we would treat them like mushrooms — feed them bullshit and keep them in the dark.”

Not to make light of the ordeal, but grilling, free beer, mushrooms, basement of an upscale restaurant. It sounds like a film treatment being pitched over stir fry. Anyone for vegetable lo mein?

Powderly said that the police knew that he and his collaborators were involved in some kind of political protest — but their high-tech projection lasers had convinced Chinese authorities that they were more dangerous than most foreign activists.

Lasers and death rays! The Hollywood B-film legacy lives on! Even Chinese security cadres are not immune.

After more than a day of continuous questioning, cops drove the artists and activists — who assumed they were headed to the airport for deportation — to a Beijing jail, where they were stripped, photographed, screened, separated from each other, and placed in cells with other prisoners.

Powderly joined 11 other prisoners in a cell with only eight beds, no potable water, and bright lights that illuminated the tiny room 24-hours a day to keep the detainees from sleeping.

“When I first got put into a detention cell I thought I was going to have to fight someone like a mad man or get owned — then this guy gives me a blanket and a candy bar, and I’m thinking I’m already being made his bitch,” he said.

We are the victims of American crime melodrama: too many cop and prison reality shows, too much hip hop argot, too many jailhouse tats, too much gangbanging, too many crime scene investigators and special victims units.

“But it turns out that none of these people had committed crimes — they were all there for visa issues and paperwork problems, and they were doing everything they could to help each other survive.”

It seems Powderly and his co-detainees were sent to a white collar facility, for bad check artists and visa scofflaws, and not incarcerated with violent felons. Although it is difficult to assess the Chinese criminal code for its viewpoint regarding levels of offense. Over there, especially during a high visibility event like the Olympics, everything seems to escalate into a serious crime against the people.

Despite the camaraderie between the captives, prison life was anything but comfortable.

Whenever Powderly was able to fall asleep, guards awoke him, brought to a caged interrogation room, cuffed him tightly around the waist to a metal chair that sat atop an intimidating bloodstain, and questioned him about the plot “to murder China,” he said.

Throughout his incarceration, Powderly survived on a hard-boiled egg for breakfast, and a bowl of rice and broth for lunch and dinner. The tap water in the cell was undrinkable, so the prisoners shared bottles of lukewarm shower water. Despite daily requests, Powderly was never given his medication for the stomach disease Crohn’s.

... Before Powderly and the other artists were released, cops removed $2,000 from their bank accounts — fees police said would cover airline tickets to America.

When some of the activists refused to fork over their cash, police roughed them up, Powderly said.

Hours later, the artists and activists were en route to Los Angeles, gladly pigging out on airline food — which didn’t sit well for Powderly after a week of meager portions.

But the cash — and his lunch — weren’t the only thing that Powderly lost in the ordeal.

“Initially, I was thinking that everything was fine,” he said. “I had this big smile on my face — I was ready to soak up all the famousness, but then it dawned on me: I’m going through all the stages of traumatic stress. I had something when I went in that I didn’t leave with. Torture strips you of something you can’t get back.”

Powderly has been through hell, no argument on that score. He has been radicalized. His artistic practice, which already tended to street activism and political statement, will undoubtedly be finely honed into a sharper "knife" by this experience. The legacy for his art making remains to be seen.

But what I find interesting is how news coverage of the event tends to morph, to concur with the established conventions of genre. How a fictional narrative arc, culturally mandated by years of watching crime, prison and spy movies and TV shows, imposes itself on the story. And not merely in the reporting of the incident, but quite likely even during the actual unfolding of events. The protagonists tend to play the roles set down by the genre. Even Powderly himself is not immune. He played "spy" on the subway and didn't want to be a "bitch" in the hoosegow. It certainly influenced the security cadres, who assumed by-the-book, tough guy personae. There is no escape. We have all been culturally colonized by Hollywood. I am sure there are already a dozen movie treatments, based on this incident, being pimped over lunch at Spago, or wherever the "Industry" likes to meet these days.

Re: Seeking for Mr James Powderly contact

I need to contact directly Mr James Powderly.We shared the situation in chinese jail......I need his e-mail or phone contact please.