A personal first-hand account of the demonstration at Radio City Music Hall, July 17 2008
In the morning I took the subway from my apartment to Radio City Music Hall. Because there are so many Tibetans in my neighborhood I saw some people dressed in traditional Tibetan clothing who were probably headed to the Dalai Lama's teaching.
The first thing I noticed as I approached is that the chanting had already started. I was arriving just at 12noon and it wasn't scheduled to begin until 12:30pm. There was, as is typical for NY at that time of day, huge amounts of foot traffic. But from the direction I was approaching I could only hear the chants from about a block away (because the protesters were directing their chants in the opposite direction). The protesters, a few hundred westerners and a hundred Tibetans, lay and ordained, had started chanting around 11:30 -- they started early!
After several days of protesting it felt like we were in a groove. We knew the chants, in Tibetan and English, and it felt as if I had built up a bit of endurance from the previous days of work. The scale of this protest was much larger than any of the ones we had previously done in terms of its impact, as there were literally thousands of people streaming by who heard our chants, read our signs, took our literature, and asked what it was all about. They were typically open-minded for New York, and many professed surprise and then horror at what the Dalai Lama was doing -- professing religious freedom and human rights in Radio City on the street opposite, and denying it to his own people behind the scenes in India. One man said: "I paid over a hundred bucks for this ticket and you're telling me that he does not practice what he is going to preach?" Tickets ranged from around forty bucks to a thousand, for a talk that took not much longer than an hour. Some passers-by tried to grasp the concept of the Dalai Lama using his political power to stamp out a religious tradition -- "Would it be like the Pope saying he has decided to stop worshiping Saint Christopher and that from now on everyone else therefore has to stop worshipping him too, or else be ostracized and pushed out of their monasteries and schools?" (Not a bad analogy, except that the Pope is historically the spiritual leader of all Catholics whereas the Dalai Lama has never been the head of Buddhism.)
Right from the start, we were continuously drawing the ire of Tibetans who were attending the Dalai Lama's talks. We were getting the finger with some outbursts of yelling. Tibetan women would flap their dresses at us (which I've been told means that they are showering us with their menstrual blood...ugh). I said, "Boy those Tibetan women are intense" and my friend replied in jest (I think!), "That's why there are so many monks."
There were groups of young lay Tibetan men who would stop and stare at us for a long time. Their presence was quite ominous and the police were watching them closely. Some of them were taking photos of the Tibetans protesting with us. They were clearly doing so to identify them later and threaten them and their families, as they have done already in coarse and violent language on phayul.com and elsewhere. And they have acted on some threats already -- for example, they boycotted a restaurant of a Dorje Shugden practitioner who had attended the demonstration in Hamilton New York, causing it to go out of business.At one point there were some Tibetan women gathered across the street and I could see the leader instructing the others to get photos of all the Tibetans protesting with us. The Tibetans we are with and who we are supporting are very brave as they face a mob mentality for going against the wishes of the Dalai Lama, but they remained calm and cheerful throughout. Now that they have decided to take a stand after 12 years of persecution, they are resolute; and some of them said it is as if a deep hurt inside, caused by the Dalai Lama's actions, is being resolved.
At the start of the day, the media presence did not seem huge, but I'm not sure. I just didn't see those TV station vans with the transmission antenna on the roof. There were a lot of people taking photos. I think we were near the top list of tourist attractions in the city. There were some professional photographers shooting us and videotaping us. One looked like a Chinese news group but I couldn't tell.
There was another group with about 15 people protesting in the pen next to us. They were spectacularly quiet and were protesting the US government's using Tibet to attack China with CIA funds. They spent quite some time just looking at us.
We chanted for just about the entire time during the Dalai Lama's talk. We gave out thousands of pieces of literature -- a leaflet with the basic facts called "Dalai Lama give religious freedom" and a booklet chronicling the abuses, including the forced signature campaign, called "The Tibetan Situation Today, Surprising Hidden News." Throughout the Dalai Lama's talk, Tibetans were amassing on various corners of the streets and we were told by the police to stay away from our barriers on the sidewalk side to avoid angry confrontations as their mood was getting ugly. They made everyone handing out literature along the sidewalks go back into the pen for safety (throughout the day, those handing out literature were made to go in pairs). When the talk got out at 4pm, that's when things got really intense. The Tibetans gathered in force outside Radio City, all down the sidewalks, and on the northwest corner of 50th and 6th Ave and started their own chants: "Shame on you! Shame on China! and something like, "Go away Dorje Shugden." They were all pumping their hands in unison towards us. At one point I noticed that the entirety of 6th Ave from 51st down to 49th was filled completely with Tibetans who were yelling at us. The side streets were filled too.
I was asked to do security facing the sidewalk (facing west) and a mob of Tibetans gathered about 15 feet from us and started yelling. Some were giving us the finger, some were flapping their dresses. One woman came up and started spitting at us. I put my body in between and got some spit on me and water (I think someone threw a water bottle at us). She looked at me and told me I would die with blood running out of my mouth. There were no police on our side of the pen as they were completely occupied with the stream of Tibetans pouring out of Radio City and crossing 6th ave on 50thth Street. I could see people getting violent and the police were being very physical defending themselves throwing people on the ground and shoving them away when they started getting violent. My brother who had a better vantage point told me a couple of people were arrested because they hit police officers. One woman went to hit a police officer and he took her down by twisting her arm. Another woman was handcuffed by three police officers but I did not see her being led away so perhaps they let her go. The police maced others who were trying to attack the protesters, some of the protesters on the outskirts of the demonstration pen felt it. The scene was so intense. Crowds of onlookers also were gathering on all corners and 6th Avenue was closed to traffic during rush hour for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, because there were no police on our side, the Tibetans were starting to work themselves into a frenzy. There were two young Tibetans who were getting really agitated and I was really afraid because it looked like they were about to attack us. Some older Tibetans were trying to calm them down but I could tell it was a dangerous situation. I told one of our security people that there were no police on this side and she went off to tell someone...
(One policeman said that the Dalai Lama himself had incited the rage during his talk. As 90 percent of the audience were Tibetan or Nepalese, he might have said something in Tibetan that was not translated. I don't know as I was not in the talk, but they came out with such a sense of purpose that it seems that somewhere along the line they had been incited to do something about us. This would be in keeping with what is happening in India, with Dalai Lama followers being incited to violence against Shugden practitioners by the government in exile, Tibetan youth congress and womens' association etc, all acting on the words of the Dalai Lama. Certainly the Dalai Lama, as usual, showed no inclination to come over and talk to us -- that has been the case for the past 12 years. He is happy to talk to any religious leaders of any faiths, just not Buddhist Dorje Shugden practitioners. Nor did he send a representative. No one in his entourage said anything to calm the angry mood. From what was translated in the talk he gave, he spouted the same reasons for banning the practice, all of which have been answered over and over again on this blog and elsewhere, and shown to be unreasonable.)
.... Finally a HUGE police officer came over (to my relief!) This dude was way taller than me (and I'm 6'1") -- he was diesel with the chiseled jaw and everything. His instincts were right as he walked right over to the two young Tibetans, stood two feet in front of them and rested his nightstick right on his shoulder. As you could imagine those two calmed right down.
The Tibetans on the west side of the pen were still getting rowdy so about 3 other officers came over. The Tibetans were yelling at us and throwing money at us. They were throwing dollar bills and coins at us saying we were paid by the Chinese. The cops told the Tibetans to back up away from the protesters but one man keen on picking up the money he thew at us didn't listen and ran right up to the barrier that the protesters were behind. The 3 officers grabbed this man and slammed him on the ground. They threw him back into the angry mob and they were shocked. The police all whipped out their nightsticks and twirled them around letting them know the consequences of breaking the barrier. Another female police office ran over with some additional metal barriers and they pushed back the Tibetan mob about 100 feet to a safe distance.
See the video of the riot in New York City.
[It made me wonder what it must be like for the monks and lay people in India who have complained now for years about the ostracism and fear they feel in the face of the Dalai Lama's followers who are so against them. They have had rocks hurled at their houses, mobs breaking into their houses and destroying their shrines and statues. Monks have been pushed out of their monasteries, where they have been since they were small boys (the Dalai Lama says they can go back to China and China can take care of them but they've never been to China in their lives!) People have been ostracized and humiliated, wanted posters have been put up, and on it goes. We got a little glimpse of what it is like to be shouted at, spat at and reviled, but the difference is that, luckily for us, we had the New York police force between us and them.]
By this time I could see that the sidewalks on both sides of 6th ave were completely filled with Tibetans. The energy in the air was intense. I've never experienced anything like this. We were surrounded by an angry mob on all sides. The police closed down 6th ave and I could see 4 or 5 police officers on horseback just firmly staring down the throngs of Tibetans. It was an impressive sight. Looking up one would see many people looking out of their office windows gazing at this spectacle. Now all the press were on the scene. People with a phone or camera were calling people and taking photos from the windows of the NBC building. What is amazing actually is how little press coverage there has been considering how much press was there for the riot. It seems to be hard to be the first one to blow the whistle. You need a lot of guts to investigate a story like this. One journalist in Australia wrote an article questioning the persona and theatre of the Dalai Lama, and he received death threats for his efforts.
As WSS spokesperson, Kelsang Pema, said in a press release: "If this intense reaction and mob mentality is the result when a few people publicly question the Dalai Lama's actions on American soil with police present and western laws, imagine how difficult it is for these people to speak up against their unelected leader in the Tibetan community in exile. I hope that the western media will investigate."
I was so proud, the WSS chanting was so powerful and loud and continuous, yet peaceful. It carried the weight of the huge blessings of our lineage and I felt this is why so many Tibetans were moved and challenged by our chants. Our group of 400 or so protesters, outnumbered by 10 to 1 (just a guess), really posed a challenge to these thousands of Tibetans.
Finally 5pm came and the police called in the buses -- our own three buses and an extra one they provided. They told us they were concerned for our safety and that no one should leave the demonstration pen on their own -- we all needed to be shipped to a safe spot far away from the Tibetans. Others told me later that the police were impressed by our discipline -- we did what we were told, which made their job much easier. Also, as the protesters were being herded rapidly on to the buses, they were trying to pick up their trash after them, until one officer called through the megaphone: "Leave the trash. Get on the bus. We'll clean up."
As we boarded the buses I noticed that the Tibetans weren't going anywhere. They were cheering that we were leaving but they all stayed and showed no signs of going anywhere. They were definitely there for the duration.
We were so jammed into those buses because none of the New Yorkers had arrived on the buses. So we all squeezed in, and accompanied by a police escort, we were rescued out of the mob scene. The relief was deeply felt. The bus driver of the bus I was on gave me a high five. He said "That was awesome, you guys got federal agents, secret service, and the nypd out there." I looked out the window and saw an escort of at least 10 nypd officers on motorbikes. One of the other bus drivers said: "You guys did a great job out there today. I think they got the message." I hope he is right, but probably we'll have to keep demonstrating for a bit longer yet.
They drove us over to 9th ave where they dropped us off. And we headed back to our Dharma Center where we felt so relieved to do puja and have GP teaching class (on the spiritual potential of this precious human life). As we sang the Migtsema, the praise to Je Tsongkhapa, I just started weeping, the relief was so great. Dalai Lama, give religious freedom.
Posted courtesy of a member of the Western Shugden Society attending the demonstrations
Friday, July 18, 2008
A personal first-hand account of the demonstration at Radio City Music Hall, July 17 2008