Beijing: Five US activists detained after lighting up "Free Tibet" LED Throwies banner near Olympics site

An update on the pro-Tibet tech-art protests happening in Beijing: Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) tells Boing Boing that a group of five pro-Tibet activists displayed an LED Throwie Banner near the Olympics site in Beijing. The protesters, all of whom are US nationals, were promptly detained by Chinese authorities.

From SFT, via email to BB:

This was inspired by GRL's "Throwies" project, and the building and implementation of this was done by a complete separate group of Tibet activitists. They combined a traditional protest banner with over five hundred throwie lights and batteries sewn and taped onto the banner.
Details on the SFT website, Photos on Flickr, and here is a short video. "Still no more news on GRL founder James Powderly at this point," a SFT rep tells us. Previous BB post on Powderly's detention in Beijing, over 24 hours ago.

Here's a snip from the SFT press release about today's action:

Five pro-Tibet activists unfurled a banner spelling out “Free Tibet” in English and Chinese in bright blue LED “throwie” lights in Beijing’s Olympic Park tonight. The five were detained by security personnel after displaying the banner for about 20 seconds at 11:48 pm August 19th. Their whereabouts are unknown. The detained activists are Americans Amy Johnson, 33, Sam Corbin, 24, Liza Smith, 31, Jacob Blumenfeld, 26, and Lauren Valle, 21.

"The Chinese government is desperate to turn the world's attention away from its abuses in Tibet as the Olympics take place, but the creativity and determination of Tibetans and their supporters has once again ensured that Tibetan voices are heard and seen in Beijing despite the massive security clampdown," said Tenzin Dorjee, Deputy Director of Students for a Free Tibet. "The Chinese leadership must realize that the only way it can make the issue of Tibet disappear is to acknowledge the demands of the Tibetan people and work with them to bring an end to China's occupation of Tibet."

The lights used on the banner are blue 10 mm light-emitting diodes (LEDs) powered by small batteries, commonly known as “throwies.” Throwies are open-source technology attributed to OpenLab and Graffiti Research Lab, developed as a means of creating non-destructive graffiti and light displays. This is the first time ever that they have been used on a banner. James Powderly, free speech activist and co-founder of the Graffiti Research Lab (GRL), was detained in Beijing early this morning (see

Previously: GRL's James Powderly detained in Beijing for planning pro-Tibet "L.A.S.E.R. Stencil" art protest


  1. how about devising remote power switches on these “graffiti art” displays?

    does it give you more street cred when you get arrested as an activist? does it put a bit more strut in your junk when you go to parties?

    if so, James Powderly is gonna score so much patchouli poontang when he gets back to the states.


  2. @2 agies: linkage? I’d like to know if they were released, although I am convinced the Chinese government would have to release them. The US government can’t afford to overlook human rights abuses against its own citizens during the Olympics, no matter what simian semi-literate is running our country now. And China knows it.

  3. @5 if you check out you will not only see press releases about protests in Beijing by over 40 people who support the Tibetan cause, you will also see news of their safe return home, in a relatively timely manner.

    The Chinese government has, so far, been determined not to hold foreign protesters for more than a day during the games, but in this case, they’ve already gone beyond that window.

  4. never, ever get Chinese nationals involved in your stunts… they WILL disappear… if lucky, they get sent to re-education camps which is what appears to be happening with those being detained during the Olympics. I dread to think what will happen to them once the eye of the western press is off the case when the Olympics is over.

  5. @ #3 – no one would be dumb enough to mistake mooninites for anything dangerous…

    Oh wait. I see.

  6. They’re lucky. In Boston, they would have assumed that they were a giant bomb with arms and legs and blown them up.

  7. #3 the point was to bring attention to a message, not to throw the entire city into a panic!

    nit-pick: aren’t they only “throwies” if they’ve got a battery, led AND a magnet? because you can throw them AND they stick?

  8. ooohhh, china arrested some protesters at the big dance… why dont we all just get off china’s ass for a minute? I, and many others, think they are doing a decent job of moving forward socially. when things as big as countries change their paths, mistakes will happen… these things take time ya know. And for all the holier than thou’s out there I seem to recall a little place in cuba that good ol amerika sends malcontents to, and we arrest people here for the most spurious of reasons on an minute by minute basis.

  9. Where are the Free East Turkestan banners? Or the Free Inner Mongolia?

    Stupid me, Uyghurs and Mongolians are not as hip as the the Dalai Lama…

    All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

  10. They went to someone else’s country to protest at a time when they know they’re being more paranoid about protests than normal. And they’re suprised that they got picked up by the cops? Pfft.

    I have little sympathy for these people. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with protest. But Tibet is a bit of a fashionable issue where the protesters have little idea of what’s going on or the history of the region.

    I quite agree with Willie McBride. Whither the “Free Turkestan” banners?

    I’ll withold my applause until they head on down to Cuba to protest what’s going on in Gitmo.

  11. @#18, not only that they protested in a country where such protests ARE illegal. They’ll be deported just because of the bad publicity otherwise, but breaking the law in a foreign country will get you jailed.

    That said, they either have a lot of balls or very little sense of how the government works in china.

    @5: being sent to prison for doing something illegal is not a human rights violation.

    1. being sent to prison for doing something illegal is not a human rights violation.

      So being executed for being gay in Iran is not a human rights violation? How about being caned for not wearing your veil in Saudi Arabia? Your argument is without value or worth.

  12. hey protesters – i have an idea. why don’t you get ’em where it really hurts. boycott everything chinese. don’t send a single $, £ or whatever their way. throw out all chinese goods that you own in order to show solidarity – after all, how else does one affect things globally if not through the only truly global medium – money? surely anything else is hypocrisy…?

    then when you’re all barefoot and communicating via semaphore (those of you that really mean what you say), you might find your fragrant soles on steadier ground.

    ‘but LED’s made in the US are, like, sooo expensive.’

  13. Evidently quite a few people see nothing wrong if China continues to bring Tibet under its heel. Unless someone protests all the wrongs of the world, they shouldn’t protest anything evidently.

  14. @18
    “Tibet is a rather fashionable issue where protesters have little idea of what’s going on or the history of the region.”

    I fail to see you spouting up much history about this region yourself. Furthermore, listing the numerous other human rights violations throughout the world isn’t exactly justification for ignoring the plight of the people of Tibet.

    You pick your battles, and they picked theirs. Isn’t that fair enough?

  15. Just because there are other bad things going on other than the Tibet situation – does not make Tibet an unworthy cause.

  16. I’m also curious as to why they aren’t protesting the situation in Xinjiang. If you’re going to be a complete idiot and get yourself thrown in prison, you may as well protest something that is actually serious. Wasn’t it just two weeks ago that 16 police officers in Xinjiang were killed by a grenade attack? Oh, or how about the bombings in Kunming over a month ago? Why aren’t they talking about that? It just shows how little these idiots know about China and the social problems that it faces.

    I bet these people are going to make so many friends at all their lame, hippy parties. The funny thing to me is that they went to China with closed minds and so instead of learning anything about a fantastic country with fantastic people, they made fools of themselves, made the US look bad (the Chinese have an incredibly comprehensive list of US human rights abuses, so every time this happens we just look like hypocrites), and got themselves thrown in prison. Lulz.

  17. “I seem to recall a little place in cuba that good ol amerika sends malcontents to, and we arrest people here for the most spurious of reasons on an minute by minute basis.”

    Yup. And if America does it, well, that justifies everyone else, too, doesn’t it?

  18. #24 sivartrenrag

    I bet these people are going to make so many friends at all their lame, hippy parties.

    It’s HIPPIE, not ”hippy.”

  19. These people are very active in the Tibetan communities in the United States and Canada. They are protesting in Beijing because their Tibetan friends cannot; most Tibetans living in the United States or Canada will be denied visas based on their names alone and Tibetans living in China cannot protest without fear of being tortured or killed. I am sure that the protesters are concerned about human rights abuses in general, but they have a personal interest in this cause and want to do something about it.

    A very good book regarding the Tibetan situation is “The Dragon in the Land of Snows” by Tsering Shakya. It gives a very even-handed account of Tibet’s history, including the failures on both sides that have led to the current situation. Tibet was not the Garden of Eden that some people make it out to be, but does that justify the continued torture that is being inflicted on Tibetans by the Chinese government?

  20. People who seem to think they were released.. so far, you are incorrect. (If they were, it’s not on that website.) Those other posts further down are releases of other protesters, not these.

  21. I’d assume rapid-deportation after a stern tongue-lashing by PRC and the Embassy. If the PRC express-deports them without involving the Embassy, that could be a rather convenient way to get home in a hurry.

  22. “I seem to recall a little place in cuba that good ol amerika sends malcontents to, and we arrest people here for the most spurious of reasons on an minute by minute basis.”

    Yup. And if America does it, well, that justifies everyone else, too, doesn’t it?

    It does mean though, that the US has no moral high ground to protest these things. It’s all about the sinless one casting the first stone, etc. Not that Tibet doesn’t deserve freedom, or that I think China is right, but I find the protesters’ actions both laughable and hypocritical.

  23. @32 – So what have done for any cause?

    The US government has lost a lot of moral standing in the world, but that doesn’t mean individuals can’t protest whatever they want.

  24. These actions accomplish a great deal. Never underestimate them. Imagine for a moment that you are the one who’s country has been occupied by armed, foreign soldiers for decades, that you are the one witnessing the real and cultural genocide of your people. Can you imagine the despair if you truly thought no one on the entire Earth knew? Or cared? If you were held for years in prison without charge or trial? Tortured? To think you were utterly alone? It matters a very, very great deal that these actions are done and known. That is why the Chinese government will lie and hurt and kill to suppress them. They know the power of protest.

  25. indigloworm:“I find the protesters’ actions both laughable and hypocritical.”

    I find your confusion of the US government and the people protesting Chinese abuses to be puerile and jejune.

  26. Others have covered it well, but it’s amazing some of the logic here:

    1. The US uses fascist techniques to control its citizens and subjugate ethnic minorities, so China and other countries can as well in good conscience.

    2. If Chinese or Tibetan protesters took this actions at anytime in China (ESPECIALLY during the Olympics), they would be thrown in jail/tortured. Thus, because these protesters are white westerners (many are not american) and will escape the more brutal treatment of the Chinese government, they are not serious.

    3. There are other human rights injustices in the world, therefore the cause of Tibet should not be brought up.

    One thought runs through my mind:
    these commenters that use this logic are also voters in their own countries. And as we’ve seen from the last decade, they are getting the leaders they deserve. Hope it keeps working for you.

  27. “But I also do think that situations are more complicated than saying one position is all right and one…is all wrong — we need to make a distinction between political theater and political drama that protests can make. And then, where do we take a dialogue? And after running the torch, I have to say that I felt kind of depressed, because I saw very little dialogue on either side and really just more polarization, that I personally put squarely at the foot of the Bush administration for beginning this whole fundamentalism that we’re in, not just with China, but around the world, that you’re either evil or good, and if you’re against me, you’re evil.”

    – Helen Zia
    Democracy Now! August 12

    I agree. Fewer stunts and more strategic planning needs to be the way of the future if you actually care about justice in Tibet.

  28. hkkmrri, you are correct that protests in rural parts of China occur with more and more frequency. often they get quite violent as people keep expecting more and more justice in their daily lives.

    During the Olympics, the Chinese leadership was shamed into setting up “protest zones” in Beijing. Predictably, the reality was Kafka-esque.

    You say that Tibetan protestors are losing Chinese. They’ve been lost the last 50 years when the state controlled education system and media taught Han chinese that Tibetans are lazy, ungrateful trouble makers. Like american kids being taught that Native Americans are just savage alcoholics.

    But to say what “Chinese people” want is a fool’s game. As more chinese citizens get a taste of comfort, it’ll be interesting to see how much oppression they are willing to keep putting up with.

    China watchers all know that the Chinese government won’t engage Tibet in any kind of talks on autonomy because then ethnic chinese will then want self-determination as well.

    So the Tibet protests during the Olympics are just a way of keeping the Tibetan freedom alive during a time when China is pushing its “One World, One Dream” propaganda with the blessing of the International Olympic Committee.

  29. Central squared:

    Of course they can protest anything they want. Just like I’m criticising their protesting someone else’s abuse while a big fat abuse is sitting right at home.

    Elvis Pelt:

    You’re entitled to your opinion, but I wasn’t confusing the american govt and the american people. It’s just this: protest the human rights abuses in your own backyard before you protesting someone else’s abuse.

  30. Takuan, should the US “give back” Hawaii? Because there is a Free Hawaii movement, you know? It’s home grown, so maybe you could muster some passion for a battle that’s a little closer. And I hear parts of CA that want to spit the state into Nocal and Socal. That sounds like a good idea too. Everybody should have their independence. We should all be our own country and our own king. Then everything will be better, right?

  31. So Jeff, if you found yourself living under the boot of an armed invader that was eradicating your kind, what advice would you give then?

    1. Attention, please

      Boing Boing and BBTV have hosted numerous posts on the current situation in Tibet. Those comment threads have touched on many issues related to the current and past situation there. Here’s a list of some of the livelier discussions about this issue:

      Protest inside Tibet captured on tourists’ cameras

      Police attack peacefully protesting monks in Tibet

      Tibet: more deaths, injuries in Lhasa as crackdown grows

      Tibet: China blocks YouTube, protests spread, bloggers react

      Tibet: nearly 1,000 jailed in Lhasa, Dalai Lama offers to resign

      To do in SF – Tibet rally on April 8, Richard Gere, Desmond Tutu

      Photo of pro-Tibet protest on Golden Gate Bridge

      And of course, the two posts that are currently on BB:

      Beijing: Five US activists detained after lighting up “Free Tibet” LED Throwies banner near Olympics site

      GRL’s James Powderly detained in Beijing for planning pro-Tibet “L.A.S.E.R. Stencil” art protest

      From our Moderation Policy:

      7. Failing to notice that there are other people in the conversation. Posting a remark that’s already been made five times and answered six. Coming back and re-posting essentially the same material after a twenty-message thread has discussed your previous comment. Trying to forcibly wrench the conversation onto one of your own pet topics. Posting a stale, canned rant you’ve posted a dozen times before at other sites. Not coming back to see how others have responded to you.

      Before posting in this thread, please familiarize yourself with the territory of this ongoing discussion. Repetitive arguments, unsupported claims, cut-and-paste posturing or disingenuous concern for the plight of any and everyone except the subject of the post will be removed. Links to the same articles that have already been linked a dozen times will be removed. Links to up-to-date, reputable news sources are, naturally, most welcome.

      Thank you for making this a lively, civil and compassionate discussion about the plight of the Tibetan people.

  32. “Links to up-to-date, reputable news sources are, naturally, most welcome.”

    How are you defining “reputable”? Fox?

  33. I find the protests to be a bit ‘ho-hum’ personally, but I think people are having a problem with their morality scales. Yes, the US does bad things. There are three important things to realize from this.

    First, the US government is not its citizens. Even if you feel like assigning blame to the citizens indirectly because they voted for the government, I am probably not going out on a limb when I say that these guys are probably not Bush or Gitmo fans either. These people probably still feel right of center when they voted for Nadar instead of that right wing Nazi fascist Kerry.

    Second, just because the US does something, doesn’t mean that from now until the end of time that thing is now a-okay. The US had slaves, slaughtered the natives, nuked/carpet/fire bombed cities, had an apartheid government, and has committed nearly every single nasty act that a big old super power with a pragmatic side to its ideological talk can do. Despite this, the US hypocritically beat on South Africa for running an apartheid government, spoke out against genocides, and in general likes to rise a stink when nations don’t live to its standards and it isn’t going to cause some political inconvenience. This is okay. Sure, in a perfect world the US would be a perfect model super power, but failing a utopic world, a super power that talks the talk and occasional walks the walk is better than the alternative proposed by say the Soviet Union.

    Hypocrisy exists. Deal with it. If we become paralyzed from making moral judgment the second it might be viewed as hypocritical, well, we might as well give up making moral judgments and nod and smile no matter what horrific acts are committed.

    Third, get a fucking sense of scale people. Yes, the US holds people in Gitmo. Putting this on the same scale as China making thousands of people vanish each year without record or report for political crimes doesn’t even begin to belong on the same scale. It is like equating petty theft to murder. If the US arrests some protesters for blocking traffic and gives them a day in jail, it isn’t suddenly a moral green light for another country to use nerve gas on protesters, ’cause like the US disrupts protests too.

    Finally, stop obsessing over the US. Yes, the US is big, it has a lot of money, and it gets a little preachy, but seriously, it isn’t the only frigging nation in the world. There are actually other nations in the world that do some things better and some things worse. Someone brings up ANYTHING happening anywhere in the world where some moral judgment is made, and without fail someone drags in the US like it is some global barometer on morality where you just need to possibily appear to score higher and whatever it is your are doing (eating babies, mass genocide, j-walking) is suddenly morally okay.

    The US is not your big brother. Just because the US is doing it doesn’t make it cool. If you US has a beer with dinner, it doesn’t mean that you can righteously declare that it is okay if you drink a keg by yourself.

  34. Is that true there are groups of trained blogger/ news reader answering for Tibet, Taiwan, XingJiang related issues on www from Chinese one nation point of view?

    Is this the cyber-version of culture revolution? using groups of young and fast mind to attack?

    In Tibet and Yunnan, I forced myself to speak English to my own Han people, because politically, those one-national Han people who forced me to admit Taiwan is part of People Republic of China. So, its better i don’t speak their language.

    And, I felt freely in speaking both Mandarin and English to lovely Tibetan people.

  35. Takuan, you do realize that historically Tibet has been viewed by the Chinese to be part of China? Right or wrong that’s what they say. How would I feel if my country was invaded? I’d probably try to get a job with the invaders. Because I’m smart enough to A) know that I can’t fight China, and B) I can work better from the inside. It’s all about infiltration, dude. Besides, if you can’t beat them, Join them. Better red than dead…I embrace the collective in all its forms and sometimes that means just moving with the stream and not fighting against it.

  36. Jeff, do you realize that every time someone publicly says: “historically Tibet has been viewed by the Chinese to be part of China” that they reinforce a Big Lie tactic to justify the invasion, continuing occupation and genocide in Tibet? At what point will the Lie become truth? The PRC government is hoping after the last Tibetan is dead. Do you really wish to support that? “Right or wrong” indeed.

    Regarding “getting a job with the invaders; what if the invaders don’t want or need you? I suppose you may as one person give up and go away – but what if you had children? When Mao spoke of Tibet he was honest in the end: “China will fulfill Tibet’s need for people and Tibet will fulfill China’s need for resources.” There is no “plan” or place for the Tibetans. They have been marked for elimination from the onset. By bullet, by prison, by starvation,by exile and dispersion and perhaps worst of all, by death of the very idea of “Tibetan”.

    As to working from within and moving with the flow: if you read what the Dalai Lama has said from the beginning you will see he always advocated non-violence, engagement and very clear understanding that 6,000,000 Tibetans against 1,300,000,000 others have no chance of survival through conflict. It is the PRC government’s deliberate choice to deny any possibility of working together and insist on extermination and total rape of the land.

    This basic and simple injustice is what it is all about. That is why you should care.

    I believe Tibet will be free. I believe this because the Tibetans, the Chinese and all the rest of the world are human in the end. Error can be corrected, wrongs righted. To surrender on the matter of Tibet is to surrender our humanity.

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