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James Powderly: My days in a Chinese prison

Artist James Powderly in Beijing, China before he was arrested by Chinese authorities.
Courtesy James Powderly

A Williamsburg artist who sought to export his American right of free expression to China, and was abused by the tyrants of Tiananmen Square for his trouble, is back in Brooklyn.

James Powderly, an internationally acclaimed light artist, was jailed by Chinese authorities in Beijing and held for six days during the Olympics; five other American artists in his group were also held.

They were in Beijing to help a group of activists use lasers to project a pro-Tibet message on the side of a building near Tiananmen Square — but Chinese officials, eager to stifle any protest during the Olympics, nabbed him and his collaborators before they could flip the switch on Aug. 19.

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 an apparent bid to learn the leader’s identity, 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.”

After hours without sleep and threats against their lives and the lives of their loved ones, Powderly and the other Americans began to crack.

“That’s when I started to realize that I’m really good at being a douche-baggy art star, but I’m really bad at this secret agent business,” he said.

Powderly said he first realized that his plan to project the words “Free Tibet” was drawing the attention of Chinese authorities when he noticed that a woman was trailing him on his way to a bar on the night of his arrest.

“I gave her the slip by standing by the subway door and waiting for it to close, then jumping through,” he said. “Then I saw her staring at me out the subway window when the train pulled away.”

When the 32-year-old artist, co-founder of the Graffiti Research Lab — whose ephemeral works have appeared on the base of the Brooklyn Bridge and the walls inside the Museum of Modern Art — arrived at the bar, he told his friends that he had been followed, but it was already too late.

More than 30 cops nabbed the activists and artists one-by-one when they left the bar, placing them in unmarked black SUVs while cameramen from the state-run Chinese press filmed the arrests, Powderly said.

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 bulls–t and keep them in the dark.”

But it wasn’t so easy. After many hours, the Americans began to cave in.

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

Powderly understood that projecting a pro-Tibetan message could get him in trouble, but he thought that his punishment would end in deportation — not incarceration.

Lucky to be an American

“These were the things we signed up for — but they weren’t things we expected to happen,” he said. “I understood that the repercussions could be serious. If I wasn’t American — if I was Tibetan, a pro-democracy Chinese national, or a member of the Falun Gong — I would be taken somewhere and shot in the back of the head. But I thought they would just send us home.”

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. “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.”

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

Whenever Powderly was able to fall asleep, guards awoke him, brought him to a caged interrogation room, cuffed him tightly around the waist to a metal chair 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.

The threat: You’ll never leave

On Aug. 22, Powderly and his collaborators — whose last contact with the outside world was a message on the website Twitter on the day of their arrest — met with representatives from the United States consulate who informed them that they were sentenced to 10 days in jail for “upsetting public order.”

But Chinese officials told them otherwise.

“It was said to us constantly that we would never leave this place and that there was nothing that we could do,” he said.

After another day behind bars, an announcement crackled over the prison loudspeaker, and Powderly’s cellmates cheered.

“One of the other prisoners comes over to me and says: ‘You’re going home!” Powderly said. “Everyone was hugging me and celebrating, but all I could think was that these guys weren’t going home, and I don’t know if they ever will.”

But 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.”

But even though he isn’t allowed to visit China again, Powderly — who says he undertook the project in defense of freedom of speech — isn’t done protesting against the authoritarian regime.

“I plan to make the Chinese government regret not keeping my ass there the rest of my life,” he said.

Artist James Powderly practices using his projector, lighting up the words “Free Beer” on a building outside his hotel in Beijing, China.
Courtesy James Powderly

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