James Powderly: My days in a Chinese prison

The Brooklyn Paper
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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.

Updated 5:08 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Kathy Gillis from Canada says:
You are back home now and doing what you need to do...tell the truth. The Chinese people are victims of the Chinese Communist Party, the world has seen a horrifying escalation in inhumanity as exemplified by the Chinese Communist Party's trade in human organs using unwilling live Falun Gong practitioners as their victims. Time is life ... please continue to do whatever you can.
Aug. 28, 2008, 6:45 pm
qs from san francisco says:
i'm all for tibetan autonomy, but let's be honest... This is the kind of thing which give Americans a bad name overseas. People who go to different countries and assume that because they are American they are above the law of the country they visit (as Powderly more or less explicitly claims he is) seem arrogant. This article is a fluff piece; the man is not a hero, but rather a regular guy astonishingly lacking in political saavy. If his goal truly is freedom for Tibetans, displaying a large "free tibet" sign in Beijing is certainly not the best way to accomplish that goal, as it could never garner sympathy from the Chinese government or, more importantly, normal Chinese citizens. It is, however, quite good at garnering the unreflective adoration of Western liberals, something which probably leaves poverty-stricken tibetans deeply unimpressed.
Aug. 29, 2008, 3:29 pm
Alex from Michigan says:
Weei: do you really think that there's no difference between a just law and an injust law? All he was doing was flying a banner (maybe a naive banner) -- the government arrested him and deprived him of food, told him he as going to be there forever, etc. I don't understand how anyone could possibly defend what the chinese government did.
Aug. 30, 2008, 5:53 am
Karl from CT says:
He's like the grizzly man-I thought they would just deport me, not torture me. Isn't that what you were there to protest? Things not being the same as in the USA? Unfortunately, if you follow through on your closing threat, i don't think anyone will ever read about your "plan".
Aug. 30, 2008, 7:43 am
wtf from 901 says:
you flew half way around the world, just to fail at protest. you failed at interrogation as well. you have no balls, and have done nothing positive for your cause or for the reputation of americans at large. perhaps you should stay at home next time, participate in some managerial way and leave it at that.
Aug. 30, 2008, 2:40 pm
MArk from SoHo says:
I'm sorry, but I have no sympathy for James. What right do you have to be there "protesting" during a time when you knew the Chinese government would be hypersensitive on the issue of Tibet. Not to mention you didn't expect to be "mistreated" if you were arrested by a government that has a long record of doing such a thing? American elitism at it's finest. Stay in Brooklyn next time and protest skinny jeans instead.
Aug. 30, 2008, 6 pm
John Cook from Danville. ILL says:
You are lucky to gotten out ALIVE you ——in moron!
Aug. 31, 2008, 1:26 pm
Matt from Yonkers, NY says:
I'm still surprised at the vitriol people manage to conjure up for comments on newspaper stories. I think Powderly may have been naive to think that the Chinese authorities would simply deport him without any other punishment or interrogation; actually I would expect any government that arrests people in any kind of even suspected plot at the Olympics or other major event would interrogate them to see if it was connected to anything else. However, this interrogation WAS extreme, and as the article points out, they had not even shown the "Free Tibet" display yet. Weei, if he did break a law, was the law just? Should it be illegal for people to ask the goverment to change their policy, to just PLAN to ask them to "free tibet"? And if you think that is just, that it should be illegal, was this kind of punishment and treatment fair? If it had been a Chinese citizen, would that make a difference as to what fair treatment would be? I think it should be the same, but I think a Chinese citizen would have been treated more harshly. Wtf and Mark, suggesting he stay home and not provoke them, I think the bigger problem is too many people staying home and doing nothing.
Sept. 2, 2008, 2:23 pm
Xander Crews from The Town says:
Why is the an "Amazing" story, the douche went to a foreign country to try to spread his douchiness, and got beat down.

The Chinese should have just disappeared him in a ditch somewhere, because now he is back in Brooklyn being a douche.
Sept. 2, 2008, 3:47 pm
York from Boise, ID says:
You broke the law, and therefore you deserve it.
Hawaiian separatists were arrested outside the stadium where republicans national convention is held yesterday. That is the law of the land of the free and everyone on this land must respect its laws regardless his nationality. Show your respect when abroad and don't be a shame for U.S. citizens.
Sept. 3, 2008, 10:07 am
Q from California says:
Sept. 3, 2008, 10:57 am
dogielf from rome says:
this is a rich kid's game. why does he want to free tibet? does he know anything of the history there? What about Xinjing? No one likes muslims, just not as cute as buddhist monks ergo, no artist douchebags playing lazers.
Sept. 3, 2008, 12:08 pm
Dong Zhou from Xian says:
When you go abroad with the intention to commit a crime in a foreign country, don't whine when you're arrested.
Sept. 3, 2008, 12:14 pm
John Stogin from NY says:
What the article fails to mention is that they endangered and basically outted many chinese nationals who were supporting them. These people will be punished far more severely then these pampered Americans who were too weak to keep their mouths shut.

The douchebag here is the guy who talked.
Sept. 3, 2008, 12:17 pm
Clifford from Marine Park says:
How many Chinese Nationals who were part of the Free Tibet movement did he have killed when he gave them up to his captors for his own freedom? This is what happens when you have some idiot from Williamsburg with an over developed sense of American entitlement go abroad and act like an ass.
Sept. 3, 2008, 12:42 pm
Ron from Georgia says:
It's worth pointing out that you faced 26 hours of discomfort, but in exchange, you probably *killed* the people you were collaborating with. They're probably *dead*, with their families billed for the bullet, because you A) decided you wanted to play chicken with an authoritarian regime, and B) didn't have the balls not to rat out your collaborators.

And all you can do is whinge about how badly you were treated. You seem entirely oblivious to any consequences except the ones you faced personally. Were those Chinese people even *real* to you?
Sept. 3, 2008, 1:34 pm
Montay from Bed-Stuy says:
He broke their laws. You do that on someone elses turf you better be prepared to deal with what they bring.

Frankly I think he got off a bit easy and the $2,000 is nothing considering the cost to them in dealing with his group.
Sept. 3, 2008, 2:20 pm
Justice from Suburbia says:
He may have been naive, but he did something. You flamers do nothing. He may have broken the law, but so did MLK Jr and Ghandi--whose side would you have been on, back then? There may be better ways to help an oppressed people, but he used his talents to do what he could, and who can say whether it might have inspired one, two, or a thousand to take one more step toward democracy. He may have "cracked" under pressure, but don't tell me you would have done better--you weren't there. Anyone who acts in good faith to peacefully combat injustice should have our respect, sympathy and support.
Sept. 3, 2008, 2:30 pm
Ron from Georgia says:
Quit with the Gandhi crap. He screwed up, he probably got some people executed for his trouble, and all he's worried about is the discomfort he personally endured. He's not even GUILTY about it, as far as I can tell.

Yes, anyone can crack in those circumstances -- but that should be the first worry, not the 'oh by the way'. People risked their lives to help him, he let them down badly, and he doesn't appear to even care.

That's not revolutionary, that's arrogant selfishness playing at being revolutionary for ego value. It was just a game to him, and now he's home, safe and well, while the people he worked with are being hunted.
Sept. 3, 2008, 3:46 pm
Ratta from Minneapolis says:
"Export his American right of free expression" my ass. Try to advocate the violent overthrow of the U.S. government and see where it gets you. Try to support an organization that the U.S. government considers terrorist, and see where it gets you. Try to tell your wife about a National Security Letter you received from the FBI, and see where it gets you.

There is no such thing as free expression. No government has ever allowed it. Different governments forbid different types of expression.

P.S. So you got a couple of days in jail and the U.S. Consulate was informed. Boo ——ing hoo. The U.S. government executes Mexican murderers that were not allowed to contact the Mexican Consulate (in violation of international law).
Sept. 3, 2008, 3:47 pm
Teri Deegan from Carlsbad, Ca. says:
Gosh, Unless You have walked in another's shoes, You can't quite understand the Enormity of what This Artist and His Friends went through.
I am quite sure They would not wish Their Experience on another Human Being...They will all receive Good Karma back Ten-Fold for throwing out a little Good Karma.

God Bless Them and Thankfully They are Americans......: )
Sept. 3, 2008, 8:29 pm
bh from none says:
Seriously - anybody that wants to equate Lazerdouche here with Ghandi needs some time in a goddamn library.
Sept. 3, 2008, 11:42 pm
phoebe from beijing says:
I support freedom for Tibet, but it's hard to support a douche like this guy. I'm American! I can break another country's laws! Maybe for his next stunt, he can be a drug runner to Singapore, since he seems to be utterly clueless.
Sept. 4, 2008, 2:57 am
rusty from US says:
James, if you're reading this,
in case you missed this hearty discussion about your DOUCHE-BAGGERY on metafilter:

way to go, ——.
Sept. 4, 2008, 12:44 pm
M Cortese from USA says:
It just goes to show you, that China's communist regime may clean up nice to show a pretty face but it cannot hide it's true inner nature.

Everyone needs to read The Epoch Times' publication
"The Nine Commentaries of the Communist Party"
and learn about how evil this regime is and how deeply the common people of China suffer.

I sincerely hope that those people who made misguided comments on this list take time and educate themselves. If any of you are from China and are residing here on US soil, then you should not condemn a man who is critical of the same regime you yourself chose to leave.
Thank you.
Sept. 5, 2008, 2:02 pm
M Cortese from USA says:
It just goes to show that that the Chinese regime may clean up nice for the Olympics, but it's true nature remains the same.

Everyone needs to read the Epoch Times' publication "The Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party"
and educate themselves on how evil the Chinese communist regime is and how deeply the common people of China suffor.

And to those misguided people who wrote negative comments - if any of you are from China and are residing here on US soil, you should not condemn a man who is critical of the same regime you chose to leave. Thank you.
Sept. 5, 2008, 2:25 pm
Chas from Seattle says:
Dude, TAM is like the White House. Why don't you try breaking cordon at the White House, then try to lazer some @#$%.

You'll be blown away by anti-terror security measure because it'll look like lazer targeting by some god awful weapon. You should thank the Chinese for not sending you to Gitmo.
Sept. 12, 2008, 8:29 pm
Emmanuel says:
Dear James!

This is Emmanuel, we were there together in the Chinese jail.I also survived, I'm alive...after all the terrible torture..Just write

Free Emmanuel
Feb. 28, 2009, 7:44 am
diane says:
have a son in a chinese prison, hes been in it for about a year and a half and has about a year and a half to go and hope and pray he makes it out of there one day
April 3, 2010, 2:03 pm says:
would like to talk to someone about what i can expect when my son gets out of a chinese prison in noember 2011 wher he has been a prisoner for 2 and a half years, like his health, mentally and physically.
March 26, 2011, 6:28 pm
donkey from Lewisville says:
You are a moron, you know nothing about China and you think you know everything. I wish you were deported from the USA too you piece of sh, it.
July 19, 2011, 5:57 pm
donkey from Lewisville says:
The USA is filled with morons that do this kind of crap, I'm pissed that they only kept you in jail for that short of time.
July 19, 2011, 6:05 pm
tiffers from just like any suburb says:
I can't believe these comments I'm reading. Are you all insane? This guy comes from a country where we actually have standards regarding treating human beings. Yes, I am sure he knew what he was getting himself into, he said so himself, but you can't be surprised that it was actually traumatic for him - and on top of that, actually have the audacity to say that he deserved it!

If you were in an abusive relationship, and got your face punched the —— in, would you think, "Well, my partner IS abusive, so I guess I deserved it." Or would a part of you hold the other person to a higher standard and WANT to be treated better? Are you all seriously settling for this country's behavior and honestly telling the world, "That's just how it is over there, so it's your ——ing fault you got yourself into it." Have some ——ing standards and hope that China and the world grow beyond their sickness.
Sept. 14, 2011, 3:35 pm
Pookey from woopwoop says:
As a foreigner in China for over six years, I do understand western frustrations over political/social issues but this guy IS a douche. Trying to export middle-class, western liberal notions to China today is kind of like being a missionary in the 19th Century. This arrogance and fanatic belief in 'superior' value judgments of the Western world, especially by Americans, (no offense intended) is insane. And seriously, the Gandhi-like resemblance comments are ridiculous.
Sept. 19, 2011, 7:08 am
Tim from London says:
Keeping lights on in chinese prisons is standard practice not used as a torture method along with the food he said he received which is also standard food in prison there. He got deported! Of course he had to pay money for his flight. He has gone to another country with the intention of committing a criminal act and then moans that when he is deported he has to pay for flight home. When you go to prison of course you get strip searched and have your photograph taken. The other prisoners, if they are foreigners who have flouted China's visa rules, will get released, no question. Stop making it out to more than it is.
Jan. 29, 2013, 8:28 am

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