NEW HAVEN, Conn.—The Human Rights Torch Relay came to Connecticut's New Haven Green on Saturday, April 26, cheered on by a crowd of several hundred supporters during its final stop in New England.
Over a dozen speakers and musicians from diverse backgrounds attended the event, united under a common belief that 'the Olympic Games and crimes against humanity cannot co-exist in China'—the torch relay's central message. The Human Rights Torch Relay, organized by the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong, began in August in Athens, Greece, as an alternative to the Olympic Torch.
The torch was ceremoniously carried onto the Green by Boston native Steve Lancione, who was accompanied by supporters and representatives of persecuted groups in China. Upon his arrival, three additional torches held by women adorned as Grecian goddesses were lit. The torches symbolized the virtues of freedom, liberty, and justice.
"We bring the torch here to New Haven, Connecticut, for human rights for all people, to let all people know in the world about human rights abuses by the Chinese regime," opened master of ceremonies Marcus Gale.
The Chinese communist regime has been accused by international human rights organizations of intensifying its suppression of Tibetans, Falun Gong, Uighur Muslims, Christians, pro-democracy advocates, and other groups in the lead-up to the August Beijing Olympics.
Voices of Support
Several letters of support from Connecticut state and U.S. representatives were read, as well as a proclamation from Mayor John DeStefano proclaiming April 2008 as Human Rights Torch Relay Month for the city of New Haven.
"I am grateful for the Human Rights Torch Relay. Soon, it will touch six continents, expressing sincere interest in ending human rights abuses," wrote Congressman Christopher Shays.
"This torch represents the true goals of the Olympic movement," wrote state Rep. Tom Kehoe. "It is sad that the spirit of the Olympics will be diminished because the games will be held in an atmosphere where free will, freedom of speech, freedom of dissent, and freedom of association are repressed."
State Rep. David McCluskey echoed Kehoe's sentiment: "This year's games, just like those in 1936, must not be used as propaganda by an undemocratic regime which discriminates and oppresses many of its citizenry," he wrote. The 1936 Olympic Games were hosted by Germany and used as a tool to legitimate the Nazi regime on the global stage.
A Global Event
China's "One World, One Dream" theme for the 2008 Olympic Games has been accompanied by the largest global Olympic relay in history. Protests and scuffles have broken out in many of the cities the Olympic torch has visited, including London, Paris, San Francisco, and most recently in Seoul, where a South Korean man was assaulted by pro-China Olympic supporters on April 27 for protesting the Chinese Communist Party's human rights abuses.
It is believed that China's embassies and consulates have worked closely with Chinese university groups and organizations to choreograph large-scale pro-China Olympic demonstrations around the world in an effort to portray a united image of China to the world and help stifle negative publicity.
Mr. John Jaw from the Falun Gong Association of New England explained how many people in mainland China do not even realize the extent of the persecution going on around them.
"If you go to China today, you will see high-rise buildings and economic boom," Jaw said. "But what you don't see is behind some concrete wall with barbed wire on top." There are tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners and other prisoners of conscience forced to work 12–14 hours a day to make products for sale, he explained.
Dr. Wenyi Wang, a member of Physicians for Human Rights, called out to the mainland Chinese in the crowd: "We have to be clear that China is not equal to the Communist Party, and the Communist Party cannot represent the Chinese people," she said. Wang spoke about documented cases of forced organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners in China.
In his speech, John Kusumi, director of the China Support Network, also addressed the forced organ harvesting issue, condemning it as a "combination of theft, plus murder, plus profiteering. "If a war were on," Kusumi said, "we would call it war crimes."
A Day to Remember
Deacon Arthur Miller, Director of the Black Catholic Ministries Archdiocese in Hartford and long-time member of the civil rights movement, gave an inspiring speech themed "Remember this day."
Miller addressed the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan and the backing of the Sudanese military by the Chinese regime.
"Remember where you were this day," Miller said. "The tragedy is happening now as we speak … We cannot, we must not let this happen."
Miller called on the crowd to "realize that there are those that are blind to the injustices that are blindingly obvious to others. That we are fast becoming a society that sweeps into the corner any social ill that threatens to shake us out of our apathy." Miller's words resounded with many in the crowd, who called out in support at various moments of his speech. Miller is also Chair of the Connecticut Coalition to Save Darfur.
Midway through the event, a Tibetan Buddhist prayer by the Dalai Lama called "The Words of Truth" was led by Chemi Lama. Before the prayer, Chemi called for the world's governments and human rights organizations to pressure the Chinese regime to lift the current communications blackout in Tibet and allow foreign journalists free access to the region.
The actions of the Chinese government against its citizens and support of repressive regimes abroad "are nothing less than an affront to humanity and an affront to God," voiced Rabbi Donna Berman.
Berman, director of the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford, Conn., was inspired to speak at the event after hosting the "Truthfulness, Compassion, Tolerance" art exhibit earlier this year. The exhibit uses painting and sculpture to depict the experiences of Falun Gong practitioners undergoing persecution in China. Many of the artists, like labor camp survivor Zhang Kunlun, have experienced the persecution first hand.
"These paintings were powerful, painful, and very, very sad," she said. "They continue to call to me, continue to beg me to take action."
"I, like you, will not stand idly by," Berman called out passionately.
Musical performances included guitar and singer soloist Michael Feltz and the band Light Club. Light Club's song "Freedom First (Olympics 2nd)" rang out: "Give us freedom first, not games of shame. Give us freedom first, not Olympic pain."
Additional speeches were given by Stephanie Thompson from the Christian organization Voice of the Matyrs, Greg Kuo from Teachers Against Genocide, Reverend George Britt, who is a former missionary in Hong Kong and provided humanitarian assistance to Chinese refugees fleeing communist persecution, and Baiqiao Tang from the China Peace & Democracy Federation. Tang was involved with the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square and has been living in exile in the U.S. ever since.
Yale University's Amnesty International Club, Students for a Free Tibet, and the U.S. Campaign for Burma had information booths set up where passersby could receive information and sign petitions. Burma's military junta is also backed heavily by the Chinese regime.
Conflicting Olympic Interests?
During the Human Rights Torch Relay event, Chinese students at Yale University held a pro-China Olympics rally a few blocks away. Many carried Chinese flags and sang songs of support for China and the Olympics.
Speaking at the Human Rights Torch Relay, Yale University faculty member Zhengguo Kang addressed the pro-China Olympics crowd directly in his closing remarks.
"If I ask you to look in that direction, you will see that right here the Chinese students at Yale have been demonstrating and protesting, which would have never been possible if they were living in China. Yet those demonstrators are taking advantage of the freedom here to vigorously promote a government that would deny such rights to its citizens," he said.
"I don't have to agree with what they are saying or doing, but I'm glad that they can express their views freely, without worrying about detention or imprisonment. This will be an excellent experience for them to take home to China."