Monday, May 17, 2010

Standing in Solidarity

I recently participated in a demonstration by the Uyghur American Association, urging the United Nations to defend the human rights of the Uyghur people of Northwest China. I learned of the issue from a writer friend, who wrote a novel about the region.

Until recently, I (like most Americans) had never heard of the Uyghurs, a Turkic, Muslim people who reside in East Turkistan, in the northwest province of China. Like the people of Tibet, the Uyghurs are a minority group being oppressed by the Chinese government. Increased police presence has forced the Uyghurs to practice their religion in secret, as their language and culture is slowly stripped from them by the Han Chinese majority. Teenage Uyghur girls are frequently exported (and exploited) to labor in factories in Southern China. All live under fear of “disappearance,” especially those who show any political activity.

I haven’t done much demonstrating lately, so it felt good to be walking with a sign, even for a cause I can’t really claim as “mine.” The air was chilly, and the crowd small, but they made up for their numbers with fervor. I meant to make a token appearance, but I ended up marching enthusiastically alongside the group of excited teenagers who formed the bulk of the demonstration. A sixteen-year-old Uyghur-American boy brought all his school friends to help out. I felt excited to see these young guys standing up for something important. Their hand-lettered signs showed they had put a lot of thought into the event beforehand.

The organizers secured permits for the demonstration route, but we met with a lot of resistance from several building staffs. My pulse raced with righteous indignation when one building manager came out of a high rise to shoo us away. “We own this sidewalk,” she said, threatening to call the cops. “It’s private property.” When the police came, they stood up for the demonstration, confirming our permit and our right to stand on a public sidewalk. I admit to being a bit jaded about law enforcement at times, but these four officers restored my faith as they protected our right to free speech and assembly. I felt proud to be an American right then.

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