Protesters march for a free Tibet
Kenosha News[Sunday, August 03, 2008 20:02]
Group treks through county on Saturday

Megan Schmidt

KENOSHA, Wis - A dozen Tibetan protesters trekked along Highway 50 Saturday afternoon, part of an 185-mile march from Madison to Chicago that they hope will spread awareness of Tibet's fight for independence from China.

They say not only is China suppressing Tibetans' human rights, but that the country is posing a great threat to the United States as it becomes an economic and military superpower.

Tibet lost its independence to China in 1959. In addition to working toward Tibet's independence, the protesters are urging people to boycott products made in China, and are highlighting their disapproval of the choice to have China host the 2008 Olympics.

"We will not stop our protests until we get our people back," said Ngawang Norbu, a 57-year-old Tibetan who now lives in Boston and is serving on the International Tibet Independence Movement's board.

Their 15-day march kicked off on July 25 at the Madison State Capitol, a day after the Dalai Lama visited the city. The march will conclude at China's Consulate in Chicago, in which they will hold a demonstration they expect will draw 500 to 1,000 people composed of both Tibetans and other groups.

This is the group's fourth journey through the Midwest. The group has staged peaceful protests, such as bike rides and walks, over the past 13 years.

The protesters, ranging from 19 to 77 years old, held flags and signs while clad in white shirts that read "Free Tibet." Most are Tibetans; however, a couple of Westerners are also marching.

The protesters arrived in New Munster on Thursday and rested on Friday. On Saturday, they walked 10.3 miles until reaching Bristol. Today is their last day in Kenosha, and they will walk 12.7 miles until they reach the Wisconsin and Illinois border.

Larry Gerstein, the president of the International Tibet Independence Movement, follows the group with a van that holds their belongings. At the end of each day's march - which normally concludes early afternoon - the protesters are picked up from their stopping point and are driven to their designated shelter for that given night. By around 8:30 a.m., the group is returned to where they ended the previous day and then they continue walking.

Gerstein said Kenosha and surrounding counties have, overall, supported their mission. They've been stopped a few times along their journey by law enforcement because of traffic obstruction complaints.

"We've been really pleased with the response we're getting and the level of knowledge Wisconsin people have about Tibet. In fact I was a little surprised," Gerstein said.

Just before arriving in New Munster, two women gave the group $40, and another man on a motorcycle stopped and contributed $30.

The Bradford Community Unitarian Universalist Church, 5810 Eighth Ave., provided shelter for the group Saturday night and allowed them to use the kitchen so they could feast on curry, rice, bread and tea. Mostly Methodist and Unitarian churches have provided them a place to sleep.

The protesters said they are getting stronger as the days pass.

The oldest protester is 77-year-old Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who flew from India. He's considered the second highest-profile Tibetan activist in the world.

For 33 years he said he was a political prisoner of China and has scars on his wrists from Chinese interrogation methods, including kneeling on broken glass and being hung by his wrists over a bed of flames.

"He's an inspiration to us all, and he just flies when on the road," Gerstein said.

Nephew of the Dalai Lama, 43-year-old Jigme Norbu of Indiana is continuing the fight his father was never able to finish.

"My father was the first Tibetan to arrive in the U.S. I'm continuing his mission to advance Tibet's independence," he said.

Tenzen Wangzor, 23, of Madison, is one of the youngest protesters. He heard about the march on July 26 and joined the next morning.

"I've never been to Tibet, and I felt bad I've never done anything for my people," he said. "I think people have so much potential, and if we just fight for justice, we change not just Tibet, but the whole world."