COLUMBIA — A sign reading “Free Tibet” bobbed up and down from the basket of Sri Shrestha’s bicycle as she rode down Broadway on Friday evening. Behind her, about 30 other bicycles filled the street as they shouted the slogan, “One world, one voice, free Tibet.”
The combination of bicyclist and protester merged in an event called Critical Mass for Free Tibet.
The point of Critical Mass was to get a large amount of bicyclists, or a “critical mass” of bikes, on the road in one general area to draw attention, often stopping traffic or disrupting traffic flow. Organizers said their intentions were not to annoy motorists but to gain attention with slogans and chanting.
People eating dinner inside the Ragtag forgot about their food and stared at over two dozen bicyclists wearing “monk maroon” converging outside the restaurant. Games at Stankowski Field paused as the sound of chanting bicyclists surrounded them.
And even pedestrians who came across the bike ride were curious about the protest. One pedestrian giggled and said, “Where’s Tibet?” as the ride passed her. Bicyclists were hoping to challenge what they saw as a general lack of awareness about the Tibet/China conflict through their ride.
The Free Tibet movement is not new. Protesters argue that, in 1951, Chinese forces invaded Tibet and have been controlling the area ever since. The Free Tibet movement, which seeks to gain Tibetan autonomy from China, has received increased attention with the 2008 Olympics being held in Beijing.
The Critical Mass for Free Tibet event was organized to recognize local support for the cause.
“It can show that even in places like the middle of the Midwest, people are compassionate for the people in Tibet,” said Shrestha, who thought of and organized the event.
Shrestha was born in Nepal after her mother, a Tibetan, sought refuge there. She said the issue is much harder to discuss in places like Nepal, where it was even considered taboo for her father to marry a Tibetan woman.
In lieu of traditional protesting, Shrestha, 23, said a bicycle ride has the effect of being a positive, healthy form of protest. The goal was to connect people in Columbia who share a common interest in the movement and be a meeting point for individuals interested in starting a Students for Free Tibet group, which has faded in recent years.
“A Critical Mass event is an encouraging sign of a town where people are politically involved and active in the community,” said Richard Schulte, 22, a member of the Students for Progressive Action. “It’s important to just talk about what is going on in Tibet and what has been going on there.”
Dave Engelkenjohn, 21, wearing a T-shirt with the words “Speak out daily” on it, said that people are afraid to raise awareness of this issue. Engelkenjohn’s mother visited Tibet four years ago, and since then, he has participated in Free Tibet rallies and protests.
“People are afraid to talk out about it. They think we live in a democracy because they go and vote, but it’s about talking out everyday, being progressive,” Engelkenjohn said.
Not everyone who saw the Free Tibet bicyclists agreed with the movement, however.
As the ride crested the intersection of Ninth Street and Broadway, two Chinese MU grad students said they disagreed with the protest.
“Most of the people who say ‘Free Tibet,’ they have never been there,” Siwei Cheng, 27, said. “The Olympics should be a good chance to communicate, not fight with each other.”
Min Li, 27, also disagreed with the bicyclists’ message. She said the attention given to Tibet has been unfair and one-sided. She said most Americans do not know enough of the history of China and Tibet to protest.
Shrestha said this event was not meant to make up anyone’s mind about Tibet or China.
“It’s such a politically charged conflict. I want to let people know that it is a conflict and give them the resources to learn about it themselves and decide for themselves,” Shrestha said. “I want to set the framework so people who support the cause have the opportunity to.”