Noe Valley Voice September 2008

Local Activist Raises 'Free Tibet' Flag in Beijing

By Joshua Brandt

At first glance, Noe Valley resident Adam Zenko seems an unlikely candidate to be kicked out of Beijing for protesting during the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Zenko, who has lived at 25th and Castro for the past two years and who works as a paralegal at a downtown law firm, doesn't wear his passion for Tibetan freedom on his sleeve. Indeed, when asked about the "nobility" of sacrificing his summer vacation and pay in order to advocate for the rights of others, Zenko appears reticent to take credit.

"Noble is not a word people use often in Wisconsin," said Zenko, a native of Green Bay. "That's not a word I would choose to use."

Zenko, 35, has been actively involved in the quest for Tibetan freedom since he stayed with a host family in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 1993. That experience imbued him with a passion for the cause of Tibetan independence.

A member of the local chapter of the New York­based Students for a Free Tibet, Zenko believes strongly that China, which he claimed was responsible for killing 1.2 million Tibetans since 1950 (the year China occupied Tibet), has not been sufficiently taken to task for its human rights abuses.

"I personally found the very notion of allowing a totalitarian dictatorship like China to host the Olympics in 2008 as repellent as Germany hosting them in 1936 and the Soviet Union hosting them in 1980," said Zenko during an interview in late August.

Although Zenko has participated in over a dozen protests on behalf of Tibetan freedom, his recent trip to China was by far his riskiest move yet.

"I have many friends who are of Chinese descent here in the Bay Area, and they were all quite concerned," Zenko said. "The reputation of the Beijing police force is not good. They don't take dissent say the least."

Zenko arrived in Beijing on the morning of Aug. 7, and the protest took place on the morning of Aug. 10, the third day of Olympic competition. Several blocks from Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 student and labor uprising that left several hundred dissidents dead, Zenko unfurled a banner that read "Tibetans Are Dying for Freedom."

Almost immediately, Zenko, along with four other protesters and a tourist taking photos, was arrested and marched to the nearest building for questioning. Later, the detainees were driven to the airport and put on a plane to Los Angeles.

"We were detained for eight hours, and I was kicked and punched several times," Zenko said. "Our passports were also confiscated, we were photographed repeatedly, and some of the other protesters were forced to use their credit cards to pay for their flight home."

Throughout the protest, or "action," as he calls it, Zenko tried to stick to the ideals espoused by Students for a Free Tibet and remain non-violent. But his behavior had little impact, he said, on the "physically aggressive" tactics of the Beijing police.

"At one point, as I was being kicked and punched, I kept on shouting that this was a non-violent protest, but I was ignored," he said.

Zenko's arrival back in San Francisco was considerably more hospitable: he was greeted by more than 50 Tibetan exiles who presented him with a khata, a ceremonial scarf indicating respect.

He also was surrounded by reporters, who peppered him with questions--an experience that didn't leave him hankering for more of the celebrity spotlight.

"That was a completely new experience for me, and it wasn't really my cup of tea," said Zenko.

"Only history will show what the repercussions of the protests will be," he continued. "They certainly represent a new and bolder tactic that hadn't been used previously. The protests by myself and others will continue until Tibet is free."

Until the next protest, he'll return to work, and to one of his favorite pastimes on 24th Street: watching football with fellow Green Bay Packer fans at the Valley Tavern.

Asked if he ever expounded on Tibetan freedom amongst his football buddies, Zenko conceded that it wasn't the most popular topic of conversation.

But Zenko is always happy to educate anyone not familiar with the issues.

"Our action will continue past the Olympics," Zenko said. "We will not allow the Chinese government to legitimize its occupation of Tibet and whitewash human rights abuses."