An old man sits and hums to himself in the Pit by the Harvard T-stop. Resting on his shoulder, a full-sized Tibetan flag flits and flutters in the wind, its sunny streaks of red and cobalt lighting up the January night.
A woman in her mid-20s wearing high-heeled boots and a black coat emerges from Dunster Street to sit beside the old man. They fall naturally into conversation and are soon joined by another young Tibetan in a blue hoodie. The older man passes a worn composition notebook to the younger one, who pens his signature at the bottom of a long list of names. He is number 2,354. Next to his signature he scrawls a note in the margin: “Free Tibet!”
This composition notebook logs all of the guests who attend the weekly Tibet Freedom Vigil in the Harvard Square Pit. The tradition began in March 2008 in response to a significant Tibetan uprising, in which those living in Tibet broke out in riots protesting Chinese occupation of their homeland. Demonstrations began in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, then spread throughout the country and the world. Fueled by the renewed urgency and spirit of the Tibetans back home, a group of young Tibetan activists in Boston decided to stand in solidarity with their compatriots.
“For a lot of young Tibetans it was the first time [in their lifetimes] that something dramatic had happened inside Tibet. It was happening today—not in historical context,” says Tsepa Bayul, one of the founding organizers of the Tibet Freedom Vigil in Harvard Square who was 22 at the time of the 2008 protest. “We figured we would go out in the streets, talk to other Tibetan supporters, and figure out what to do.”
Tibetans chose the Harvard Pit as their demonstration local because of its visibility and tendency to attract tourists from all over the world. Ever since Harvard Square’s first vigil on March 14, 2008, a core group of Tibetans has gathered every week with banners, flags, and a microphone to educate passersby on the Chinese government’s human rights violations in Tibet. They have not missed a single Wednesday.
Vigilpala steps up to the microphone. His real name is Tsering Dongshi, but he goes by Vigilpala, or “vigil father” in Tibetan, due to his perfect attendance at the Harvard Square Vigil. Vigilpala begins with traditional Tibetan chanting: low, reverberating tones that to foreign ears sound like the deep gurglings of a tape recorder on half speed. He will chant until around 8 p.m. and then close the vigil with the Dalai Lama’s prayer, the Tibetan Uprising Song, and the Tibetan National Anthem.
Bayul and his fellow organizers, Ngawang Jorden and Dhondup Phunkhang, began the Wednesday vigil tradition as a way for the Tibetan community in Boston to participate in the international Lhakar movement. Derived from the Tibetan words “white Wednesday” to celebrate the purity of the Dalai Lama’s soul day, Lhakar embraces the power of strategic nonviolent resistance against China. As part of Lhakar, Tibetans pledge to preserve their culture every Wednesday, by wearing traditional Tibetan clothing, mentioning Tibet on social media, shopping at Tibetan-owned stores, or attending a Tibetan protest. In doing so, Tibetans strengthen and perpetuate their culture, one that many believe China is trying to dilute in its occupation of the region.
For Tibetans, complaints concerning the Chinese occupation abound: According to many in Boston’s Tibetan community, China imposes religious restrictions on Tibetans, closes Tibetan schools to wipe out use of the language, tortures and kidnaps Tibetans, and incentivizes wide-scale Han Chinese migration to Tibet as part of what some call an “ethnic cleansing” project As a result, many Tibetans living in Tibet have responded with self-immolation, the practice of setting oneself on fire. Nearly 100 self-immolations by Tibetans within Tibet have been reported since February 2009, according to Tibetan rights organizations.
“Tibetans inside Tibet have been so oppressed by the Chinese government that they see self-immolation as the only resort for a speaking voice. These self-immolations have been done strategically, so that the outside world can act upon them,” argues Tenzin Yangchen, a board member of Students for a Free Tibet and the Secretary General of the Tibetan Association of Boston, which has over 600 members. “Their sacrifices will go in vain if we as Tibetans, as human rights supporters, don’t do something to carry on their voice.” According to Havard Divinity School student Joshua Eaton ’10, an activist and journalist who specializes in Tibetan issues, those within Tibet have heard about the existence of the vigil in Harvard Square, and they know others are speaking on their behalf.
Ngawang Jorden, another of the vigil’s founding organizers, believes the vigil has helped alter the perspectives of many locals. Jorden says that a Chinese man once slipped him a $100 bill at the vigil, explaining that he strongly supported the Tibetan community but that he could not admit so in China without consequences. Jorden also remembers a three-year-old toddler, a boy who was not Tibetan, who demanded to be taken to the weekly vigil by his parents.
“Our struggle is not something we can just look at. If you are creating a shoe, you see the result. Our struggle is not like that—ours has lasted 50 years,” explains Jorden. “It’s a slow process, but little by little I think we do change people’s minds.”
The shine of headlights from Mass. Ave commuters appears like bright stripes across the faces of the 20 or so Tibetans who have assembled for this Wednesday’s protest. They have come prepared with signs and artwork. One hand-written poster demands “Human Rights for Tibet.” Another sign depicts a baby blue cloud with the text: “Tibet Freedom Vigil—Every Wednesday 6-8 p.m. Harvard Sq.—Until Tibet is Free.”