Alcatraz Island and Political Dissent

As a long time Bay Area resident, I’ve dined at San Francisco’s finest restaurants, walked many of its funky neighborhoods, and crossed over the Golden Gate by foot, bike, car, and bus. I've even paddled under the Gate in a kayak. But there is one iconic SF landmark I never visited – Alcatraz Island.

This past April, Cheryl and I boarded a ferry to tour the island and view the Ai Weiwei exhibition constructed within the prison walls. This show was not your weird Aunt Helen’s watercolors hung on the wall. This was a large-scale endeavor designed to live and breathe within, and defy, the confines of Alcatraz.

Weiwei is a Chinese activist and political prisoner who is prohibited from traveling outside China. (Update: On July 22, 2015, the Chinese government returned Ai Weiwei’s passport after more than 600 days). His Alcatraz installation – created in his Beijing studio without the benefit of any personal on-site inspection – relied on building schematics annotated by others with dimensions, wall colors and lighting to help design and create his work. Each piece, from the auditory experience of protest songs emanating from prison cells to Lego portraits of imprisoned dissidents, was developed and constructed in China, then shipped and installed in the prison.

Ai Weiwei’s overarching theme blended dissent with art. A Chinese dragon kite floated effortlessly through the confined air space of the huge New Industries Building. It was a contrast of color and freedom against prison drab and confinement. Some of the handmade dragon scales featured quotes from free speech proponents to add further irony.

On the floor was a quilt-like companion piece featuring names and faces of 176 people jailed or exiled for their political beliefs or party affiliations. Each portrait was composed with thousands of colored Lego pieces that gave a pixelated impression of the person’s image and name. Here is a photo and bio of one that attracted me.

Reeyot Alemu

Sentenced under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of Ethiopia. Alemu is a journalist, founder of a publishing house, and editor of the magazine Feteh. Her articles covered social and political affairs as well as poverty and gender issues. In 2012 she received the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation while serving a five-year prison sentence for her stand to be the "voice of the voiceless".

"I knew that I would pay the price for my courage and I was ready to accept that price.”

In the prison's “dining hall” were racks of post cards, each pre-addressed to one of the 176 dissidents. Visitors could write to as many as your fingers could take and the show’s sponsors assured they would be delivered. I wrote a few words to Reeyot Alemu and hoped she will have the chance to read it.

One may argue whether free speech freedoms afforded our citizens should apply to the Daniel Ellsberg’s, the Jane Fonda’s, and now, Edward Snowden. But, is it not exhilarating that we – you, I and anyone else - have the opportunity to argue amongst ourselves whether they are patriots, traitors, or just robust citizens exercising their rights. Because of our Constitution, their words, their actions, are protected without fear of reprisal just as you and I are protected to promote any disagreement we have with them or our own government.

Imagine if we could not have that discussion. Imagine if your passport, your freedom, was revoked only because you disagreed with those in a position to carry out those actions. Realize that this is what other countries do to silence verbal and written dissent as witnessed by Ai Weiwei’s 176 Lego images.

As we pulled away from Alcatraz Island, I reflected on the sobering experience of imprisonment within view of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. And on Ai Weiwei’s art that added a frightening dimension to political dissent. I came away with a new appreciation of our freedoms and of the value of free speech without fear of arbitrary confinement.

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