The NBA Fan Silenced for Protesting China Speaks Out

‘These are not American values’

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The NBA’s China controversy has made protestors out of its fans.

A tweet from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey expressing his support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong prompted sharp condemnation from Chinese authorities and an apology from the NBA for Morey’s “regrettable” language. (Not long after the NBA weighed in, Morey’s original tweet was deleted.) The backlash to the league’s refusal to side with Morey was swift. Even when league commissioner Adam Silver said Tuesday the NBA would not censor its employees, he still refused to condemn China for its crackdown in Hong Kong.

In response, fans have taken the protest into their own hands. One such fan, Jon Schweppe took aim at Beijing from inside the Washington Wizards arena on Wednesday night. He and a group of friends unfurled a “Free Hong Kong” sign, which was confiscated by security guards. Schweppe filmed the encounter and posted it to Twitter, where it quickly went viral fueling more outrage that the NBA is coddling China’s government over free speech.

Schweppe talked to GEN about what happened.

Basically, we were just texting yesterday morning. There were two protestors in Philadelphia who had really small “Free Hong Kong” signs, and they were booted from the game. So, we saw the stories on that and we talked about like, “Okay, well we should do something like, because we feel strongly about this too.” China’s a brutal authoritarian regime and it seems like American corporations are kowtowing to them.

We looked up the Wizards’ schedule to see when their next game was, thinking it’d be against an NBA team. Then we looked and realized, Oh my gosh, it’s against the Chinese team tonight! We were like, “Okay, we got to go.” Our plan was to go in with our signs and test the NBA’s policy, to see if we were actually going to have our speech censored at a game.

When we got to Capital One Arena, there were some protesters outside, and some folks from different groups around town that were handing out shirts, that sort of thing. So, we put on the “Free Hong Kong” shirts and we had no issue getting in with those shirts on; I’d say there were about maybe a hundred people in the arena that had those shirts on. We were wearing those shirts, and we had decided to do a couple signs. So, during the Chinese National Anthem, we unfurled a “Free Hong Kong” sign that was kind of longer. All four of us lifted it up and unfurled it. Immediately security came over to us and said, “Hey, you guys can’t have that, you can’t have that.”

I was a little delayed on filming. I should’ve gotten to it quicker, but we basically were asking them for the reason. These were stadium staff. We were trying to be as respectful as possible; they were just doing their jobs. They told us that the sign was too big and they had to confiscate it. So, they took the sign, we got that on phone [video] and we posted it to Twitter and obviously it blew up a little bit.

They are siding with the request of an authoritarian regime and censoring speech even of American citizens here in the United States.

We had determined that we were going to do one more, and one of my friends had brought in a sign that said, “Google Uyghurs.” The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority population in China that are being persecuted by the authoritarian regime there, and are actually being held in concentration camps. I mean there’s been reports about organ harvesting, just some really horrific human rights abuses. So, my friend put up a sign that said, “Google Uyghurs.” I don’t think [security] initially knew what Uyghurs were, so we were there for a couple minutes. Eventually they actually sent over people who are, I would assume, higher up in management because they were wearing suits, and they came over and told us that we are not allowed to have political signs.

So, my friend kind of debated with him a little bit about whether saying to Google a term for a minority group in China was a political statement. Ultimately they decided it was, and so we got that exchange on film and gave them the sign. They did tell us that if we did anything more they would kick us out. After that we decided we’d made our point. We ended up leaving voluntarily, at the start of the second quarter.

We are big NBA fans. Ideally we were hoping that the NBA would let us do the signs and we’d see some preseason basketball, and that would be it. Unfortunately they are siding with the request of an authoritarian regime and censoring speech, even of American citizens here in the United States.

I’m sympathetic to the Hong Kong protesters, but what is also significant is that we’re seeing American corporations like Blizzard [and] Nike censoring based on what the Chinese government is telling them to do because they want that market. They want to be able to make a buck. Is that really the price of doing trade with China? Are we going to have to basically adopt the Chinese censors’ rules on everything? Americans pride themselves on free speech and free expression, I think this is something that really resonates and is concerning to them.

I mean, I understand the [NBA’s] desire to grow and expand the game of basketball. I get that it’s an opportunity for the NBA to be kind of a global ambassador, but when you’re a global ambassador for America, you’re also an ambassador for American values. And these are not American values. The fact that American corporations are telling American citizens what they can and can’t say, what they can and can’t believe, that is completely beyond the pale.

Senior Editor, GEN by Medium. Previously: Pacific Standard, Wired

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store