Members of the New York chapter of the Overpass Light Brigade, a now-national movement started by Milwaukee artists Lane Hall and Lisa Moline during protests in Madison, take part in a protest over free speech rights in China held in Brooklyn April 10.

By Mary Louise Schumacher

On Thursday evening, the PEN American Center staged a protest against China’s efforts to silence artists, writers and intellectuals at the Brooklyn Public Library. Last month, PEN named economist and activist Ilham Tohti the winner of the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. This prompted the Chinese government to issue “an angry defense of their unfounded prosecution” against Tohti, PEN said in a statement.

Artists, writers and others gathered on the plaza of the library, including the New York chapter of the Overpass Light Brigade, a now-national movement that was started by Milwaukee artists Lane Hall and Lisa Moline during protests in Madison over collective bargaining rights. The group’s Lite Brite signs read “Free Expression” and were displayed as the sun went down. They also displayed their message in Chinese.

The event culminated with a video made by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who is prohibited from leaving China and remains under house arrest for his artistic gestures of political activism. It was projected onto much of the face of the nearby Brooklyn Museum, where a traveling retrospective of Ai’s work will go on view next week and which the artist is unable to attend. (I traveled to the Indianapolis Museum of Art to review this exhibit and also reviewed his contribution to the Venice Biennale last year).

“As an artist I think of free expression as a very essential foundation for any kind of activity, and also free expression is to encourage every in person to question authority and to become more creative,” Ai said in his speech. “So this is a very, very essential value for artists to protect and to fight for. And it will never come as a gift, but rather through our artworks, our voice, our lines our buildings and the poetry. “All of those expressions together can discuss what a human or humanity is about…

“Thank you for this act, it is very important not only in China but elsewhere in the world….So, we are together fighting for freedom of expression.”

The plight of Ai Weiwei became a particular interest in Milwaukee when the artist was incarcerated during the “Summer of China,” which took place at the Milwaukee Art Museum and included the only exhibit in the world opened during that time that was organized in collaboration with China. Attendees of Thursday’s protest held prints by Ai and Shepard Fairey.

Tohti was arrested in Beijing in January and held in a detention center thousands of miles away in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, according to PEN. His wife and two young sons have since been under constant surveillance. They have been ostracized and had all of their assets frozen, PEN noted. Tohti has been charged with “separatism,” a charge that carries a penalty of 10 years to life, or the death penalty in extreme cases.

You can see a video created by PEN featuring most of the event (the Overpass Light Brigade comes in at about 29 minutes and Ai near the end) and follow this unfolding story on Twitter by using the #WithFlowers hashtag.