On April 6, as fans and protesters alike anticipated the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s motorcade on Lantana Road during his summit with President Donald Trump, a 52-year-old woman darted into the road and into oncoming traffic — surprising even the protesters with her.
A Palm Beach County sheriff’s major quickly pulled Yong Tian Ma out of the path of a car in the motorcade. The major struck her several times with his baton and put his knee into her back while she was on the ground, video of the incident shows.
Several deputies picked her up, carried her off the road and dropped her on the sidewalk. They arrested her and five others over a two-day period on misdemeanor charges of obstructing a roadway or highway.
Palm Beach County prosecutors have dropped charges against Ma and the others as part of pretrial agreements where each agreed to pay $50 in prosecution costs. The deal brought an end to what many deemed a cry for attention from protesters who, in the end, caused no disruption to the summit at Mar-a-Lago.
On Tuesday, in a phone interview from her home in Rockville, Maryland, arranged through defense attorney Scott Skier, Ma recounted a 16-year journey that started in her homeland in northeast China and is filled with allegations of injustice, torture and loss. As she spoke, her voice was laced with the same emotion that she said propelled her into traffic.
“I heard the president, Xi Jinping, says he is about justice and rights. I was hoping he would listen to me,” Ma, speaking through “Initiatives for China” office director Daniel Gong as an interpreter, said Tuesday.
As for the baton strikes she suffered, Ma said she was surprised to be handled that roughly but said it was gentle compared to what she endured in Chinese jails. Once, she said she tried to hang herself in a Chinese jail but guards stopped her — and beat her for the attempt.
Gong says Ma and the other protesters who were arrested were not part of his organization, but he was there to translate.
On Tuesday, he translated as Ma described a harrowing journey that she says began in 2001, when her ceramics factory in the Jilin Province was seized by Changchun city government officials, who had cleared the way for developers to build apartment buildings there.
The youngest of five children born and raised in Jilin province, Ma said she established the Yongmin Artisan and Crafts company and built the factory with her husband in the late 1980s.
The bulk of their work was manufacturing ceramic urns, which they sold to funeral homes, she said. She also created ceramic decorative pottery, she said, using the ancient Tang Sancai method, which evolved in the late 7th and 8th centuries.
Ma says developers had rightfully obtained permission to demolish some structures near her factory, but then unlawfully conspired with city officials to obtain demolition orders for her factory as well.
“I was petitioning the demolition. I wasn’t there when they came, but I heard there were 100 people who came to the demolition, developers, government officials and officers of the court,” Ma said.
Ma said her mother and her youngest son, then just 18 months old, were in the factory living quarters. She said her mother suffered a stroke during her removal, by force. She said her son, now 17, has a cognitive or psychological illness that Gong could not translate, but attributes to the early trauma.
At the time of the demolition, Ma said, her factory was worth $1 million Chinese yen and the company held an additional $10 million in contracts throughout China.
She said she filed a lawsuit against the city and the developers, who built apartment buildings on the land. A higher court in November 2002 deemed the demolition unlawful and said city officials should not have approved it, she said, but the court ordered no damages and left Ma with no recourse.
So, she said, she began petitioning government officials and anyone she thought would take up her cause.
That fight landed her in what are known as “black jails” in Beijing on several occasions, she said, where she was beaten, starved and held without charges.
She and her oldest son made it to the United States in 2013, where they have continued their petitions. Her husband and youngest son remain in China. Ma said she recently applied and received visas for her husband and son to enter the United States, but said that because of her continued petitions, local officials have placed her husband and son on house arrest so they can’t leave.
Her anguish and frustration drew her to Palm Beach County to seek out her nation’s president, she said.
In arrest reports, deputies say, Ma darted into the 1500 block of Lantana Road “while pointing a dark object at the motorcade.” Ma said she wanted to hand a petition to someone in the motorcade, hoping it would get back to someone who could help her.
Even Gong, sympathetic to her plight, disagreed with her method.
“We don’t support those kinds of ways of protest, and actually we were quite surprised that happened, but we are pleased that the state of Florida dropped the charges,” Gong said.
On Monday, state attorney spokesman Mike Edmondson didn’t provide specifics but called the outcome “a standard resolution in a misdemeanor case of that nature with a defendant that has no prior record.”
Arrested in the same two-day period as Ma were: Yuan Jianbin, 49, of Hacienda Heights, Calif.; Ma’s other son, Yang Haihan, 34, of Rowland Heights, Calif.; Zhang Weixue, 65, of New York; and Wang Chun Yan, 53, whose address is not listed in sheriff’s reports. It was unclear from court records whether the case of a sixth protester, Jia Kuo, had closed as well.
Asked through Gong if she was scared about speaking to an American reporter, Ma replied that she was.
“She is afraid but she said they are finding ways to keep her from petitioning, through her son and her husband, and she cannot allow that,” Gong translated. “She thinks the more the media covers it, the more they will be careful.”
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