'Free Hong Kong' signs confiscated at Wizards basketball game

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Several people at a Washington Wizards basketball game Wednesday against a Chinese team said their signs supporting anti-government demonstrators in Hong Kong and protesting the treatment of an ethnic group in China were confiscated.

The action follows a similar incident Tuesday when two fans were kicked out of a Philadelphia 76ers game because they carried small, handmade signs supporting anti-government demonstrators in Hong Kong.

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A group of people at the Wizard’s game said their signs were confiscated at Capital One Arena in Washington during a game against the Guangzhou Loong-Lions, of the Chinese Basketball Association. Another person said he was told to ditch his sign supporting Hong Kong or leave, and he chose to leave.

Patrick Hedger, 29, of Alexandria, Virginia, said he had a sign that read “Free Hong Kong” and chanted slogans like, “We will not bow to Chinese communist oppression” and “freedom of speech.”

“I knew I had to say something and take a stand,” said Hedger, who lived in Hong Kong briefly as a child and again when he was in a study-abroad program.

Others at the Wizards game tweeted they were allowed to wear “Free Hong Kong” shirts but a sign that read “Google Uyghurs,” referring to a Muslim ethnic group that the U.S. government says is being repressed in China with mass detention in internment camps, was confiscated.

Jon Schweppe, 31, who posted the video, said they also decided to leave after being told by security that political statements were not allowed. “We felt we’d made our point at that point,” he said.

The Wizards said in a statement that no fans were asked to leave, and that the building security staff removed signs in accordance with the arena’s policies against political or commercial signs.

The policies posted online say signs are allowed but may not be political or commercial in nature. Video purporting to show the confiscation of the sign about the Uyghurs shows an official saying no political signs are allowed.

On Tuesday night at the 76ers game, Sam Wachs, 33, a podcast producer from Philadelphia, and his wife were at the Sixers exhibition game, sitting three rows behind the visitors bench — where Loong-Lions were stationed at the Wells Fargo Center.

Each carried signs, “Free Hong Kong” and “Free HK,” before they were booted by arena security in the second quarter.

The Wachs’ protest came four days after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the demonstrators, drawing an instant rebuke from the league and its business partners in the People’s Republic of China.

Residents of the semiautonomous region have been protesting for more than four months now, calling for reforms.

“The NBA does not want deal with this,” Wachs told NBC News on Wednesday. “It’s all about money. They want their sweet, sweet Chinese money. And they say they’re for human rights and equality but that’s only up to a point. And that point is the Chinese market.”

Wells Fargo Center managers said their security officers had the right to eject Wachs and his wife over their support of Hong Kong protesters.

“After three separate warnings, the two individuals were escorted out of the arena without incident,” according to the arena. “The security team employed respectful and standard operating procedures.”

Wachs said the first warning came as he and his wife sat silently, holding up their signs, when security first approached them.

Activists hold up a sign before an NBA exhibition basketball game between the Washington Wizards and the Guangzhou Loong-Lions in Washington on Wednesday.Nick Wass / AP

“‘You can’t have these signs, nothing political,'” Wachs said, quoting a security guard. “I said ‘Why’ and he said ‘Hey don’t give me a hard time, I’m just doing my job.'”

The guard confiscated the “Free Hong Kong sign” but allowed them to keep their “Free HK” poster. Wachs said he told the guard “HK” stood for Harry Kalas, the late longtime Philadelphia Phillies baseball broadcaster.

That “HK” sign was confiscated a few minutes later. And then Wachs stood up and started chanting “Free Hong Kong, free Hong Kong,” leading to his third strike and ejection from the building.

Wachs, who lived in Hong Kong between 2009 and 2011, called for fans in other NBA cities to pull similar protests and force the issue.

“I hope it does not go away, I would love people in other cities to do something like this,” he said.

Hedger, the fan who chose to leave after chanting at the Wizards game, said the move by security was not unexpected.

“I wondered if the NBA would have toned it down and allowed me to stay, just because it’s clear this silencing support for Hong Kong is not going over well,” Hedger said in a phone interview.

Phil Helsel contributed.