Olympic Torch Protests Overwhelm San Francisco
Olympic Torch Protests Overwhelm San Francisco
By Matt Renner
t r u t h o u t | Report
San Francisco, California - A day-long mass gathering intended to protest the running of the 2008 Beijing Olympic torch ended anticlimactically when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to cancel the downtown closing ceremony and instead hold the ceremony at the airport.
Newsom told The Associated Press he decided to move the closing ceremony because of the protests.
Moving the ceremony away from the downtown area capped off a chaotic day and was seen as a victory by protesters who did not want the torch to pass through the city without resistance. Initially, the torch was supposed to travel along the waterfront and circle back to the downtown area for the closing ceremony. The route was altered because officials feared protesters might clash with police and disrupt the relay. The new route was kept secret until the runners were underway, leaving the protesters disorganized.
Deviating from their announced plans, San Francisco officials put the torch and all 80 torch bearers on buses and drove them up to Van Ness Avenue - about two miles away from the original route - where they proceeded to run through the city toward the Golden Gate Bridge with little interference.
Upon hearing reports the relay course had been changed, the most committed protesters sprinted uphill toward where they thought the torch was headed. A spectacle ensued with hundreds of confused protesters jogging through the streets of the business district, waving flags and asking each other if they knew where to go.
On Wednesday morning, human rights activists gathered outside of a well orchestrated official rally, complete with Chinese drums and colorfully costumed dancers. The tension was palpable, as police escorted people holding Tibetan flags out of the area. "Its not safe for you here," a smiling police officer told a young protester with Tibetan prayer flags wrapped around his body, while escorting him to the designated protest areas.
The ceremonial Olympic torch relay across the globe has drawn heated protests in recent days, with activists flooding relay routes throughout Europe, and attempting to extinguish the Olympic torch. Tibet freedom activists have capitalized on the world attention being paid to the Chinese government in advance of the Beijing Olympics by voicing their opposition to what they see as an occupation of Tibet by China and the human rights abuses China has perpetrated against the people of Tibet.
About half an hour before the torch was scheduled to be set aflame and carried along the San Francisco Bay waterfront, protesters began marching down The Embarcadero - a wide street that borders the eastern edge of the city - toward McCovey Cove where the lighting ceremony was underway.
A blue tour bus escorted by police motorcycles suddenly pulled away from the ceremony location. Apparently thinking the Olympic torch was aboard the bus, protesters began running toward the bus and crowding in front of it. The driver seemed to panic momentarily as protesters began banging on the windshield and shouting "free Tibet, free Tibet, free Tibet." After initially stopping to avoid running over the protesters, the driver began to accelerate, attempting to drive through the crowd at roughly five miles an hour.
Screams and shouts from the protesters and police in front of the bus eventually compelled the driver to stop after traveling about 100 feet. Protesters clung to the windows and windshield wipers of the bus, plastering it with Tibetan flag stickers. As police stepped in to try and disperse the crowd, a large metal object, thrown from a long distance, clanged off the windshield. A bottle was smashed against a side window. A police officer caught in the throng looked terrified as he was swallowed up among the rowdy protesters.
The situation was diffused when fellow protesters decided the bus was empty, a decoy used by police to try and draw the protest away from the ceremony. Police said the bus had just dropped people off at the torch lighting and was not intended to misdirect the crowd.
Early reports stated San Francisco officials decided to change the route of the torch relay in anticipation of violent demonstration. It is unclear whether the tour bus incident prompted the course change, but the incident made clear the level of anger and energy driving the protests.
The successful rope-a-dope maneuver left thousands of protesters and casual observers milling around the waterfront area, unsure if they were going to catch a glimpse of the Olympic torch on its only stop in North America.
Left stranded away from the action, the two protest factions turned on one another.
"The Tibetan protesters are rioters. China is making good progress," Steve Hu, a Chinese immigrant and vocal counterprotester said. Many counterprotesters waving Chinese flags marched through the streets, exchanging insults and fiery rhetoric with those advocating for an independent Tibet. Interactions between the two groups varied. The most common encounters were limited to basic insults and impolite hand gestures.
In more heated confrontations, people yelled at one another, their faces just inches apart. On multiple occasions, the warring groups actually clashed in what can only be described as flag on flag sword fights.
The emotional battles remained peaceful, with calmer individuals stepping in when violence appeared imminent. The majority of protesters on both sides recognized both had the right to demonstrate and to express their deeply held political positions.
"Everyone has a right to protests," Justin Zhang, a Chinese immigrant who was waving the Chinese flag said. "I'm disappointed because I didn't get to see the torch."
Tsering Choedon, an Indian immigrant who was protesting in favor of Tibetan independence, said she was thankful the city of San Francisco could hold such an event where both sides could be heard. "I want the Chinese government to let the reporters into China and Tibet so that the world can know the truth," Choedon said from her seated position on the crowded sidewalk. The small woman held a Tibetan flag and wore a mask over her mouth to represent the silencing of Tibetan voices in China.
While protesters advocating for the freedom of Tibet tend to receive the majority of attention, various other groups were quite prominent.
Muhammad Suleiman, a Sudanese immigrant and a protester with the Save Darfur coalition, said his presence at the protest was intended to "send a message to China that genocide and the Olympic games cannot coexist." Suleiman accused China of supplying weapons to the government of Sudan who, in turn, use them to commit atrocities against their own population. "I want the Chinese government to know that they have a moral obligation to stop this," Suleiman said.
Matt Renner is an assistant editor and Washington reporter for Truthout.