Friday, April 25, 2008

Alcatraz Inmate Darwin Coon

On some days at Alcatraz visitors get more than an audio tour: they get to meet former inmate Darwin Coon and Guard John Hernon.

But the opportunity to meet these living legends of one of the world's most infamous jails takes visitors by surprise. For no indication is given in advance that they will be there. Visitors only find out after they have landed on the Rock and are listening to the introductory talk on the quayside. The day I was there, John was seated almost anonymously at the information desk in the cell block, and Darwin was busy in the bookstore signing copies of his autobiography.

Darwin, a former bank robber, is now 75 years-old and one of only about ten surviving inmates. A small, softly-spoken figure in a brown jacket, he sat behind a desk wielding nothing more dangerous than a biro. Handguns and sawn-off shot guns are artefacts of the past.

I chatted to him as people came up to have their copies of his book, Alcatraz: The True End of the Line, signed. People were fascinated by him and also expressed admiration and sympathy, for just seeing him there was testimony to a man who had turned his life around.

How long were you in prison? one man asked.

'Fourteen years, seven months, 23 days. Four years here,' he repeats like a mantra.

'Well I'm glad you're out, sir,' said another man cheerfully.

'Not as glad as I am!' Darwin quipped back.

Yet another man slipped him a $20 dollar note 'for signing the book'.

Most people ask Darwin to dedicate the book to someone. His signing is precise: 'Darwin E - the 'E" stands for Evert - Coon,' followed by the number 1422 and the dates 1959-1963. He is careful to explain that the number, written using the symbol for the 'pound' sign, represents his Alacatraz prisoner number, and the dates are the years he spent there. If anything is to bring fame to him, not that he is seeking it, it lies in the fact that he helped in the preparation of the most outstanding escape of three men, on which Clint Eastwood's film, Escape from Alcatraz, is based.

Ask him what his most outstanding memory of life on the Rock is and he doesn't hesitate: 29 days in 'the hole'. The details are in his book: made to sit in a cell naked and cold in total darkness, being fed half-rations twice a day and no dessert. There was a five-inch hole in the floor for a toilet and sadistic guards limited water and toilet paper supplies.

It was his punishment for being caught with a knife tucked into his sock, one that he was carrying to protect himself from other inmates.

That afternoon, though, he said of himself, 'I was trouble from two-years-old. There was nothing that could save me.'

His life has certainly had a V-shaped trajectory. From temper-tantrumming toddler but also a child deserted by his mother, he slid down into a troublesome schoolboy, burglar, 'fence', expender of forged cheques, prison escapee, and an armed robber who finally raided a Las Vegas nightclub and banks. He was in and out of various youth custody facilities and prisons with some brutal experiences.

The greatest irony, though, is that Darwin was sent to Alcatraz from a Kansas prison, falsely accused of stealing tools. In an effort to coerce a confession, the Kansas guards savagely beat him over a period of 29 days. One of the remarkable things in the book is that he recounts this factually with no bitterness against the guards or anger at this unjust turn of events.

But as he finally landed with a bump in the hellish punishment 'hole' of Alcatraz, his life pivoted on faith in God. 'This place made a believer out of me,' he said, and he set his mind that he was 'never going to commit another crime.' Or, as he writes in his book: 'It was in the hole, naked and cold, that I began to talk to God, and first asked Him to help me. I know it sounds strange, but He answered me and I began to change.'

After the closure of Alcatraz, Darwin, who was one of the last group of men to leave, served out the rest of his sentence back in the Kansas prison. On his release, faced with the employment difficulty of being not just an ex-con but a long-standing Alcatraz ex-con, he wobbled and hit the bottle, becoming an alcoholic. But with the help of a friend, he went successfully into rehab, and his life went into ascendancy. He was given a job in property management by the same friend, began to attend church, became a committed Christian, met and married his wife, Marge, became a foster father to 94 children, 'Papa' to three half-sisters, a prison bible teacher with Chuck Colson's prison fellowship, and author.

What was the worst aspect of life on Alcatraz? I asked. 'No social time,' he said. Prisoners were kept in their cells for a minimum 16 hours a day with only brief periods in the mess, exercise yard, and on work placements when Darwin worked in the kitchen. Visitors were allowed for two hours on a Saturday and Sunday. By an amazing coincidence, some of Darwin's family including Darwin had previously moved to Oakland, a small town across the Bay within sight of the island, so his eldest sister, Alberta, visited him regularly, he told us.

Which other famous prisoners did he 'do time' with? He listed Robert Stroud, the Bird Man of Alcatraz, Alvin Karpis, the prisoner who held the record for length of time spent there, Mickey Cohen, West Coast mafia boss, Bumpy Johnson, Harlem gangster, and Joe Bananas, mafia boss, although he pointed out that he didn't know them all personally.

Neither was he overcome in attacks from other prisoners. 'I used these,' he said, briefly raising his fists.

Another visitor asked, 'What were you in for?'.

'Bank robbery,' said Darwin, and elaborated. He had successfully robbed four banks bagging about $120,000 dollars, a sum worth today over $1 million dollars, but got caught during his getaway from the fifth with the lucrative haul of $50,000.

What did you do with the money? continued the questioner.

'Spent it!.... that's why we were robbing a fifth,' said Darwin.

'How did you spend it?' an incredulous voice chipped in from behind my left shoulder.

'Pretty girls!' said Darwin. 'They cost a lot of money!'

I turned and discovered that the sharp-shooter was eleven-year-old Jeffrey - a great career in journalism obviously there for the taking.

Darwin explained that due to the vigilance of a small-town marshal, he and his friend's 'strange' car had been spotted outside the bank at night and reported to patrol police. Patrol cars ambushed them later. Darwin escaped only to be caught in a roadblock having begged a lift in a pick-up truck.

Visions of an accomplished bank robber waiting in queue to have his credentials checked floated into mind. I asked him how it felt to be caught like that. 'Felt kinda dumb. Get caught in a roadblock!' he said.

Does he meet up with other prisoners now? Since 1995 he has attended the annual August reunion for prisoners, guards and other staff who worked on the island, he said, but that the number of surviving prisoners has dwindled to about ten.

Touring Alcatraz on sunny days - this was my third visit in a few months - my impressions were mixed. The island is beautiful and covered with leisurely tourists, a breeding bird colony and wild flowers. By the cells the sun streams in through large, high windows. The audio tour, which records the commentary of real former prisoners, points out the surprising but true fact that the food was the best of any prison and also talks of the 'musical hour' when prisoners were allowed to play instruments. Darwin already played harmonium and learnt the guitar with the help of a music teacher inmate. There were also college courses available.

It can begin to take the edge off the imagined bleakness and brutality. 'How accurate is Alacatraz the Museum compared to Alcatraz the Prison?' I asked.

'The audio tour is very good, very accurate,' is Darwin's view, whose voice is one of the first on the audio tape after inmate Jim Quillen laments the loss of personhood through being known only as a number.

Darwin's contribution, given that at the time he was facing 80 years of imprisonment from a sentencing error later reduced on appeal, is: 'I figure I'm never going to get out. Yeah, I'm going to sit right here until I die.'

Pressed further on prison life, he said simply, 'It was very harsh,' and added, 'They didn't hurt my feelings one bit when they closed it up!'

Reading his book later there is a glimmer of things that wouldn't make for publication. The first priority for prisoners was to keep themselves from being assaulted by other prisoners, and the second was to keep from going crazy faced with confinement in cells only 5ft by 9ft for no less than 16 hours a day. Right at the beginning of his book Darwin writes: 'There were some truly terrible things that took place on that little island in San Francisco Bay.....You have to be constantly aware of everything that is going on around you, or you could wind up getting released early by going out the back gate in a pine box.'

Darwin spent almost three years writing his book, which was published in 2002. Sadly, his wife, Marge, died some years ago and for health reasons he has cut down on his speaking engagements. But he still attends his church in Sacramento, California, and visits the island 'six, seven, eight days' a month. Not simply as a story-teller but as a messenger of hope.

His book is a fascinating read with all sorts of extra info about the Rock and it's inmates. It is short with easy-on-the-eye type size and contains some lovely family photos. It is published by New Desmas Press, Sacramento.

Conga 2008

There was the happy sight and sound of conga dancing around the streets of San Fran today. Over 100 people gathered in Union Square and then some wiggled and jiggled in traffic-stopping merriment to launch the Bay Area National Dance Week with the West Coast's Longest Conga Line.

They were led by Hot Pink Feathers, girls in red plumage and a guy in red and gold costume, accompanied by jazz brass band Blue Bone Express.

From the flat to fleet footed, they left Union Square at midday and circled nearby streets before returning to the square for an hour of entertainment. Some in the conga were in their own dance costumes, especially groups of Scottish and English country dancers.

This is the 10th Anniversary of the dance week, and the third year of the conga.

Afterwards, Everett of Hot Pink Feathers, said: 'It has gone very well. I think for us it's the day being beautiful and all those people out there. This is the day for people to express themselves.

How many days do you get to stop traffic because people are dancing around!'

En route, I met 70-year-old Christine, who nearly stopped traffic by herself as she paused half-way across a road and continued to dance while being filmed and interviewed by a camera-girl.

'My doctor said 'No dancing,' she told me when I caught up with her later in the square. 'But I love it!' she said, and assured me that her health was improving.

I also spoke to Lou and Victor. They had emerged from the Apple store, seen the conga and joined in.

'I love the spontaneity,' said Lou, who describes himself as someone who has lived in San Fran 'for ever!'While Victor enthused: 'I've just read a book called "Dancing in the Streets." This is what should be happening in the world,' he said.

Back in the square, where dancing displays had continued during the conga, we watched Alseny Soumah and Lahydi from Guinea, West Africa, who danced with vitality and acrobatic agility, Funkanometry, a Hip Hop group, a young modern dance troupe from Creative Arts Charter School, and another performance from Hot Pink Feathers who attracted some unexpected show-stealers.

The music, the gaiety, the colour proved too enticing for three-year-old Jules, four-year-old James and two-year-old Andre. With no hint of self-consciousness, they jumped onto the stage to pirouette, twirl and bow to the delighted bemusement of on-lookers.

Does Jules like dancing? I asked her nanny.

'She loves it. She dances all the time,' she said.

While Andre's mum said, 'He saw the girls go up and chased after them. He loves to dance and play with other kids his age.'

Around the square, tables were set up to advertise dance groups and for the handing out of leaflets. Aside from the conga and entertainment, the event is a ten-day showcase for all styles of dance around the Bay Area. Advertised as 'over 300 free events - all dance, all free, all week,' it ends on Sunday, May 4. The festival includes performances, classes, workshops, open rehearsals, festivals and lecture demonstrations. Details can be found on BAYAREANDW.ORG.

The Dancers Group have also published a summer guide to dance performances in the Bay Area up to the end of August, and this can be found on

As compere Carla, of Carla Service's Dance-A-Vision Entertainment, said: 'No matter what's going on in the world...still try to find time to dance. Find that space of happiness!'

Click for pics. Click to enlarge.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Tiger Cubs Make Public Appearance

Three new-born tiger cubs at San Francisco zoo are making their first public appearances to the excitement of visitors.

Mum Leanne has started to carry the cubs, all boys, outside.

We took pics and video1 : video2 (click to see) this afternoon of one of the Sumatran tiger cubs exploring his grassy terrain. Already he was quite sure-footed for a cub almost six-weeks-old. But like any watchful mum, Leanne sometimes followed after him, picked him up gently in her mouth and brought him back to the centre of the enclosure. She laid him down and gave him a few motherly licks, but it wasn't long before he was off again! He was even heard practicing a little roar!

The cubs were first spotted outside on Saturday, two days ago.

'They are too little to be able to maneouvre around the exhibit themselves. But with the nice weather she's (Leanne) brought them out for a little sunshine and fresh air,' said Curator Ingrid.

'She is bringing them all out one at a time. She takes one back to the bedroom and brings out another.'

A few journalists were given a photo-opportunity of the three cubs last month but the zoo had no planned date for the cubs' appearances before the general public.

'We move at the animals' comfort level,' Ingrid said.

Three cubs are considered to be a large first litter, the average one being of two cubs, she explained. Also tigers are not usually that good at caring for their offspring first-time round as like any new mums they've never done it before.

But Leanne has surpassed expectations both in size of litter and by being an 'excellent mum.'

'She has surprised us all with three healthy cubs that she has raised perfectly,' Ingrid said.

The cubs have not yet been named and that honour is likely to fall to zoo patrons.

'Did you hear that noise?' Ingrid said suddenly as we stood there chatting. 'It's called a chuff, a tiger greeting.' A sound that tigers make when they are happy.

There is no doubt that Leanne is one chuffed tiger!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Olympic Torch Day 2008

At the end of the day it was a Protest Party showing San Francisco at it's welcoming best : thousands of campaigners given unfettered run of miles of Bay front area to oppose China's human rights abuses on the day that the Olympic Torch came to the city. The sun shone and police ensured safety. And at the end of the day everyone went home if not with a party bag then at least with plenty of photos to remember the occasion with.

Meanwhile, tucked almost completely out of sight from not only protesters but journalists, a little thing called the Olympic Torch bobbed along a few city streets in the hands of 80 Torchbearers who were also ferried briefly near the Golden Gate Bridge and then whisked to an airport terminal under cover for the Closing Ceremony.

And everyone else was left wondering what had happened. One visitor I spoke to felt sorry for people who had spent money and effort travelling to San Francisco specially to see the Torch. Another reflected on it as a 'non-event.' An NBC journalist on the teatime broadcast called it 'a strange day.' In her 15 years of broadcasting, she said, she had never covered something quite like this.

But then never, probably, has such an illusion worthy of a David Copperfield show been pulled over an entire city.

The day began ordinarily enough - for an international protest day. By early morning protesters were streaming to the Bay side along the publicised route: the Opening Ceremony to be held on a stage on the far side of a cove opposite the Giants baseball park south of the city, with the Torchbearing parade to curl around to a narrow road bridge, pass the baseball park and enter the main street to travel north up to Fisherman's Wharf.

There it would return to a plaza at the Embarcadero roughly midway along the route.

With the Opening Ceremony scheduled for 1 pm, by mid-morning about 1,000 people were piling up at the end of the bridge and around the ballpark. The spot was a natural bottleneck, bringing protesters within a couple of strides of the Torch.

I spoke to a guy lifting a large banner high into the air on behalf of the people of Darfur.

He attacked governments for involvement in the Olympic Games yet doing nothing about the genocide of Darfur. 'It's going to be the thing that's remembered in the first half of this century,' he said, balancing the banner and himself on the edge of the pavement. Other protesters fighting for freedom in Tibet from Chinese oppression and waving their national yellow flags were lining up. Opposite, Chinese red flags were filling the air. Coaches filled with Chinese people had been seen driving into the city earlier.

A slanging match started. 'Shame! Shame! China Shame!' taunted one side. The other side booed and jeered back.

Suddenly a young Tibetan was seen handcuffed in the street by police. A cluster of cameramen, both professional and amateur, rushed to capture the event as another young Tibetan ran sobbing across the front of the ballpark.

'The cop has hurt him,' Yonten cried. 'They (the Chinese) are killing Tibetans,' he said in distress. He stood being comforted by Kalsang.

'He's only a high school kid who was peacefully protesting,' Kalsang pleaded. 'The Chinese are standing there spitting at us and calling us liars!'

Whether the lad was formally arrested, I don't know. NBC11 news said later only two demonstrators were arrested over the whole day.

On the plaza in front of the ballpark, Chinese people stood behind a long banner shouting 'No Slavery! '

I went over to try and understand what slavery? The girl I spoke to had halting English and the first part of her answer was incomprehensible. 'They - the human rights demonstrators - are crazy!' she said, finally making linguistic sense.

What about human rights abuses?

'I still say human rights is a right. Sometimes we do things that people don't agree with. Even America does human rights abuses,' she said.

Still puzzled, I turned to a Tibetan lady nearby.

Doma wasn't sure about the 'slavery' but said with passion that if the Chinese thought America was a nation of slavery, they should go back to their own country. 'Please get out of here!' she said. 'They think they are still living in China. They think they can still beat and kill people here. They are liars!'

But then I met Jennifer and David - if indeed they were their names - two charming American Chinese young people in red teeshirts and all became clear!:

'Tibet was under slavery until the 1950s,' explained Jennifer. The Dalai Lama was the biggest slave owner. Most people who flee to other parts of the world were slave owners. Tibet has been part of China for 800 years.'

'As American Chinese we are very unbiased,' she added. Of course.

So what about the abuses? I said.

'China is a large country. We cannot be responsible for everything that happens there. A lot of things can happen there. But then there are improvements to be made in every country.'

Her response was similar to the other pro-China demonstrator. I suspected that whoever I spoke to would give me the same answer: lIttle things could go on in dark corners but it didn't reflect the country as a whole.

'Most people are supporting the Olympics. Twelve million people are learning English just for this event,' continued Jennifer in earnest.

'Please print both sides of the story.' She smiled sweetly and handed me two information sheets, one with photos purporting to show Tibetan monks beating Chinese police with sticks.
A conclusion of which read: 'You have passion and conscience, but please do not be disguised ( they mean deceived!) and misled.'

I moved on, an enormous gap in my education plugged: Twelve million Chinese people are learning English so that makes them a wonderful nation. And the rape, torture, murder and oppression across Tibet, Darfur and Burma, and to their own people who use Falun Gong meditation, is all either miner aberration or fabrication.

As I walked towards the Embarcadero, Chinese people in groups of pink, turquoise and white costumes had lined the route. Some danced for the cameras near inflatable Olympic cartoon characters that wobbled in the wind.

Banners and slogans were being carried past them: '...Olympics are great! Freedom is great too!' 'Free Burma.' 'Free Tibet.' 'China Lies. People Die.' 'Stop Lying to the World.'

Further on I became aware of someone in a tracksuit in Olympic colours perched on a stone giving an interview to a cameraman. I sneaked up behind and listened. It turned out he was Alphonzo Jackson, an Olympic marathon runner who now coaches for the marathon and was a 2002 Torchbearer.

'Everybody has the right to say what they're going to say. But all the people taking part (in the Games) have spent their lives training for this,' he was saying. 'I think it's the wrong venue (for protesting). I don't agree with what China is doing.'

But he made a special plea for people to understand the depth of sacrifice made by athletes and their families.

'The Olympic spirit is a's something they've trained for all their lives,' he said, concerned that nothing should hinder the athletes.

Should the Games have been awarded to China? asked the cameraman/interviewer.

'No!' was his emphatic answer.

As I neared the Embarcadero, the white awning over the stage where the Torch was supposedly due to be received could be seen shielded by green barriers across the street.

Whether the official route continued up to Fisherman's Wharf or had already been shortened to end there - it was reduced at some point - I'm not sure. I turned and headed back to the ballpark.

All of a sudden pouring down behind me in the middle of the street was a human lava flow of Tibetan supporters with yellow flags tinged with red and blue, and a miscellany of other campaigners. In the throng I met up with the two Free Tibet cyclists I had interviewed in the week. This time, I asked their names! Tashi and Gendin then posed for a photo with two young people visiting San Francisco before moving on.

But within minutes police motorcyclists, sirens blaring, drove down one side and a couple of police cars spread across the street. The protesters halted and gathered around the police out of curiosity. The police did a short nosey around and left, and protesters happily spilled out across the width of the street holding some very long banners in front of them.

Being towed was a mock tank and people dressed in dark red monks' outfits holding pictures of the Dalai Lama. 'Chinese soldiers' beat the monks in a re-enactment of Tibetan scenes.

As they were doing this a large, blue coach with darkened windows powered it's way up from the ballpark and swung in front of the protesters towards a side exit. The protesters leapt into more action, banging on the sides of coach and swarming in sufficient numbers to cause it to stop. Then they lay down in front of it.

With the coach at a standstill and more people continuing to parade downwards, I continued on.

Back past the costumed Chinese brigade where there was a pause for heckling and then overtaking the marchers I headed firmly back to the ballpark as 1 pm was approaching. Throughout the walk and as we waited by the bridge the shouts of slogans and counter-slogans rang out but the protesters were non-violent and peaceful.

My previous blog gives an account of what happened at 1 pm onwards until finally the truth of the Torch's disappearance dawned.

For more pics of the day, click here. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Olympic Torch 2008

It was the decoy of the decade. The day the Olympic Torch came to San Francisco - without being seen!

Even the media were fooled. The Opening Ceremony was held and then, under the eyes of thousands including news helicopters, the Torch disappeared! It emerged unseen inside the city having been spirited away either in a motorcade or by boat across the Bay.

The 80 Torchbearers ran along unlined streets inside the city and near the Golden Gate Bridge, driven to the various running spots. Police and Chinese para-militaries, in the blue and white jogger suits seen in London and Paris, ran alongside them. Then the Closing Ceremony was held in a terminal at San Francisco airport miles away on the outskirts of the city.

Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators spent the day lining and filling the official route from the Giants ball park and up to the Embarcadero where the Torch was due to be received. Campaigners opposing China's human rights record waved placards and banners and engaged in a shouting match with pro-China supporters. Busloads of pro-Chinese people were bussed into the city early this morning and a sea of red flags outnumbered the yellow, red and blue Tibetan flags that have become familiar in the city over the last week. Chinese-costumed dancers also were there. An NBC11 report early this evening put the number of imported Chinese at possibly 11,000.

Mayor Gavin Newsom gave a lengthy interview at the end of the afternoon to a reporter who had been one of the Torchbearers. He hailed the day a success on two counts: 'We protected people's safety and we protected people's rights of free expression. These are San Francisco values,' he said. He also praised the 'courage and candour' of the Torchbearers.

Overall, he felt that the city had 'distinguished itself' as against the fiascos of the Torch run in London and Paris.

A city Supervisor, Aaron Peskin, however, is attacking Mayor Newsom for 'secrecy, lies and misinformation.'

So what happened?

After the Opening Ceremony the first Torchbearer left the platform and ran into a nearby warehouse, away from crowds lining the start of the route! As people waited and waited, eventually a motorcade left the warehouse. But whether the Torch was in it or was ferried by boat across the Bay is uncertain in the immediate aftermath.

But police deserve an Oscar! Standing further down the start of the route, by a narrow bridge at the Giants ballpark, we were in the midst of the charade.

A large contingent of police officers had gathered during the morning near where slanging matches between pro-and-anti demonstrators stood facing each other on opposite sides of the road. And as the Opening Ceremony was due, at 1 pm, police formed several lines across one lane and moved us back off the centre of the bridge. Alongside on the water, police zoomed around on jet skis, a fireboat shot a water salute into the air and police boats sailed on the edge of the cove.

Overhead, at one point we counted six choppers and three planes. And on rooftops police could be seen, although on one pics were being taken in secret as we could only catch an intermittent glimpse of a camera lens poking over a parapet.

Then about half an hour after the Torch was due, a police truck turned up and a small group of police jumped out and donned riot gear. This caused a good distraction as the crowd surged around.

With music drifting across from the loudspeakers at the ceremony platform a few hundred yards away, it all looked and sounded as if Something Was Going to Happen!

It took almost three-quarters of an hour before people began to twig that we had been fooled!
As the crowd began to disperse and wander off peacefully, news organizations began to catch up and cell phones rang. Some idea of the Torch having been in the city percolated through but it took a little longer, mostly I suspect from the early evening broadcasts at 5 pm, for the full extent of the ruse to be rumbled.

But if safety and freedom to protest without arrest were priorities, it was a resounding success. There was plenty of protest action all the way along the route up to the Embarcadero, including a re-enactment of the brutality exercised against the Tibetan monks.

Click for pics. Click to enlarge.

For a more detailed report see later blog, and for more pics.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Golden Gate Bridge Protest

The Golden Gate Bridge had extra colour this morning - when protesters hung two banners and two Tibetan flags from one of its towers. The banners proclaimed: One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 08.

The report with pics in the San Fran Chronicle says the banners were hung by members of Students for a Free Tibet. Three of them, two men and a woman, climbed up one of the bridge's towers 150 ft over the road and 370 ft above the water. They had concealed their climbing gear from security cameras by smuggling it onto the bridge in a baby buggy.

They were arrested after they climbed down and five other group members were also rounded up by police. Traffic over the bridge is slow and pedestrian access has been stopped.

Protests over China's human rights records are hotting up around the world and the Olympic Torch is due here on Wednesday.

The Tibetan Freedom Torch arrives here tomorrow with events beginning at 11 am in the United Nations Plaza by the Civic Center.

Pic shows a Tibetan flag waved by protesters at the Global Human Rights Rally in Union Square on Saturday

San Francisco Giants

It is one of the best days of the year for thousands of San Franciscans - the much-awaited opening home game of the season for baseball team San Francisco Giants!

In team colours of black and orange, over 40,000 people were there to cheer on their beloved Giants who this year celebrate the 50th anniversary of their presence in the city.

To mark the occasion, there was a flypast of two F18 fighter jets. They swooped in over the Bay and soared over the stadium with impeccable timing as the last strains of the national anthem faded away.

There was also a trip down memory lane with an appearance of some of the original players from 1958. Riding in open-topped cars of the fifties, they did a circuit of the grounds. The Giants, like the LA Dodgers, had begun life in New York but moved to California to bring baseball to the West Coast.

'It's a great day - the best day of the season,' enthused one fan as he walked to the game wearing the signature black and orange sweatshirt and baseball hat. 'Whether we win or lose, I'm rooting for them!'

The team this season is facing a big change, the equivalent of Man United kicking off without Becks for the first time. Their star player for 15 seasons, Barry Bonds, has been dropped.

'It's a powerful loss', said the fan. He shrugged, 'When we lose, we lose, but when we win, it's a great feeling!'

'We're so excited! said a lady who had travelled all the way from Monterey to watch the game with her friend. 'This is my first opening day! We're happy fans!' she said. Her friend, dressed in smart orange 'crops' and black top, agreed.

'I've been a fan since I was born, and my father before me,' she recalled. ' We used to listen to them on the radio in the back yard.'

The stadium is south of the city alongside part of the bay known as McCovey Cove, named after a famous player.

How do you think the Giants will get on this season? I asked a group queuing by the water.

"I'm hoping we'll win at least 50 per cent of the games,' said one man, and then laughed at himself for what was possibly a hopelessly optimistic statement!

How much will you miss Barry Bonds?

'It was time for him to go,' ventured a lady and with an eye on the future added, 'I'm looking forward to seeing the youngsters today.'

In front of them stood a long crocodile of Giants crew people holding yards and yards of a rolled up American flag ready to carry in for the official opening ceremony.

Alongside a ferry boat pulled up with passengers for the game and a flotilla of small boats and kayaks began to fill the cove. They were Giants fans happy to sit on the water and listen to the commentary of the game as it was relayed outside the stadium.

One of the hopes, no doubt, is that a boater might just have an opportunity to catch a ball that flies out of the stadium and heads for the water! Known as 'Splash Hits' - the Giants have only been in this stadium since 2000 - Bonds holds an outstanding record of 35 Splash Hits out of a total team count of 45, as well as the record for home runs.

One of the excellent features of the Giants is that they give fans who perhaps can't afford tickets for every game, a few innings of free viewing per match. There is open fencing beneath the stadium by the cove where fans can stand and watch.

I stood next to a Nicaraguan lady who has lived in San Fran for 50 years, and has been a fan for the same time. Her face glowed with anticipation. 'I love it!' she said.

'I watched Barry Bonds' father play,' she added.

'Barry Bonds' father?' I said.

'Yes, Barry Bonds' father!' she affirmed, amused at my astonished tone.

With Barry Bonds, there is an unresolved legal matter that has stunned fans. Last year he was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice regarding steroid use. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

But even with Bonds the Giants sadly have not been noted for their winning streak in recent years. And this brief season so far is not looking too hopeful. Whilst today is the opening home match for San Franciscans, the official start of the season was last week and the Giants have already lost 5 out of 6 away games.

But that's not what fans were focussing on today. As the opening ceremony ended with the flypast and a burst of coloured smoke, boats in the cove tooted and a fireboat sprayed jets of water high into the air.

For now, the future was what counted!

PS The Giants lost to San Diego Padres, but beat them the following night in a glorious nail-biting finale. After which there was a dazzling firework display that turned the sky into a supercharged sparkle that rivalled many a city's New Year's extravaganza.

Happy New Year, Giants!!!

Click for pics. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Global Human RIghts Torch Relay Cont.

Standing in Union Square in the sunshine seemed an incongruous place to be listening to a young Chinese woman give a harrowing account of her torture in a Chinese prison.

But it was the most moving account of all the speeches today at the Global Human Rights Torch rally.

She had been imprisoned and tortured three times for her practice of Falun Gong, a form of spiritual meditation. You could feel the tension in the packed square as she recalled in tears the 'physical, mental and spiritual' torture she had endured. This included electric burns, slave labour of packing chopsticks into paper wrappers and knitting sweaters, and sleep deprivation.

There were more than 100 labour camps, she said.

A young couple listening commented: 'It made you understand. It brings out the seriousness of the situation,' said the girl.

'It's really raw. It really brings it to you,' said the guy.

A Canadian human rights lawyer who has specialised in the organs for transplant horror of Falun Gong spoke. He explained that by 1999 there were more people practicing Falun Gong than were members of the Chinese Communist Party. So the Falun Gong were threatened. If they didn't abandon their beliefs, they were tortured. When that didn't stop them, they disappeared. Their organs were taken while they were still alive in what has become a $1 billion business in harvesting and selling organs for transplant to foreigners.

But whilst it is too late to stop China having the Games, he said, it is 'not too late to make China regret that they ever won the Olympic bid.'

Tatiana, a dialysis patient in a wheelchair, spoke up for the victims of the organ transplants. She spoke directly to China and said that pictures of their atrocities and the acts themselves 'would be remembered for ever.'

A Tibetan man, imprisoned in China for five years, said the killings of Falun Gong were 'homicide.' 'That's more than human rights abuse,' he said. He reiterated that as one of the Tibetan people 'we have nothing against the Chinese people...the athletes...the problem we have is with the Maoist terrorist regime of China.'

He refuted Chinese allegations that the Dalai Lama had organised the March protest by the monks in Tibet. The internet firewall erected by China was so strong that it would be impossible to organize a protest of that magnitude from outside of the country, he said. But if it had happened, 'shame on you China, you fail to protect your people,' he taunted.

He warned that the world needed to stop the Olympic Torch going through Tibet, where a symbolic route to Mount Everest was planned, because China was plotting a crackdown on the Tibetan people. 'It would be a 'disaster,' he said.

Former Olympic winners spoke. The 200 metres Bronze Medallist of 1968, John Carlos, who made history with his 'Black Power' salute on the winners' podium, called for a boycott of the Opening Ceremony.

He said, 'The people of China deserve to have the Olympic Games in their nation. The government of China do not.'

But he thought that to boycott the Games themselves would disenchant young athletes.

Referring to a host nation's prestige, he said the 'biggest part' of the Games was the opening ceremony. He praised the President of France for his intention to boycott the ceremony and hoped more nations would follow his lead.

An Olympic swimmer who won the Silver Medal in '68 and Bronze in '72, whilst supporting the 'dream' of the human rights campaigners, pleaded for understanding of the athletes. 'It is their dream as well' she said.

A freelance journalist working on behalf of the underground Roman Catholic Church spoke of the 'hell' of the arrests, abductions, endless interrogations, imprisonments, slave labour and death camps endured by Christians.

She had a message for 'Mao the Monster' and his representatives, now responsible for the deaths of 77 million Chinese:

'May you rot in hell!'

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, sent her support with a message: 'I believe the IOC made a mistake in awarding the Olympic Games to China.' Other contributors were the President of the Vietnamese Association in San Francisco and Women For Peace who spoke of the sweatshop abuses perpetuated for big companies, singling out Walmart, Nike and Microsoft.

Then, to great jubilation, the Torch arrived in the square to be officially received by Supervisor Chris Daly. Next, led by John Carlos, a large, jubilant group of protesters and 6k walkers and runners set off. They went down through the streets to the Embarcadero, along the Bay front and back to the square where a closing ceremony was held.

I spoke at random to a lady on the pavement as the parade passed.

'I'm not entirely in favour,' she said. 'I think there are better ways to show people what you think.'

However, a young lad across the street of Chinese background, was in favour. He said people 'need more freedom.'

A Vietnamese lady from San Jose who was part of the protests walked back to Union Square with me after following the marchers and runners for a short way. She said she would be back on Tuesday and Wednesday for the Tibetan Freedom Torch and the Olympic Torch. As will everyone else plus more!

Of course the big request of the protesters to San Francisco is that Mayor Gavin Newsom will adopt the Board of Supervisors resolution that he receive the Olympic Torch with 'alarm and protest.'

I walked by the architect of the resolution, Chris Daly, in the parade as he carried 'Daly Junior' happily on his shoulders. 'Will Mayor Newsom receive the Torch with alarm and protest?' I asked.

He guffawed for a few paces.

'He received my resolution with alarm and protest!!!' he said.

Click for pics. Click to enlarge. For earlier report and pics see

Global Human RIghts Torch Relay

The Global Human Rights Torch Relay made its appearance in San Fran today. It was received in Union Square amid a riot of cololurful balloons, flags, banners and slogan tee-shirted people protesting over China's abuses and the Olympic Games.

The event, from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, had a festive appearance despite the seriousness of the campaign and at times harrowing testimony of China's actions.

A young female from Falun Gong and a Tibetan spoke movingly of their imprisonment and torture, and former Olympians including John Carlos of the 'black power salute' of 1968, politicians and campaigners gave voice to criticisms of China.

The Torch was received by city Supervisor Chris Daly, on behalf of the Board of Supervisors. He has been responsible for the resolution that the Olympic Torch be officially received with 'alarm and protest.'

He said the Global Human Rights Torch exhibited the principles of San Francisco.

'San Franciscans are not about abuses,' he said. 'We will respond with alarm and protest.'

He added, 'I think I speak for most San Franciscans that we would rather not respond with alarm and protest...we would rather there had not been a brutal crackdown...not been persecutions of the Falun Gong practitioners...we would rather there be a free press...for students to have the ability to democratically participate...we won't support genocide in Darfur...'

Throughout the rally the statistics were horrifying: from the days of Mao...the deaths of 77 million Chinese and 1.2 million Tibetans, 100 labour camps used against the people of Falun Gong, the genocide of Darfur and the harsh regime of Burma.

There were also criticisms of corporate America and the government turning a blind eye for profit. Mention was made of sweatshops providing cheap goods for American companies.

Mixed in with the horror and, for some, the desire that China had never been awarded the Games, was the repeated assertion that criticisms were against the Chinese government and not the people.

Also, were the statements that the protesters were not campaigning against the athletes. Their call was for a boycott of the Opening Ceremony but not the Games themselves.

A more detailed report will be posted soon with more pics.

Click here for the first album. Click to enlarge.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Olympic Torchbearers

San Fran residents are waiting excitedly for Mayor Gavin Newsom to release the final names of the 80 people who have been chosen to be Olympic Torchbearers, according to a report in the San Fran Chronicle.

Almost half have already been chosen by a novel method: writing an essay. The essay title followed the theme of the Torch relay, 'Sustainable Journey.'

The idea behind the essay was to give as many people as possible the opportunity to take part. Writers were given broad scope within the subject.

They could submit prose on what sustains them on their personal journey, how they are making their community, country or world more sustainable, or how they are helping San Fran's sustainable journey.

Those who triumphed with their pen include a 75-year-old Russian Jewish refugee who is about to make his fourth Torch run, a Franciscan nun, a blind woman, a professional skateboarder, a cancer survivor and several former Olympians.

In all, 536 people hoped to be a torchbearer. After Wednesday's ceremonies, which are expected to attract thousands of human rights protesters for what is becoming the most controversial Olympics ever, they will be able to keep their torches.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Hillary Speeds Past!

We were sitting absorbed in the internet in our favourite bakery, Panera Bread, last night when police motorcyclists stopped outside and blocked off the major intersection.

Blue flashing lights coloured the street. And I remembered the evening newscast that Hillary was in the Bay Area. Not San Francisco, but nearby.

Could it be?

As I hovered at the window two young guys were at a table next to me.

'Could be Hillary,' said one. 'All the bigwigs stay at the St. Regis. I work near there. I see these caravans all the time,' he said with nonchalence.

Suddenly a cavalcade of cars passed. Red and blue lights here and gone in seconds.

'That was impressive!' I said. 'If they have had to organise a route like that that crosses roads and traffic lights for quite a distance.'

'That's the Secret Service,' said the second guy sounding equally cool and knowledgable. 'They do it all the time. They're very good at it!'

Half a minute later, and a cluster of patrol cars were outside the window.

'You don't normally see those in the city,' said the second guy continuing his commentary for my benefit. He was referring to a certain type of patrol car.

I reflected on the way home: are fame and power worth it, especially today when security risks are so high? To not even be able to be driven at normal speeds in a car surrounded by police and Secret Service personnel?

But was it even Hillary?

Yes! The early news broadcast this morning from NBC11 told us Hillary was due at a fundraising breakfast in the financial district at 8 am. The bomb squad had been checking out the area at 5 am.

Last night she was at a private function in Menlo Park. According to google maps she was about 32 miles south of the city and it would take a normal motorist about 39 mins to drive here, or 55 mins in traffic.

How long did Hillary take? Five minutes perhaps?!! Whatever, it was a magnificent, dramatic display.

Olympic Torch Protests for Tibet

A young Tibetan man handing out protest fliers on San Fran’s streets in advance of the Olympic Torch run still bears the scars of the beating he received courtesy of Chinese police.

'Wills' fled over the mountains into Nepal six years ago, leaving behind his mother, sisters and brother. His father had already died.

‘My purpose in leaving Tibet was to help Tibet. I am simply saying, ‘Free Tibet,’ he said. ‘Here they can’t touch me. I carry the scars on my body from when I was beaten.’

Surprisingly his beating was in Nepal. 'The best time to escape is in winter,’ he said, of the Himalayan trek. ‘Once you are over a border and in another country, you think you are safe and relax.’ What he discovered, though, was that Chinese police cross the Nepalese border and organise groups to wait in warmer, sunnier climes to take those fleeing by surprise.

‘Justice…Freedom…Truth is our Only Weapon’ are the words emblazoned across the bright-yellow vests of him and his co-protester.

Not liking to ask their names, though they would probably have given them, I have honoured them as ‘Wills’ and ‘Harry.’ Harry is American but of Tibetan heritage.

And, it seems, neither are they completely free of the Chinese government even in San Francisco.

‘Yesterday we were up there’ – Wills indicated past the cable cars in Powell Street towards Union Square – ‘and a guy and a girl were taking pictures of us.’

He added that since March 14 he has been unable to get through to his mother on the telephone. After six years of regular calls, the number was suddenly ‘not working.’

As protest groups amass for the Olympic Torch run on Wednesday, they are part of the Peace Ride for Human Rights in Tibet and carriers of the Tibetan Freedom Torch. In six days they have cycled 517 miles and given out 12,000 fliers.

They are preparing for a rally and candlelight vigil organised by SF Team Tibet with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Richard Gere and Tibetan leaders at the Civic Center plaza on the eve of the Olympic Torch ceremony.

I told Wills of the horrific story recounted by Times columnist, Alice Miles, of a Tibetan exile she had met in India. The lady had been caught in the hills carrying a picture of the Dalai Lama by a Chinese soldier.

She was imprisoned, raped many times and hung upside down. Her children disappeared and her husband was forced to marry a Chinese woman.

For Wills, this was commonplace. ‘There are 150,000 Tibetans in exile, all separated from their families and 90 per cent of whom have been raped and tortured,’ he said so calmly he might have been giving out weather temperatures.

Over 1.2 million Tibetans have died at the hands of China’s military rule, says one of their fliers.

How come America and Britain have not done anything about this? I asked Harry.

‘The economics of this country have a lot to do with China. The majority of the market is with China,’ he said, citing Target and Walmart as examples of corporate America. Also, he has just discovered that 80 per cent of America’s garlic comes from China. There is the need of trillions of dollars to pay for the Iraq war.

‘As an individual I don’t mind if they (USA) are spending money on poor countries,’ he said, including Mexico, India and Sri Lanka on his long list. But it is much better to do that than spend ‘on a Communist country that is so organized and oppresses its people.'

‘China is like a criminal mob, an organized family, so it is not good for anybody’, he continued, adding his concern of ties with nuclear-ambitious Iran.

However, he was disappointed with the response to the Olympic protests from Mayor Gavin Newsom.

‘As a city San Francisco is very liberal and open-minded but there is a problem with the mayor who has chosen for some time to ignore us,’ he said.

Now that the Torch route has been revealed, however, it is not only the mayor but China as well who are worried about the possible strength of protests. For in the protest spotlight are also Darfur, where China is giving weapons to the Sudanese government for use against its people, and Burma.

Harry thought there could be 10,000 protesters along the route on Wednesday. There were rumours that the San Francisco Police Department were going to hire private security firms and that China would send in crowds to show a pro-China stance, he said.

Protesters will be spending the night along the route to make sure of their places.

‘But we are a non-violent protest,’ he said of his organization.

China’s human rights abuses are continuing apace, even with the eyes of the world upon them. Wills said that it had been confirmed that 140 Tibetans had been killed in the last two weeks. But he was confident the actual numbers were higher than that.

‘The Olympics are a great and beautiful thing but they – China – have to face the truth. They can’t hide things any longer. They can’t bury things in the past,’ he said.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Torch Season in San Fran

The Olympic Torch is not the only Torch to visit San Fran.

Two other Torches are calling here with rallies, a 6k run, concert and candlelight vigil marking their visits.

At the candlelight vigil, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Richard Gere and Tibetan leaders are guest speakers.

The Global Human Rights Torch Relay is here on Saturday, April 5, and the Tibetan Freedom Torch reaches us on Tuesday, April 8.

The GHRTR began in Athens last year on August 9 and is visiting 6 continents, 37 countries and 150 cities. It is in North America during April and May.

Their events include a 6k run/walk, a concert and a rally starting in Union Square in the morning.

Torch supporters are around the streets of San Fran handing out a free newspaper providing information on the Torch and abuses of China. They urge people to write to International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge to demand of China that they improve their human rights record.

Film director Steven Spielberg and actress Uma Thurman are featured for their opposition to China. Spielberg withdrew as artistic advisor to the Olympics over China's involvement in Darfur.

The Torch was started by the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong, where organ harvesting is big business.

But it also symbolises a fight against suppression of Christians, Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists, rights advocates, journalists and defence lawyers and Chinese action in Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe and North Korea.

The Tibetan Freedom Torch Relay arrives in the United Nations Plaza at the Civic Center on Tuesday. SF Team Tibet are gathering in the morning. In the early evening there is a rally and speeches, music and finally the candlelight vigil.

Over 2,000 Tibetans a year, including many children, flee the country to find refuge in Nepal and India, say their literature.

'The Chinese government is using the Olympic torch relay as part of a massive propaganda effort to clean up its public image and cover up its brutal occupation of Tibet and atrocious human rights record. China is carrying the torch to the top of Mt. Everest in a purely political move, designed to legitimise its claims to Tibet.'

San Fran Divided over Olympic Torch

When it comes to the Olympic Torch, San Francisco is a city divided against itself.

A city official, known as a 'supervisor', successfully carried a resolution yesterday that called on Mayor Gavin Newsom to accept the Olympic Torch with 'alarm and protest.'

The report, in the San Fran Chronicle, quotes Supervisor Chris Daly as saying, 'The eyes of the world will be on San Francisco, and, let's be honest, if there is not alarm and there is not protest in San Francisco when the torch arrives here, that too would be news, and that would be San Francisco complicit in the human rights violations that are happening in China and around the world.'

His resolution before the Board of Supervisors also called for an international investigation into China's treatment of Tibetan dissenters and was passed by a vote of 8-3.

The television channel NBC11 showed a round of cheers erupting from protesters as the result was announced in the Civic Center.

However, a spokesman for Mayor Newsom was afterwards quoted as saying, 'It is highly unlikely the mayor is going to let Chris Daly put words in his mouth.' He also said that the mayor had discussed the situation with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and the Dalai Lama.

In other words, it is a short term political victory but will not carry through to Wednesday's event.

Mayor Newsom who regardless of his views on human rights is also the figurehead of the only North American city to have the Torch, was seen on televison and quoted in the Chronicle pleading with protesters to not disrupt the Torch procession but to remember that the Olympics are about athletics and not politics.

'Don't protest the torch bearers,' he said. 'Please separate your condemnation from the person who's running or in a wheelchair carrying the torch.'

The Chronicle also reported on a letter from the Chinese American Association of Commerce signed by 105 city-based Chinese organizations.

The letter called on officials to 'prevent the city from being kidnapped by a few political extremists who want to make use of the Olympic Games to advance their own political gain.'

The Chinese Consulate, too, opposed any official city protest.

Olympic Torch Route

The Olympic Torch route was revealed yesterday to the delight of protesters who have been pressurising for details.

The opening ceremony of the Torch will be alongside the baseball park, home of the San Francisco Giants south of the city. It will then be carried along the Bay front, past the Embarcadero, up to Fisherman's Wharf and just beyond where it will loop around before returning to the waterside.

Bearers will carry it back to the Embarcadero where it will be received by Mayor Gavin Newsom in the Justin Herman plaza opposite the ferry building

It is a route of six miles estimated to take about one-and-a-half hours, details of which were released by the mayor yesterday afternoon. He had delayed publicising the Torch route because of protests.

About 10,000 protesters are expected and protesters are planning their protest points and strategies.

By early this morning NBC11 were broadcasting an interview with a senior city police officer who said with confidence that the police would be able to handle the situation on Wednesday.
The SFPD were well experienced at managing big events, he said.

This evening NBC11 interviewed the city's police chief who said that police leave on the day of the Torch run was cancelled and extra officers would be on duty.

It sounds as if everyone is getting nervous.