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.

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