Protest the Olympics? The Conundrum for San Francisco Liberals

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On the surface, San Franciscans seem poised to approach Wednesday’s Olympics torch relay much as thousands of progressive activists did on Monday in France: Paris City Hall unfurled its banner supporting human rights “everywhere in the world;” San Francisco Democrat Chris Daly passed his resolution in the city’s Board of Supervisors to accept China’s torch “with alarm and protest.” Nous sommes toutes gauchistes. Or maybe not. Unfortunately, the similarity between Paris and the “Paris of the West” might have less do with politics right now than the prevalence of decent croissants.

Last week, Daly told me he’d begun to detect intimations of a leftist backlash against the Olympics protests. San Francisco activists wondered if challenging China’s human rights record made sense when America was occupying Iraq and stuffing bean holes in Gitmo. As mainstream politicians (and some pundits on the Right) have embraced the the idea of protest, the backlash has grown even louder in the comments sections of progressive blogs, on liberal sites such as OpEdNews, and in the conspicuous silence of typical agitators. While the leftist Paris daily Liberation proclaims, “Liberate the Olympic Games,” the homepage of the leftist weekly Bay Guardian currently offers no mention of the protests at all (a top headline: “Metal Mania!”).

Tomorrow night in San Francisco, the ANSWER Coalition, a national anti-war group, will hold a meeting aimed at convincing activists to stay home during the torch relay. Organizer Nathalie Hrizi sees in the global outrage over China’s human rights record the shadowy hand of Bush, Pelosi, and the CIA. In her view, the Dalai Lama is a “member of a feudal aristocracy that had slaves until 1959” and not worth defending. “There is sort of a hysteria being generated about the torch and China,” she said. “And it’s similar–very similar–to demonization campaigns that the U.S. government has used as a preface to war–for instance, Iraq.”

In the midst of the Mideast quagmire, the skittishness in some quarters of the Left with anything smacking of humanitarian adventures is understandable, but regrettable. What the anti-protesters fail to grasp is that the human rights movement now finding its voice in so many cities around the world is global, peaceful, and grassroots in a way that has little relation to the terrorism-fueled anxiety leading up to the Iraq war. We didn’t invade Iraq because people flooded the streets demanding human rights for Iraqis. We invaded because the Bush Administration convinced us Saddam had WMDs. War with China (or even a trade embargo) is not going to happen anytime soon without a gaffe on the level of an accidentally-sunk aircraft carrier. France and Germany know this, which is why their heads of state are talking about boycotting the Olympics’ opening ceremonies. Our ties with China’s economy are too great for a spat over sports to send us into another Cold War. But those ties are also why we have a responsibility to voice our concerns about China’s human rights record. A global economy requires global citizens.

Of course, European politicians have led the charge on the Olympics protests. Bush, after all, would look silly boycotting the Games while supporting waterboarding and extraordinary rendition. But the citizens of San Francisco are not similarly constrained. I’m one of thousands of people living here who opposed the Iraq war from the start. I’d love to see Gitmo shuttered, warrantless wiretaps outlawed, and the nation’s war criminals jailed. The Left has moral authority on these issues. There’s nothing hypocritical about a city of people who’ve always stood for human rights speaking out against the abrogation of those rights abroad. It in no way diminishes our voice in America. I’d say it amplifies it.

The real question is not whether to protest but how. A U.S. boycott of the games would accomplish nothing, as we saw in Moscow and Los Angeles in the 1980s. At the same time, the Olympics have always been politicized and activists shouldn’t fear using the Games to pressure China. It’s widely believed that the PRC wants to use the Games less as an economic booster than to consolidate power among its own people. Protesters should think about how to bring their message to the country’s regular citizens (around the filter of censorship), while making clear that they support their history and culture.

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