San Francisco Dispatch: The Torch’s Gauntlet of Protesters

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The outcome of today’s Olympic torch relay in San Francisco could determine whether the torch will continue along its planned route—the longest in Olympic history—or be cut short due to the boisterous, disruptive protests that have accompanied it in Athens, London, and Paris. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said the Committee’s executive board will discuss on Friday whether to end the relay after this afternoon’s event, which is shaping up to be a tense stand-off between police and protesters.

The City of San Francisco has called in extra law enforcement officers from the California Highway patrol and nearby suburbs, banned flights above the city and boats near the waterfront where the torch will pass, and sequestered the the flame in an undisclosed location. During the relay the city plans to encase the torch in a three-layer babooshka doll of police officers: cops on foot, cops on bikes, and cops on motorcycles. If protesters still manage to block the relay, the city will load the torch onto a boat and sail around them.

Only once crowds begin to line the route this afternoon will anyone be able to tell whether San Francisco is in for the same experience as Paris. An activist with Save Darfur in Paris told me roughly 15,000 protesters showed up for the torch relay there. Organizers in San Francisco predict half as many. Some American activists, particularly on the left, are reluctant to protest China’s human rights record while the U.S. government continues to occupy Iraq and operate Gitmo. Moreover, many leaders of San Francisco’s Chinese-American community (Asians comprise 30 percent of the city), see the protests as a pall on what they’d hoped would be Chinese-American community’s moment in the sun. Near the start of the route this morning, protesters exchanged shouts with supporters of the Chinese government as police stood between the two groups. San Francisco was chosen as the torch’s only stop in North America because of its sizable Chinese-American community, but the strength of feeling on both sides could prove to be a powder keg of a kind not seen across the Atlantic.

Few people (other than Chinese officials) dispute the protester’s grievances: In Darfur, where a government-sanctioned genocide has killed 400,000, the regime buys arms from China with money earned from selling it oil. China returns the favor by defending Sudan from scrutiny by the U.N. Security Council. Similarly, in Burma, China sells arms to the ruling Junta even as it imprisons pro-democracy activists. In Tibet, China refuses to speak with the Dalai Lama about greater cultural and religious freedom for the region even though he long ago met the government’s demand to relinquish calls for Tibetan independence. Add to this rap sheet the qualms of Reporters Without Borders and Falun Gong and it’s easy to see (in retrospect) why the road to the Olympics is sprinkled with land mines.

In the Olympics of ancient Greece, feuding nations set down their arms for a few days of peaceful battle in the discus ring. Opponents of the torch protests long for that ideal (if not for the original naked torch relay that a group of San Francisco nudists plans to recreate), but they also ignore how the Olympics has become a global P.R. tool, helping enrich big business and tighten China’s grip over its citizens. With imperial chutzpah, China plans to carry the torch over Mount Everest and through Tibet. Any unrest this inspires among Tibetans is sure to be censored on Chinese television just as were the protests in Europe. Downplaying the attacks on the torch in Paris as the work of seperatists, one Chinese paper cheered that the torch was met with “French Passion.”

So far, San Franciscan passion hasn’t disappointed the human rights crowd. Yesterday’s dramatic unfurling of a “Free Tibet” banner on the Golden Gate Bridge (after activists smuggled the it onto the span in baby strollers) won’t be the only big surprise during the torch’s U.S. visit, Free Tibet activists have said. The major activist groups have urged their supporters to be peaceful and respectful of the Olympics, but the the pattern of escalation (competitive derring-do, even) seems to have been well in place since London.

Mother Jones photographers and reporters will be on the scene. Stay tuned for a dispatch from the streets later this afternoon.


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