Torch relay causes confusion for spectators
April 9, 2008 10:15 AM
Mass confusion engulfed downtown San Francisco Wednesday afternoon when thousands of people hoping to catch a glimpse of the Olympic Torch were left disappointed.
Many onlookers came to support the Summer 2008 Olympics in Beijing while others used the occasion to voice their grievances about China’s human rights record.
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“I think it’s disrespectful that organizers did not let us see the torch,” said Erica Svensson, a high school student from Petaluma who took the day off from school to attend the event. “I just don’t understand why they would do that.”
The controversy surrounding the event even affected participants, including torch bearer Majora Carter, who attempted to make a political statement of her own.
"I was a torch bearer for five seconds or so. I tried to pull out the Tibetan flag, as a peaceful protest, and it was taken from me by the Chinese security squad, and then San Francisco police pulled me back into the crowd," Carter said. "I was physically removed from the torch."
"I did it as a civil rights activist in America," she said." I wanted to show support for the fact that people in Tibet, Darfur, all over the world are struggling for freedom in their own land. And today, I could not exercise my right to freedom of speech and expression."
On the city moving the torch route to avoid protestors, she said, "Freedom of expression is one of our rights in this country, and the fact is that we were unable to exercise those rights. [The city] felt it was important to have this little peaceful event that played to the terms [the organizers] wanted to play to."
Others in attendance expressed similar sentiments.
“It’s terrible, I have no idea what’s going on,” San Jose resident Steve Chen said. “I’ve been here since six hours waiting to see the torch...it’s disappointing.”
As the thousands who lined the planned relay route waited for the sight of the torch, rumors circulated throughout the crowd about possible alternative routes. Ultimately, city officials took the torch on a route along Van Ness Avenue and ended near the Marina. The torch was driven to the San Francisco International Airport around 4 p.m.
At the opening ceremony in McCovey Cove park, thousands arrived early for the chance to cheer the torch as it passed.
“I’m here to support the torch because it symbolizes peace, hope and love,” said Jing Lia, a student at UC Berkeley.
“As a person of Chinese decent, I am proud to host the Olympics,” she added as supporters waving Chinese flags chanted their support for China nearby.
Half a block away, in front of AT&T Park, a different scene was unfolding.
As pro-Chinese demonstrators verbally clashed with protestors waving Tibetan flags, police were called in to provide a barrier between the two groups.
At least one protester was detained. The SFPD Web site listed no arrests related to the demonstrations.
“By accepting the Olympics, China has accepted the spotlight…and this is the result,” said Mary-Ann Gebay, referring to the large number of protesters that had gathered at Willie Mays Place.
Gebay, a Santa Cruz resident, took her son out of middle school for a day so he could attend the torch relay.
“I want him here so he could experience this unique event…you never know when it’s going to come around again,” she said.
Professors and students from SF State weighed in on the significance of the Olympic torch and its arrival in San Francisco, its sole North American stop.
“The debate is this: on the one hand, everyone agrees that China is oppressing the Tibetan people. On the other hand, people think the Olympics should remain aloof from politics,” said professor Ann Robertson, who teaches a human rights course at SF State.
“However, the human rights violations are so egregious that we cannot not keep politics out of the Olympics, because otherwise it looks like the Chinese government is legitimate and deserves every bit [as much] respect as other world governments.”
Another SF State professor said he believed that the symbol of the Olympic spirit was pivotal in establishing the international camaraderie that the Olympics are known for.
“The protesters are making a legitimate point and a symbolic gesture should be made,” said Mahmood Monshipouri, an assistant professor of international relations. "But the Olympics are meant to be enjoyed. It’s important for the world that the Olympic spirit is not ruined.”
Protests in London and Paris that disrupted the torch relay over the past week drew ire from Olympic and Chinese officials, possibly leading to Wednesday's route change.
“Their despicable activities tarnish the lofty Olympic spirit and challenge all the people loving the Olympic games around the world,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu, in a statement posted on the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Web site after the Paris leg of the relay.
“We are convinced that nobody can impede the Olympic spirit and the concept of 'peace, friendship, and progress' represented by the Olympics torch,” the statement said.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution on April 1 condemning China’s human rights record.
“It’s a bit hypocritical because they don’t take the same position against the U.S. government,” Robertson said. “They have the responsibility to condemn the U.S. situation in Iraq with the same sharp rhetoric they use against China.”
In October 2002, the S.F. Board of Supervisors voted 8-2 to adopt a resolution urging the U.S. Congress to oppose war with Iraq.
“It’s a historic event and a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said one SF State student in attendance, Joe Sperske. An international business major, Sperske said he lived and studied in Guangzhou, a city in south-east China as he stood with Olympics supporters.
“I’m really happy that there hasn’t been any violence yet, but the best thing is that it shows people can speak their minds. It’s the real quality to be an American—having the freedom [of] speech to bring two groups together like this.”
“I’m supporting China because I support the games," he said. "I’ve noticed that I'm the only Caucasian supporting China.”
“Panic,” said Totuga Bi Liberty, describing the scene at the Ferry Building. “I’m here. I don’t care where the torch is…I’m supporting human rights everywhere.” When asked how he felt about the Olympic torch being re-routed, he said that he sent a recommendation to the mayor suggesting that the torch be taken to the Cow Palace so they could run it in a circle.
A fully deployed San Francisco Police Department provided security for the opening ceremonies and the torch relay.
Police in riot gear lined the parade route in front of AT&T Park, and in total there were 1,400 police at the opening and closing ceremony, said a police spokesperson.
Wonderbread 5, a cover band, provided light entertainment at Justin Herman Plaza as thousands gathered in anticipation of the torch's arrival.
“I’m offended by all the noise created to drown out the protesters," Beverly Held, 50, said. "The protesters should be heard…not this terrible music.” Held was waiting with her young daughter for the torch at Justin Herman Plaza.
Closing ceremonies were held at the San Francisco International Airport.
The torch's next scheduled stop is in Buenos Aires, Argentina, according to the official Olympic torch relay Web site, although relay organizers are scheduled to assess the torch's international future on Friday, in light of the protests that have accompanied it.
Staff Writer David Agrell contributed to this report.
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