Posted by: Catherine Holahan on April 10, 2008
Rachel King was at the Torch Relay in San Francisco. Here’s her guest blog:
When I was 14, I had the chance to glimpse the Olympic torch relay in the run-up to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. It gave me a small sense of the excitement surrounding the event, even if those games were marred by the boycott of the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc nations. Since San Francisco is the only North American city to host the relay for this year’s games, and there’s no shortage of controversy swirling around the host country once again, I decided to make my way to the relay as it passed through my fair city yesterday.
I never did see the torch, but here are glimpses of what I did find.
When I arrived at the plaza in front of the Ferry Building, the song Jesse’s Girl blared from the loud speakers. Bright red China flags dotted the plaza, while thousands milled around, a fair number carrying Tibet flags and Free Tibet signs. A woman shouted words over a megaphone that I couldn’t understand and the crowd of people immediately surrounding her responded with a chant. She was nearly immediately drowned out by a group of protesters pushing through the crowd chanting about China and genocide in Darfur. It turns out that besides the Free Tibet protesters, there were other factions demonstrating. A small group carried a banner complaining about China’s alleged harassment of Vietnamese fisherman, a woman held a hand written sign saying Free Burma.
As we waited for the anticipated torch ceremony scheduled for 3:00, a mother tried to keep her three young children occupied and the TV crews focused their cameras on the plaza. David Liu, a design manager at Sun Microsystems, told me that he’d taken the day off to show his support for China and the Olympics. He came to this country from China 25 years ago at the age of 25. He told me that the woman with the megaphone was chanting, “Beijing, Beijing, Go! Go! Welcome to China.” The man beside him, Justin Guo, said that the Chinese community had come out to support China’s involvement in the Olympics after protesters attempted to extinguish the torch in Paris. “We came here to protect the torch.” Indeed, the Chinese community was out in full force today.
Then, at about 3:00 there was a moment of anticipation as the torch was scheduled to arrive for the ceremony. Tibet protestors marched in front of a group of Chinese people who booed them. Among the protestors was Suzanne Lerner, a psychologist, who wore red and had painted a giant red heart over her face. She had taken the afternoon off to speak out against the actions of the Chinese government. “I respect the Chinese people,” she said, “but I’m against government brutality.”
But the event that drew Lerner and her fellow protestors, as well as scores of supporters, never materialized. Mayor Gavin Newsom had switched the torch’s route to go away from the Ferry Building and toward the Golden Gate bridge, in hopes of avoiding the melee that greeted the relay in Paris and London. In the end, San Francisco officials were successful in preventing scuffles and sparing the Chinese Olympics organizers from the shame of having to extinguish the flame, as they did in Paris; in so doing they shielded the torch and its bearers from the protests aimed at China’s government—but also from the throngs who came out to show their support. I can’t help but think that in the name of conflict avoidance, San Francisco quelled something of the spirit of the Olympics—figuratively dousing the flame they strived so vigilantly to keep lit.