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Olympic Torch Protests

Demonstrators in San Francisco, Paris, and London disrupt relay

By Dante A. Ciampaglia | null null , null
Amidst a heavy police presence, Tibetan demonstrators and pro-China activists waive banners and shout at each other before the beginning of the Olympic Torch relay in San Francisco (Photo:©Ryan Anson/AFP/NewsCom)
Amidst a heavy police presence, Tibetan demonstrators and pro-China activists waive banners and shout at each other before the beginning of the Olympic Torch relay in San Francisco (Photo:©Ryan Anson/AFP/NewsCom)

Nearly 10,000 people gathered along the Embarcadero waterfront Wednesday in San Francisco. Some were there to protest China's policies toward Tibet. Others showed up to support China as it prepares to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

What connected them all is that they were there for the Olympic Torch Relay. Yet protesters and spectators alike all left the waterfront unhappy.

The torch never made it to its announced route, and the raucous protests that were expected never happened.

The Olympic torch was making its only North American appearance, in San Francisco. Its last two stops were in London on April 6 and in Paris on April 7. Groups there protesting various causes clashed with police, Chinese Olympic security forces, and the torch runners themselves.

Adjusting Quickly

Protests in San Francisco began before the torch even made it to the city. On April 7, demonstrators scaled the Golden Gate Bridge and hung two large banners. One read "One World, One Dream," and the other "Free Tibet 08." The following day, several hundred protesters marched through San Francisco's streets chanting "Shame on China." The demonstrations were in response to China's history of harsh and sometimes inhumane treatment toward Tibet and its citizens.

Larger protests never materialized, however. Before the relay started, the planned six-mile route was cut in half. Then, after the opening ceremony in San Francisco, the first runner, guarded by Chinese officials, ducked into a warehouse. The torch reappeared miles away from the gathering groups of protesters.

"We assessed the situation and felt that we could not secure the torch and protect the protesters and supporters to the degree that we wished," San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom told the news organization Reuters. "As a consequence, we engaged in subsequent contingency planning that we felt would keep people safe."

Concerns about safety came despite a massive display of authority and force. The city deployed hundreds of security officers. They were supported by FBI agents and police cars, boats, Jet Skis, and helicopters.

The Olympic Torch being taken on a bus in Paris.
Officials get on an accompanying bus with the Olympic torch relay in Paris. (Photo: ©Patrick Kovarik/Reuters)

The decision to change the route came after demonstrators flooded the streets around the original relay route. They also refused police orders to stay behind barricades. Groups of protesters began pushing and shoving each other, and one group broke the windows on a bus, according to San Francisco Police Chief Heather Fong.

"We had serious concerns about the possibility of additional violence, of additional disruption. We felt it would not be safe," Fong said.

The torch relay was ultimately rerouted from the waterfront to a street over two miles away. The torch was then taken to the airport and flown out of San Francisco, with no fanfare. A planned closing ceremony was canceled.

The adjustments prevented most people from seeing the Olympic torch. But the relay committee still called the event a success.

"Perhaps some of them failed to see the sacred flame today, but we have all felt the passion of the Olympic movement," said Jiang Xiayou, executive vice president of the Olympic Torch Relay Committee through a translator.

Others in San Francisco had a much more tempered opinion of the day's events.

"I think it was very strange that the torch seemed to be running away from the people, but it was a good day because attention was focused on some very important issues," said Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur coalition.


Global Protests

Those issues—China's policies toward Tibet, human rights, journalists, and the Darfur region in Sudan in Africa—received a very different kind of attention when the torch went through London and Paris.

In London, demonstrators tried to take the torch away from runners and put out the flame. Police and security forces clashed with protesters along the relay route, but the torch's flame was not extinguished.

But where those in London failed, the Paris protesters succeeded.

Despite a presence of 3,000 police officers, the flame was extinguished more than four times. Parisian officials were forced to move the torch onto a bus more than once to keep it and the runner secure.

In light of those protests, San Francisco officials moved quickly to develop alternate plans for the torch's route.

"We were saddened by what we saw in London and Paris," International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said in a statement yesterday. "Fortunately, the situation was better in San Francisco."

That sentiment was ultimately small comfort for the thousands of people who took to the streets of San Francisco. Regardless of their motivation, they wanted to see the torch.

"I'm disappointed, annoyed, tired, frustrated," 18-year-old Sydney Sullivan said. "I mean, it's not every day you get to see the Olympic torch."

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