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S.F. braces for mass protest over torch

April 09, 2008|John M. Glionna and Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — It was supposed to be on a "Journey of Harmony," but the Olympic torch celebrating the Beijing Summer Games slinked into the city before dawn Tuesday, dogged by controversy both here and abroad.

As activists and police readied for a chaotic torch relay expected to produce mass demonstrations and arrests this afternoon, China stood defiant in the face of growing criticism of its human rights policies. The superpower has downplayed protests -- many by pro-Tibetan activists -- that have aimed to snuff out the Olympic flame, and has ignored a chorus of calls for a boycott of the Games' opening ceremony.

On Tuesday, International Olympic Committee officials in Beijing suggested the possibility of cutting short the torch's odyssey, abbreviating the list of 19 countries it is scheduled to visit in the run-up to the Aug. 8 opening ceremony. Officials said they might even consider scrapping the international portion of the torch relay for future games.

"I'm definitely concerned about what has happened in London and in Paris," said Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, referring to numerous efforts by protesters to extinguish the torch.

The flame embarked in March from Greece on an 85,000-mile, six-continent journey -- one of the most ambitious torch relays in the history of the Olympic Games.

China chose the slogan "Journey of Harmony." Despite the recent public-relations fiasco, Beijing officials insisted Tuesday that there would be no route changes after the flame leaves San Francisco.

"No force will disrupt the torch relay," said Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing organizing committee.

Chinese Americans in San Francisco echoed those sentiments Tuesday, saying they would cheer the torch today in the face of protest. Organizers said they expected more than 15,000 to wave banners in support of Beijing.

"We're going to show the world that San Francisco stands behind China," social worker Citania Tam said as she walked in Chinatown. "We're going to be the anti-demonstrators."

The normally free-spirited city was tense Tuesday as it waited in the eye of the oncoming storm. Tibetan activists and other anti-China protesters held symposiums and rallies that included speeches by Hollywood actor Richard Gere and Nobel Prize-winning South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. At least one Bay Area torchbearer has dropped out of the event, citing safety concerns, officials say.

Mayor Gavin Newsom insisted that changes to the torch relay's route could come at any time -- even after the scheduled start of the event at 1 p.m. today. Although police said they expected as many as 6,500 protesters, an organizer for the Coalition to Save Darfur said the group had already rallied 2,100 supporters, double original estimates.

Newsom said he expected "tens of thousands" to witness the event, which will be monitored by many hundreds of police.

The mayor met with protesters Tuesday and advised them against threatening the torch: "Nothing gets in the way of a movement more than doing something to take you away from your message. . . . I am not over-promising that this is the Summer of Love. [People] can peacefully disagree."

San Francisco officials say they have no regrets about beating out Seattle last year in a bid to become the only North American city to welcome the torch. In a recent speech before journalists in Sacramento, Newsom, referring to San Francisco's torch relay, quipped, "Be careful what you wish for."

Mayoral spokesman Nathan Ballard said San Francisco was chosen for its status as a Pacific Rim city and home to thousands of Chinese Americans. "We knew from Day One there would be protests and that we would have to accommodate that," he said. "This is a free country."

The torch, en route from Paris, touched down in San Francisco at 3:40 a.m. under heavy security and was promptly whisked to an undisclosed location, officials said. There were no protesters on hand, just a few dozen supporters. "I acted like a teenager. I was really excited to see that torch," said Rose Pak, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which represents 140 mostly pro-China businesses here.

Within hours, the first of the day's anti-Beijing protests began. Waving Tibetan flags, more than 500 Tibet supporters gathered near City Hall to condemn China's violent response to dissent there.

The crowd sang the Tibetan national anthem and chanted "Team Tibet!" When one woman began weeping about deaths in Tibet, a dozen television cameras crowded in to capture her words.

Later, Tutu said in a speech, "I am thrilled myself that people care as much as they have shown they do."

But not every San Franciscan tuned into the unfolding political drama. Many dismissed the event as the latest act in San Francisco's ongoing political circus.

"Aren't the Olympics in Beijing?" asked hedge-fund trader Tom Glaser. "Why is the torch even passing through here? I guess I don't care enough to find out."

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