Olympic Torch Relay

San Francisco, April 9, 2008

Part 2

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

(This is Part 2 of a three-part report. Click on the links above if you wish to jump directly to Parts 1 or 3.)

Many of the anti-China signs contained sarcastic reinterpretations of the Olympic rings. This was one of my favorites.

I was intrigued by this guy's sign and asked him if the swastikas were supposed to be the kind that are a Buddhist good luck symbol, since the color scheme seemed to suggest a Tibetan connection. Or, alternately, were they, "y'know, the bad kind." He looked a little puzzled and said "The bad kind," then admitted he never knew they were ever used in any other context.

This guy, however, left no doubt as to the meaning of his swastika.

Ouch. Every other protest sign criticized the Chinese government, but this one uniquely pointed out the hypocrisy of the China supporters at the rally.

What I find particularly entertaining about this sign is that it contained no topical reference at all. It could fit in at any protest. In fact, you could just walk down the street with it any day of the week and see what kind of reaction you got.

I was expecting more signs with Olympics-themed protest metaphors, but this is the only one I saw all day.

This is an interesting sign featuring a photo that had been recently discovered which appeared to show the Chinese military handing out Buddhist monk robes to soldiers -- presumably so they could dress up as Tibetan monks, commit violent acts as agents provocateurs, and thereby provide a pretext for a crackdown in Tibet. [UPDATE: Some readers have written in to say that the photo shown on the sign has been debunked and is a misrepresentation: It actually shows movie extras being given costumes for a new scene in a film, and does not depict actual soldiers, according to the debunkers. I don't know enough about the case to personally assess it one way or the other.]

Many of the signs drew attention to China's hypocrisy.

Tibetan organizers had distributed signs reading "Another ________ for a Free Tibet," allowing people to fill in their own identities. Some of the self-descriptions, as these examples show, were surprisingly frank.

Others made absolutely no sense at all.

A local high school teacher brought one of his classes to the protest and instructed each student to fill out a sign with an ethnic identifier of his or her choosing.

For some reason I found this exercise in "identity politics" rather disturbing -- the kids were being indoctrinated into racial consciousness in a way that seems to completely violate the goal of the civil rights movement and the quest for a race-blind society.

I'm not sure if this guy was purposely mocking the identity politics of the signs, or what his intent might have been, but either way he created one of the funniest vignettes of the whole day. I only wish I had taken a clear photo of him -- this is a freezeframe from a video.

Fellow citizen journalist "Aaron D." captured these three photos of nude protesters who disrobed midway through the afternoon.
(Photo by Aaron D.)

I had heard about the planned nude protest ahead of time, but managed to miss it, since they showed up after I had already left the main protest site (as you'll learn about in Part 3!).
(Photo by Aaron D.)

It goes without saying that they were much more interested in being the focus of attention than actually doing anything about injustices in China.
(Photo by Aaron D.)

When I first arrived, the police had cordoned off portions of the esplanade for no apparent purpose; later, they would take down some of the barricades and then set up others. If you monitored their activity you might have come to the same conclusion I did, that they were moving barriers around and opening and closing sections of the street at random for the specific purpose of deceiving the protesters, a ruse to make it look like they were preparing for the torch relay to come through, but knowing all along that it was never arriving.

This series of photos shows the breakdown of security at the main protest site. The relay was supposed to start at 1:00pm several blocks south, and reach here at the Embarcadero area around 1:15 or 1:20. As the clock on the Ferry Building shows, an hour ahead of time at 12:10, the street was completely clear.

Attendees lined the relay route all the way down to the site of the opening ceremony -- and the street was unimpeded all the way.

12:30 -- the street was still pretty much clear.

With ten minutes to go until the relay began, the crowd had swollen considerably but the police deployed along the street to theoretically keep everyone on the sidewalk.

Then, a very short time later, the whole situation disintegrated. Within a mattter of minutes, the entire street from one end to the other was swarming with thousands of people. I've seen the S.F police in action -- if they want to keep a crowd on the sidewalk, believe me, the crowd stays on the sidewalk. But in this situation the police in fact didn't seem to mind at all when security broke down and the torch route swarmed with protesters. I didn't see exactly how it all happened, but my impression was that the police let it happen as an excuse to justify the previously planned secret re-routing of the torch relay. Notice the smile on the cop at the lower left. If the torch really was on the way here in a few minutes, he wouldn't be smiling.

The international media was there en masse, hoping for the same kind of picturesque chaos that had plagued the London and Paris legs of the torch relay. If you think the protesters were disappointed that the torch was re-routed, imagine how the reporters felt.

At one point a large contingent of China supporters decided to challenge their detractors head-on. Waving communist Chinese flags and carrying Olympics placards, they plunged into the heart of enemy territory.

When the two opposing front lines came face to face, the China supporters unleashed a barrage of taunts and insults.

A group of college-age American Tibet supporters linked arms, knelt down, and silently stared down the invaders, who proceeded to mock them before retreating in triumph. Everyone on both sides was happy with the outcome; these symbolic battles seem to satisfy an innate need for confrontation.

The Tibetans made creative use of "girl power," a protest technique that has proven very effective over the decades. There were very few, if any, teenaged Tibetan boys visible at the protest, but dozens and dozens of teenaged Tibetan girls.

Was this gender imbalance accidental? Or part of a strategy? Or do Tibetans only give birth to daughters?

I got the feeling it was intentional: The Tibetan protest movement seems media savvy and is very adept at creating photogenic scenes, whether it be street theater (as shown on the previous page), young women...

...or wise old men in traditional costumes.

This Burmese democracy protester bore an uncanny resemblance to detained Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

One protester went so far as to shave his hair to spell out "Free Tibet."

Throughout the day there were a number of "flag battles," which entailed supporters of one side using their own flags to cover up or neutralize the flags of their opponents.

Here, a Tibetan flag and a South Vietnamese flag team up to outflank a Chinese flag.

"Oh, dearie me, did he really say that?" A woman appears aghast at the blunt words spoken by a fellow China supporter.

This short compilation video shows a few comical scenes from the protest, including two different China supporters acting sarcastic toward their opponents, and then some guy screaming "Reject the communist Olympics!"

"Free Tibet, bitches!" That'll tell 'em. I can't imagine the Chinese government not freeing Tibet after catching sight of this shirt.

A bad-ass biker gang posed for the cameras.

A scuffle broke out when someone climbed up the Ferry Building to hang a "Free Tibet" banner, only to have it torn down by the pro-China demonstrators. (Notice the woman on the left holding a sign from the "Party for Socialism and Liberation" -- one of the few people there who overtly supported China out of communist solidarity, instead of national or ethnic pride.)

The police had to intervene when tempers started to flare out of control.

But then a Tibet supporter managed to climb back up on the building to re-attach the banner, eliciting boos and jeers from the China supporters.

Because it was torn, he was having trouble permanently affixing it, so instead he just wrapped himself in the banner and stood above the seething crowd below.

If you're dumb enough to wear a gorilla mask, you're dumb enough to put your sign together backwards.

What is it with the gorilla masks already? Who started the bright idea that wearing a gorilla mask to a protest would help get your message across?

Another Mercedes-Benz lover for a free Tibet!

Members of Code Pink showed up and did everything they could to draw attention to themselves. Whenever there was a gap in the crowd they'd run out into the street in their pink Statue of Liberty outfits, and basically jump up and down and yell "Look at us!" I can only conclude that they suffer from some form of mental illness whereby they confuse "attention" with "admiration" or "significance."

The Bay Area's other most notorious narcissist, Cindy Sheehan, made an appearance as well, wading through the crowd and trying to piggyback off all the excitement -- which, after all, had nothing whatsoever to do with her.

In an odd way this was the most disturbing protest I'd ever been to -- because it thoroughly reconfigured the traditional political landscape. I'm no fan of the Chinese government, and for the most part sympathized with the causes of the protesters. Because of this I ended up on the same side as people whom I normally loathe -- such as this guy, who I've seen many times at anti-Israel protests and who has more than once revealed himself to be an anti-Semite. And here I am, agreeing with him on Tibet. Very unnerving.

Same holds true for anybody wearing a kaffiyeh, the type of person I would normally avoid at all costs.

Why does politics have to be so complicated?

Be sure not to miss the exciting conclusion in Part 3 of the report...

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

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