Dissent May Shift Torch's Route at Last Minute

Before dawn Wednesday, supporters of China's role as host of the Olympic games gathered on San Francisco's waterfront. Video by AP
San Francisco
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

LOS ANGELES, April 8 -- San Francisco officials and police scrambled Tuesday to find a path for the Olympic torch that would accommodate the obligations of hospitality and the city's historic tolerance for dissent, which has now targeted the Beijing Games.

Taken aback by the ferocity of protests that greeted the torch in London and Paris, city officials have raised the possibility of changing the torch's route at the last moment. San Francisco is the only city in North America where the torch will appear during its trek through dozens of cities in the more-than-four-month run-up to the Olympics. The Games were intended to trumpet China's arrival as a world superpower but so far have become a flash point for outrage over Beijing's actions in Tibet, Sudan and Burma.

The flame arrived at San Francisco International Airport at 4 a.m. Tuesday under the kind of security usually accorded a head of state.

"We were surprised to see that they would bring it here, of all places," said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, a group that strung banners high in the Golden Gate Bridge on Monday. It slated a prayer vigil for Tuesday night with actor Richard Gere and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

San Francisco was chosen as a stop in what Beijing calls "the Harmonious Journey" because of its sizable Chinese American community. But the city also embraces an iconoclastic tradition of opposition and dissent that led officials to abandon plans to restrict protesters to "free speech zones" when challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch. The groups argued that security mechanisms developed to safeguard heads of state at G-8 and World Trade Organization meetings were inappropriate for "basically a public parade," said Libby Marsh, director of the San Francisco office of Human Rights Watch.

"At first they were going to be 'restricted free speech zones,' then they were 'designated' zones, and finally they were 'suggested,' " Marsh said. "They moved in the right direction, which is great."

Still to be determined is whether the stocky phalanx of China's "flame protection squad" will accompany the torch, as it did in Europe. "I'm not sure about that. That hasn't been decided," said Sgt. Neville Gittens, spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, which summoned all hands for the occasion.

The 30 Chinese guards, wearing track suits and drawn from the People's Armed Police, were called "thugs" by a British Olympics organizer. They diverted the flame and its honorary carriers into buses when things got hot in Paris.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom met with China's ambassador for 45 minutes Monday to discuss Beijing's concerns. About 80 individuals are scheduled to take turns carrying the torch on a six-mile route that runs mostly up and down the wide Embarcadero that hugs San Francisco Bay.

"The route has been fixed, and it's subject to change," said Gittens, repeating Newsom's warning that organizers may respond to explosions of chaos by taking off in an unexpected direction.

The warning amused some of the people organizing protests.

"We like being aggressive, We like being edgy. We like being in your face. But we don't take it as far as disrupting things," said Allyn Brooks-LaSure, spokesman for activists pressuring China to use its influence over the government of Sudan to stop the war in the country's Darfur region.

Protests were also being organized by activists from Burma, Chinese human rights groups and the banned Falun Gong religious movement. Tethong, of the Tibet group, chuckled at the idea of a last-minute change in the route.

"San Francisco is only so big," she said. "We'll find it."

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