By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO, April 9 -- In the end, San Francisco punted.
Spooked by protests that overwhelmed the Olympic torch relays in Paris and London earlier in the week, city officials on Wednesday opted to simply avoid the thousands who turned out to demonstrate both for and against China at the flame's only stop in North America as it makes its way to the Beijing Summer Games.
Abandoning a long-planned bay-side route lined with protesters, well-wishers and the merely curious, officials took elaborate measures to sneak the torch into a different part of the city. It emerged on another main thoroughfare, where layers of dark-uniformed police took up positions flanking honorary runners, who at times were waving to empty sidewalks.
The result was a strangely bifurcated day: an orderly, if somewhat lonely, procession unfolding in one part of the city, while the people who turned out for the spectacle went through the motions for the political causes that brought them into the streets, where they were left to themselves.
"It sort of misses the point," said Judy A. Bernstein, who traveled from San Diego to protest on behalf of Save Darfur, a group that advocates pressuring Beijing to promote peace in Sudan, where China has significant clout. "So they hid it so nobody saw it."
There were signs elsewhere, however, that the bad publicity surrounding the Beijing Games was having some effect.
Mario Vazquez Rana, president of the Association of National Olympic Committees, said: "We are slightly overwhelmed by the torch relay . . . and I think it will be necessary to make some changes in the future."
Speaking after an association meeting, and alluding to Tibet, he said: "A change is needed, because today's situation is unacceptable in a country that organizes the Games. There are always problems, so there is no need to add further problems by having to worry about the torch around the whole world."
In London, the office of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that he will not attend the opening ceremonies Aug. 8 in Beijing. But a spokeswoman said that Brown is not boycotting the Olympics and that he plans to attend the closing festivities.
On Wednesday, the White House said that Bush plans to attend the Olympics but left open the possibility that he would skip the opening ceremonies. Asked whether Bush will go to that portion of the Games, White House press secretary Dana Perino demurred, citing the fluid nature of a schedule for a foreign trip this far away.
The mood in San Francisco was largely anticlimactic.
"I took my kids out of school early to see it," said Greta Keegan, waiting patiently on a curb along the announced route with Cormac, 9, and Maeve, who turned 12 on Wednesday. By 2 p.m. there was no sign of the torch, but Keegan, a native of Ireland, took a philosophical view.
"You know what it is? It's an education. Freedom of speech. And I just went for my interview for citizenship today."
Free speech, there was plenty of. Protests are held in San Francisco almost daily, and if the prospect of confrontation was too much for city and Olympic officials, it was catnip to the activists who brought the streets alive for much of the warm, sunny day.
"I'm actually surprised how many people have come out for this," said Dennis Chan, 17, who carried a sign reading: "Another Average Asian Guy For a Free Tibet." A high school student from Temple City, Calif., he had turned out to help pressure Beijing to end its crackdown.
Pro-Tibet activists were the most prominent Wednesday, a situation that irked the thousands of Chinese Americans who wanted to promote the Games in their homeland.
"I'm not brainwashed," said Ke Zhan, 36, of Palo Alto, Calif. "I have my PhD from the United States. I do research at Stanford. I have my own judgment. And I support the Olympics itself. The spirit of the Olympics should be honored."
Opposite the Ferry Building, in the park where several dozen Chinese Americans performed tai chi yards from Tibet supporters practicing their slogans, lawyer Edward Liu drew a crowd by confronting reporters.
"I've been here since 1970, and you know something? It pains me, the bigotry I see in these mood swings you see in America: the China-bashing," he said, to assent from the crowd.
"China may not give its media freedom of access," he said, "but you know what? We'll get there. It's our problem."
It was an extremely diverse protest. Forrest Schmidt, 31, held a sign warning the United States to lighten up on China. "We can't cloak hegemony and imperialism in the rags of human rights, freedom and democracy and have it be anything but imperialism," he said.
"Free Tibet? You Just Stole Kosovo!" read the sign Mark Beauchamp held over his head.
David Gemigniani strutted along in white pinstriped suit under a sign reading, "I Can't Afford an Actual Sign."
"Oh, I'm retired," he said. "I just play. I live in San Francisco. San Francisco is Oz."
A longtime psychiatric nurse, he goes to a lot of protests. "Both sides laugh at this sign," Gemigniani said. "It allows for free speech without fisticuffs."
Correspondents Kevin Sullivan in London and Maureen Fan in Beijing contributed to this report.