Olympic Torch Protests May Threaten U.S. Relay

Juliana Barbassa And Marcus Wohlsen in San Francisco
Associated Press
April 9, 2008
Security was tightened on the Golden Gate Bridge and elsewhere around the city Tuesday as officials prepared for massive protests of China's crackdown in Tibet during the Olympic torch's only North American stop on its journey to Beijing.

The Olympic flame was whisked to a secret location shortly after its predawn arrival Tuesday following widespread and chaotic demonstrations during the torch relay in London and Paris. Activists are protesting China's human rights record, its grip on Tibet, and support for Sudan despite years of bloodshed in Darfur.

On Monday, three protesters scaled the Golden Gate Bridge and tied the Tibetan flag and two banners to its cables.

The torch is scheduled to be paraded through the city Wednesday on a six-mile (about ten-kilometer) route that hugs San Francisco Bay. Already, one runner who planned to carry the torch dropped out because of safety concerns, officials said.

The 85,000-mile (136,794-kilometer) journey began in Ancient Olympia in Greece on March 24, and was the focus of protests from the start.

"Deeply Saddened"

Meanwhile, a few miles away in Chinatown, leaders of China's expatriate community held a news conference calling for a peaceful relay, and said they were proud China was selected to host the summer games.

In Beijing, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said the body's executive board would discuss Friday whether to end the international leg of the torch relay because of the demonstrations. He said he was "deeply saddened" by the previous protests and was concerned about the relay in San Francisco.

"We recognize the right for people to protest and express their views, but it should be nonviolent. We are very sad for all the athletes and the people who expected so much from the run and have been spoiled of their joy," Rogge said.

Hundreds of activists carrying Tibetan flags and wearing traditional clothes gathered in United Nations Plaza, a pedestrian area near San Francisco's City Hall, to denounce China's policy toward Tibet and the recent crackdown on protesters there. They then marched to the Chinese Consulate as part of a daylong Tibetan Torch Relay.

"This is not about us battling the torchbearers," Lhadom Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, told the crowd outside the consulate. "This is about the Chinese government using the torch for political purposes. And we're going to use it right back."

Pro-Tibet activists and other human rights groups said they'd encouraged their supporters to protest peacefully and not disrupt the relay or the torch runners.

"We can be effective without [disruption]," said Allyn Brooks-LaSure, a spokesman for Save Darfur. "Disrupting tomorrow's ceremonies couldn't possibly embarrass Beijing any more than their disastrous Darfur policy already has."

Prepared for the Worst

Still, law enforcement agencies prepared for the worst. Mayor Gavin Newsom said there was a strong likelihood that the relay's route would be changed, but the ultimate decision would be made by Police Chief Heather Fong.

The Fire Department will have ambulances along the torch's route, the San Francisco Sheriff's Department will have 50 or more extra deputies on patrol, and vans will be available to haul away arrested protesters.

"We are trying to accomplish two goals here. One is to protect the right to free speech and the other is to ensure public safety, and here in San Francisco we are good at both of those things," said Newsom spokesperson Nathan Ballard.

The FAA has restricted flights over the city to media helicopters, medical emergency carriers, and law enforcement helicopters and airplanes, such as those the California Highway Patrol will use to monitor the torch's route.

The CHP has also increased the number of officers on the ground, to guarantee the flow of traffic, protect the bridges, that connect the San Francisco Bay Area and provide immediate help to police.

After San Francisco, the torch is scheduled to travel to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The relay also is expected to face demonstrations in New Delhi and possibly elsewhere on its 21-stop, six-continent tour before arriving in mainland China May 4. The Olympics begin on August 8.


Associated Press writers John Marshall, Amanda Fehd and Stephen Wilson contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.