"Olympic Torch Relay Detoured Through San Francisco Back Streets," screamed the headlines. "Protest Forces Cancellation of Closing Ceremony."
That's the basic gist of what happened in San Francisco on April 9. All very neat and tidy, it would seem. Most people scanned the headlines and moved on.
If you took the time to read the full news accounts, you would have also learned that tens of thousands of demonstrators from around the country had gathered in San Francisco to protest against China's human rights record. But fearing a public-relations disaster if the torch was extinguished or seized by the unruly crowd, the mayor and city officials at the last minute secretly changed the previously announced route of the torch relay so that it completely bypassed all the protesters, who had lined up hoping to get a glimpse of the torch and draw attention to their cause.
With the torch route diverted, all the protesters (and supporters) of the relay were left in the lurch, feeling confused and angry. The assembled global media, perhaps hoping for more exciting disruptions (as had happened in Paris and London over the previous days), were disappointed as well, and portrayed the whole day as a misfire.
But was it really?
The media inevitably resort to generalizations when describing complicated events. The details get lost. Yet life is nothing but a long series of details. At a major protest like this, when tens of thousands of people gather in one place, when emotions erupt and a million little vignettes unfurl, no simple headline can fully describe all that went on. Hell, even with a full-length photo essay like this, I can't fully illuminate the day's many facets either. No one could.
Even so, I'll try my best to find the story behind the news. What started as a stage-managed Olympic photo op first descended into political chaos, then in an instant became an irrelevant sideshow as the relay went in a different direction altogether -- and the day ended with a desperate cross-town footrace as relentless protesters (and yours truly) managed to outrun the Olympians and catch the torch at the finish line.
Ready? On your marks...Get set...Let's go!
[This is a three-part report: this first page covers the massive protest along the scheduled Olympic Torch Relay route, and the disputes that erupted between the competing protest groups; the second page is a more humorous take on unexpected scenes at the demonatration; and the thrilling third page covers my breathless race to catch up with the torch after it was diverted to avoid the proteseters.]
I arrived over an hour before the scheduled relay start time only to find, to my initial surprise, supporters of the Beijing Olympics lining the route. The fact that they all had identical oversized Chinese flags, souvenir t-shirts and even little paper American flags led me to believe that the Chinese government had organized the whole scene.
I quickly discovered that the anti-China protesters were massed a short distance away. Not only did they already outnumber the China supporters, but the crowd was growing minute by minute as people streamed toward San Francisco's Embarcadero (on the waterfront) to join the protest.
It wasn't long before they came into conflict. Here a China supporter expresses his disapproval of a banner blaming China for the situation in Darfur.
As the crowds swelled on both sides of the political aisle, mere disapproval rapidly escalated to all-out confrontation. Arguments between China supporters and detractors broke out all over the Embarcadero.
As the time for the relay grew closer, the conflicts between the two sides grew more heated. Discussions became arguments became mass screaming matches whenever two opposing groups came near each other -- which became unavoidable as hundreds more people poured into the area with every passing minute.
Here's a video that brings the photo above to life, showing one of the furious confrontations between the Tibet supporters and the China supporters.
There was no strict physical separation between the opposing sides, though at first the China supporters tended to stay on one side of the Embarcadero while the protesters clustered on the other side with occasional forays into the street. Even this unofficial arrangement disintegrated fairly quickly.
This video basically sums up the whole day -- it shows a parade of China-supporters marching down the street and being confronted by groups of protesters one after the other.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Who were all these protesters, and what did they want?
Typical news reports about protests rarely tell you the exact nature of who's protesting or why. Which I've always found rather odd. Mainstream media outlets inevitably focus on whether or not there was violence, and how many people were arrested. But they'll almost never discuss the issues underlying the protest in the first place.
So you may be wondering: What's the hubbub all about?
Turns out a lot of people have a beef with China. I counted at least 20 different causes being championed at the protest, on a dizzying array of topics.
Let's visit some of the many groups who showed up:
First, of course, were the Tibetans and their supporters, who were there in force: thousands upon thousands of people showed up to condemn China's actions in Tibet, starting with Mao's invasion in 1950 up to the day before the protest, when dissidents were shot and killed in a fresh round of repression.
This video shows one of my favorite protesters, a Tibetan woman who really lets the China supporters have a piece of her mind.
(Thanks to savage_nation for help with the video.)
Many people held signs purportedly depicting the bodies of Tibetans tortured by the Chinese just weeks beforehand.
The main phalanx of Tibet supporters gathered at first in Embarcadero Plaza park under a huge banner saying "San Francisco supports Tibet."
The second largest contingent were the Darfur activists, who blamed China for propping up the genocidal Sudanese regime.
The vast majority of Darfur activists were "white" Americans...
...but there were a handful of actual Sudanese from Darfur protesting too.
Next up were the Burmese dissidents, who demanded that China stop supporting the repressive military dictatorship there.
Before arriving at the relay I had not even considered the possibility of Burma being the topic of protests, so I was amazed that there were any Burmese protesters at all, and doubly amazed at the size of their contingent.
The Uyghurs also had a surprisingly large turnout. Their cause is not widely known in the U.S. -- the Uyghurs are a Muslim minority group in far western China that want independence, or at least greater autonomy. China labels Uyghur separatists as Islamic terrorists, though it's doubtful there's any substance to the accusation. [UPDATE: zombietime reader "Ken" writes to say that there is evidence that at least some of the Uyghur separatist groups are in fact militant Islamists. Because of Chinese state control of the media in the region, it's hard to get any clear reliable reports about how extensive the terrorist connections really are in far western China. There may in fact be some violent separatist groups there, but I saw no evidence that the specific groups who were present at this San Francisco protest were connected to the extremists.]
Some of the Uyghurs held up signs identifying their hoped-for independent state as "Uyguristan" (sic), and delineating the complex mosaic of ethnic groups in the region.
I certainly won't!
This video shows three different protest groups in action, one after the other -- first the Uyghurs, then the Burmese, and finally a tour through the Tibetan camp at the end.
Taiwanese Nationalists turned up to warn China: Keep your hands off. The communist government still regards the island of Formosa as a breakaway province illegally occupied by a defeated rebel army.
This hyper-detailed hand-painted poster was a masterpiece of political art -- if you stood close enough to it to see all the details.
All sorts of Vietnamese protesters showed up by the hundreds, drawing attention to myriad causes little known outside the Vietnamese community. For example...
The Paracel and Spratly Islands took center stage in one area of the rally. The dispute over these tiny coral reefs in the South China Sea might seem a bizarre issue to get worked up over, but the islands' potential global significance has become clear in recent years, as they are now thought to sit atop huge underwater oil and natural gas fields. China illegally seized the Paracels from the crumbling South Vietnamese government in 1974 and never gave them back, while the oil-rich Spratlys are claimed by China, Vietnam, and several other nearby nations.
These folks were apparently still miffed over China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam.
The littlest protester stood up for the lives of Vietnamese deep-water fishermen who reportedly have been massacred on the open sea recently by predatory Chinese ships operating under instructions from the government -- an apparent attempt to wrest fishing rights away from Vietnam. The excellent sign depicts one of the cutesy 2008 Olympic mascots as a vicious monster holding a burning human bone instead of an Olympic torch as it sinks a Vietnamese fishing boat.
Most of the Vietnamese protesters held the flag of the former South Vietnam -- i.e. the flag of the anti-communist government which was defeated in 1975.
Veterans of the South Vietnamese army took the opportunity to hold a reunion.
But it was more than just Asian nations pointing out the evils of the Chinese government. Other groups were there as well, including...
Anti-fur activists, angry about the factory fur trade in China -- where animals are mistreated so horrifically that it's hard to even contemplate -- held up gruesome signs of cats being skinned alive...
.. and other nightmare-inducing images.
"Made in USA" Advocates
Several protesters encouraged people to buy American-made products and boycott Chinese goods, to reverse the lopsided trade imbalance between the two nations and to stop the Chinese economic juggernaut.
What I found interesting about the "Made in USA" advocates is that they were not an organized group -- each person seems to be there independently, and all their signs were individually hand-made.
Labor activists decried China's treatment of workers and its anti-union policies.
I'm not quite sure what Lou Gehrig's Disease has to do with China, but hey -- I'm all for striking it out!
And lastly, this one-man protest accused somebody of stealing Kosovo from somebody else, but the particulars of the theft eluded me.
The Pro-China Side
But the anti-China protesters were only half the story. Well, perhaps two-thirds of the story, by my unofficial off-the-cuff estimate. The other one-third of the people there -- and since they weren't protesting against anything, I'll call them demonstrators -- were pro-China and pro-Olympics. At first they stayed pretty much on the sidewalks, but as the day progressed, they ventured out into the streets more and more, waving huge Chinese flags.
In front of the Ferry Building, they were jammed 15-deep, waiting to see the torch. Notice how American flags were popular on both sides of the demonstration; the anti-China and pro-China contingents both waved American flags, seeking to gain the status associated with the symbol. Contrast this to the usual San Francisco protest, where American flags are generally seen as symbolizing evil, and are usually held upside down, dragged on the ground, or burned.
Here was a very unusual crew: a small group of people who were pro-USA and pro-Olympics, but who made no mention of China or politics. In another time and place, this would have been the most common sentiment at the Torch Relay. But on this day, they seemed weirdly out of place, like transplants from a different rally.
Local media interviewing three pro-China demonstrators.
This is what the protest looked like from the point of view of a China supporter with a bullhorn.
The Chinese government supplied oversized heads of the Olympic mascots, which were designed to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy but only ended up looking out-of-place and discordant with the deadly serious tone of the protest. Here we see Huanhaun and Yingying. Huanhuan is supposed to represent fire, and Yingying (I kid you not) is supposed to be, of all things, a Tibetan antelope. Could you get any more ironic?
They even handed out mascot signs, in a futile attempt to cutify the protest.
There was some kind of official Olympic performance going on nearby in Justin Herman Plaza, but it was very ill-attended -- most of the people in the audience seemed to be the troupes of performers themselves. The vast majority of those who came to the Torch Relay came to raise a political ruckus -- not watch a canned propaganda show.
Before the protesters showed up and threw a monkey wrench into the proceedings, the Embarcadero area was supposed to host a celebration of traditional Chinese culture at the closing ceremony of the torch relay. And even though everything had gone to pot, the scheduled performances went forward anyway, mostly ignored by the huge crowd. Here, traditional dragon dancers walk warily near the protest, doing very little in the way of dancing.
As the dragon dancers filed past, a motormouth Tibet supporter harangued them with a continuous stream of slogans that barely left time for inhaling.
(Thanks to savage_nation for help with the video.)
One of the Tibetan groups drew a large crowd throughout the day with an impressive bit of rolling political street theater involving a faux Chinese tank and Chinese soldiers beating and torturing protesters dressed as Buddhist monks.
Notice the Grade-A moron on the left, who made the brilliant decision to wear a Chairman Mao shirt to the rally, as some kind of birdbrained fashion statement -- even though he was hanging around with the anti-Chinese Tibetan protesters. It takes a special kind of stupid to be that oblivious.
The dolt also stood directly between the street theater and the faux tank for most of the performance, smirking the whole time and completely ruining the scene for all the other photographers. It's like he was trying to be annoying.
[Update: a reader writes in to say that his shirt may in fact have had a sarcastic anti-Mao slogan on it, but even if that's true, it was not visible to anyone there, so the effect on the viewer was the same whatever the shirt-wearer's intent was -- so I stand by my assessment of him either way.]
Even when they were just walking along, they made a strong visual impact.
Back in the trenches, the ongoing battles continued. Here, one China supporter gives a mocking laugh and a thumbs down to some Tibetans.
Though the China supporters were far outnumbered by anti-China protesters, they made up for it in fervor.
When there were no opponents in the immediate vicinity to challenge, they chanted slogans in Chinese anyway. In the absence of the torch relay, there wasn't much else to do if you wanted to show your support for China.
Sometimes the conflicts became personal. These two went at it for what seemed like half an hour. They guy on the right is a China supporter who stationed himself in the middle of a large Tibet contingent, and waved a communist Chinese flag back and forth. The guy on the left took out a whistle and blew it in his face incessantly -- when they weren't exchanging insults.
Turn down your volume before clicking on this video -- the whistle is extremely loud (which was the whole point of it, I suppose.) The duel escalates toward the end of the video and a fight almost breaks out between supporters of the two sides.
A few of the disputants came close to blows -- but I personally never witnessed any real violence at the protest.
After a while it degenerated into sheer chaos in the street -- the two sides had become inextricably intermingled, and the arguments and screaming were nonstop.
At one point some random guy grabbed a China supporter by the arm. When challenged as to what justification he had, he claimed he was making a citizen's arrest because a Tibetan protester (holding a sign in the background) claimed the China supporter had struck him. The fight devolved into further accusations and counter-accusations, needless to say.
Here's a video of part of the "citizen's arrest" brouhaha -- I have no idea if anybody had actually hit anybody else, but as you can see from the video, the guy claiming to make the "arrest" was pretty much of a jerk.