There’s a line in “Pulp Fiction” where Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Jules, has a “moment of clarity” after several short-range bullets miss him: He decides to quit the hitman career, finally start living the Ezekiel passage he quoted to victims about the path of righteousness being beset on all sides by evil men, and even though totally unsure of his future he tells Vincent Vega (John Travolta) “I can’t go back to sleep.” After this week’s protests against the Olympic torch in San Francisco, one can’t help but think — and hope — that many spectators now have that feeling about the myriad grievances brought against China: Tibet, the PRC’s support for Sudan and Burma, press freedom (or lack of it, as the situation is), even the crackdowns on China’s Uighur community (which showed up waving Eastern Turkistan flags). Media reports tend to leap to the loony protesters — like the trio of nude guys I interviewed (and photographed, providing a scary surprise for my mother in her e-mail) — but a strong message was sent by a passionate mass of protesters who generally heeded the call for nonviolence yet blocked the path for the torch to enter the closing ceremonies.
I was there for it. Protest events actually began Tuesday, with a Tibet-centric rally at U.N. Plaza, marching to San Francisco City Hall and the Chinese consulate after that. Many in the crowd were ethnic Tibetans, waving Tibet and American flags, but many were supporters from other walks of life. One speaker — described as the only Tibetan in Appalachia — eloquently compared this fight against communism to Eastern Europe’s efforts, and hoped that Rangzen (”independence”) would reach the same one-word movement recognition as Solidarno?? in 1980s Poland. One organizer handed me a sobering list — names, ages, gender, town of those Tibetans thus far confirmed killed by the Chinese government since March 14. The elected North American representative for the Tibetan government in exile had sobering news: Some of those monks who were arrested and tortured for defying protest bans have committed suicide upon their release from Chinese custody. As it is, monasteries are under siege without access to food or water.
Mayor Gavin Newsom, of course, cowered inside City Hall and didn’t come out when the protesters massed on the steps and spilled across the street. Marching up Van Ness Avenue (and yes, I did get new running shoes for the week) toward the consulate, cars driving the opposite way stopped in lanes to take pictures of the monks, the activists, and the plain ol’ concerned citizens; drivers honked and flashed peace signs.
On Wednesday I got to the Embarcadero long before the torch relay was to start, sipping the best ever clam chowder on the patio of the Waterfront Restaurant as helicopters buzzed overhead and a plane flew a “Free Burma” banner. As Newsom decided to play hide-and-seek with the torch at the last minute, protesters made the wise decision to gather near the closing ceremonies site rather than spread out among the supposed waterfront route. Before long, the police barricades were null and the Chinese nationalists who had lined up to watch the missing torch were treated to a parade of demonstrators. I was in the middle of the protesters, dashing over to watch the latest shouting match or flag wrestling with China supporters who had wandered into the protest crowd.
At about 2:30 p.m. — the relay was supposed to start at 1 p.m. — Tibetan organizers told protesters to go through the Embarcadero Center building to get around police barricades branching far from the stage setup. “Block all the entrances!” a protest leader shouted. “Do not let the torch enter the closing ceremony!” Demonstrators streamed through the doors of the shopping center, chanting slogans as shopkeepers peered from windows.
Once close to the ceremony site, protesters pressed against another set of barricades that kept the public out of reserved seating. “Bring down the barriers!” demonstrators shouted as police lined up and a band played covers of tunes such as David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure.” A couple of protesters asked me — I was smushed in, close to the front of the pack — if I would push in on the barrier: “You have a press pass, so you won’t get in trouble!” they theorized. Uh-huh.
I find it interesting that so many stories are painting the day as a victory for Newsom when it was the strong protest efforts that made the torch run and hide.
This, I think, is one of the saddest stories of relay day:
“At least one torchbearer decided to show her support for Tibetan independence during her moment in the spotlight. After being passed the Olympic flame, Majora Carter pulled out a small Tibetan flag that she had hidden in her shirt sleeve.
‘The Chinese security and cops were on me like white on rice, it was no joke,’ said Carter, 41, who runs a nonprofit organization in New York. ‘They pulled me out of the race, and then San Francisco police officers pushed me back into the crowd on the side of the street.’”
I’m so glad that, here in America, Chinese authorities are allowed to decide what’s acceptable speech, and then our law enforcement officers go along with it, acting like her peaceful display of a Tibetan flag is a crime. Shame on the city of San Francisco!!
But major, major props to the people of San Francisco, who are unlikely to continue to be silent about the policies of communist China. Once you learn the truth, it’s hard to go back to sleep. (Unless, of course, you’re President Bush, who unfortunately refuses to ditch the opening ceremonies in Beijing.)
Here’s the coverage roundup thus far from my trip: