Olympic Torch in San Francisco

Screen Cap from SFGate

Former mayor Willie Brown, football player Hershel Walker, and swimmer Natalie Coughlin, carry the torch on the final leg of the ‘surprise’ route.  Surrounded by a phalanx of Chinese security, police with batons,  and a motorcycle motorcade….with nary a protester in sight.   Yep – this is how San Francisco shows its Olympic spirit!

On April 9th the Olympic torch came to San Francisco – the only North American city on its route.  This was preceded by weeks of controversy over China’s human rights record, the situation in Tibet, and how this most liberal american city would  handle the event and the surrounding protests.   My parents (from Illinois) were in town that week so I took the opportunity to schedule a day off and go see the Olympic torch.  

Lots more pics below the fold.

First, a brief synopsis of events leading up to the relay.  It was initially reported that the city would set up Free Speech Zones at the start and end of the torch route.  The route of the torch run was also being kept secret. “As for the possible demonstrations, the torch route is being laid out with alternative streets all along the way – so if someone does unfurl a protest banner, organizers can change the course on a moment’s notice.”  The ACLU filed a Sushine Disclosure Request asking for details of the route and for any plans to restrict protesters to “areas set up for First Amendment rights issues”.  The mayor’s response to the ACLU request stated that the public was welcome to line the route – protestors and Olympic supporters alike.  It continued, saying that media reports that protesters would be limited to “free speech zones” are inaccurate.  “The public is welcome to line the sidewalks along the torch relay route and to attend the opening and closing ceremonies.  There will be open areas near the opening and closing ceremonies where groups may assemble if they wish.”  At least the free speech zones were no longer in play but the torch route wasn’t disclosed until a week later: Long awaited route released.  

As the day drew near, there were increasing numbers of protests and public rallies.  April 7th Free Tibet protesters scaled the Golden Gate Bridge.  On April 8th, demonstrators marched from the UN Plaza to City Hall and then the Chinese Consulate.   Later that evening, thousands attended a candlelight vigil with the lighting of the  Tibetan Freedom Torch and speeches by Desmond Tutu and Richard Gere.  Then there were the riots at the torch run in London and Paris was a complete disaster.   (h/t grannyhelen!) This obviously had the city scrambling for other options – Plan B, C, D etc.  

Now on to the pictures….

On a gorgeous spring Wednesday I set off with my mom, dad and sister to see the torch relay. We took the ferry from Oakland to the SF Ferry Building.

Passing through the Port of Oakland. Hmmmm, just what we need – another load of crap from China.

The New Bay Bridge under construction (est. completion date 2013 @ $6.3 billion)

The torch run was scheduled to start from McCovey Cove (next to the SF Giants ballpark) at 1 PM.  The planned route went along the Embarcadero (waterfront), past the Ferry Building, down to Fort Mason, and then back to Justin Hermann plaza (across the street from the Ferry Building) for the closing ceremony. The blue arrows show the alternate route that the torch took up Van Ness, turning west past the Marina to end in the Presidio.  The closing ceremony was canceled.    

As we were getting off the boat I could see a bunch of flags and people marching.  I ran over to catch this group yelling louder!!!

When we arrived, ~11:30 AM, there was a significant police presence.  Barricades and people lined the street as far as I could see.  

The scene was extremely colorful and energetic, yet harmonious. Many groups were well organized for this event.    The Tibetan flag was everywhere.  And so was the Chinese flag. And the American flag.  There were a lot of people in green shirts with green balloons protesting China’s involvement with Sudan.  And there was also a contingent with maroon flags and shirts raising awareness of Burma’s plight.    Chinese supporters lined the barricades on one side of the street for several blocks north and south of the Ferry Building. Busloads were brought in, from as far away as Sacramento, by the Chinese Consulate and the Organization of Chinese Americans. Altogether, the crowd lining the original route was estimated to be 10,000.  



Tralmelthadorian?  Make that Tralfalmadorian (h/t RUKind)

Save Darfur

Free Burma

Chinese supporters with their red flags lining the street all the way past the Ferry Building

Eventually it became clear that the torch was not coming down the Embarcadero. The cops disappeared.   The protesters had won the street.  A large crowd of Tibet supporters marched by whoever was left standing along the curbs.   Three naked guys with torches also took part in the parade.  (I decided against posting that pic!)

I didn’t really care one way or the other about seeing the torch – the protest by itself was magnificent.  Other than a little hearty shouting and chanting I didn’t really sense any bad vibes.  (I don’t know what would have happened if the torch did come that way.)    

By the time we figured out the torch wasn’t coming we still had a few hours to kill before we could catch the ferry home. So we decided to walk down to the Fisherman’s wharf area and check out the tourist scene.  We knew that we could catch our ferry back to Oakland from there.

Lazy Sea Lions – ho hum, what torch?

On The Ferry  (mom, sis, & dad w/Coit Tower and Mt. Tamalpais in the background).  A good time was had by all.


Best/Worst moment of the day: One of the torch bearers, Majora Carter, a well-known activist, hid a Tibetan flag up her sleeve and pulled it out when it was her turn to run.    The flag was quickly torn from her hand and she was pushed aside.   (see also video on SF Gate – this shows the cop shoving her to the side of the street.  She was super pissed.)    

Some people would have been scared, or at least nervous. Ms. Carter said she was neither.

“I really felt a total, complete sense of oneness with the people of Tibet,” she said. She added that as “a civil rights activist in this country,” she could not stand in support of China.

Five seconds into her run down Van Ness Avenue, Ms. Carter pulled the Tibetan flag from her sleeve and began waving it. She waved the flag for roughly five seconds, until a Chinese guard saw her. He lunged at her. She dodged him. He lunged again and soon wrested the flag from her hand, saying, “Sorry, I can’t let you do this.”

She said she was pushed toward a group of San Francisco police officers, who then pushed her into a crowd of bystanders. Her time in the spotlight was over. The torch kept moving.

It left as it came – in a sea of controversy.  Quite an inglorious moment for the city.   And expensive too.  The city spent over 500,000 dollars on police overtime and about $725,000 all together for the torch run.

The Chronicle editorial the following day said it best:

What a letdown. The Olympic torch run turned into a barely seen security entourage that dodged the thousands who turned out to watch.

The sudden re-routing of the relay along near-empty sidewalks invites the question: Is City Hall unclear on the concept of a public event?

This was San Francisco’s chance to show how it respects and handles vigorous political dissent. It is also the hub of a region with great pride in its Olympic alliances. Thousands gathered to see the torch and express their passions, positive and negative, about the upcoming Games. Regrettably, our city leaders chose to run away from them.


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  1. Gratuitous Dragons

  2. you should put up a tip jar…

    whoo hoo, OTB. great essay and pictures…

  3. I feel like I was there.

    Oh, and I love the lazy sea lions. 🙂

    • Alma on April 30, 2008 at 04:51

    I sure wish you were the main stream media.  🙂

    Oh, and I agree on this too:


    My search didn’t turn up nothin’.

    • RiaD on April 30, 2008 at 05:33

    i felt like i was there… thanks!


  4. Thanks for posting.  What a shame that SF decided to move

    the ‘run’ away from the people who showed up to see the flame.

    Just who is it who says that it isn’t about politics?!!

    Guess it’s not about people either!

  5. Great pictures and analysis.

  6. Like many others, I really enjoyed the sea lions loling away.

    I’m late getting aboard tonight, but I want to add a couple of things.  

    The crowd was large enough that even though OTB & I were looking for each other where we said we were most likely to be, we didn’t connect.  It was good feeling and fun.

    By changing the route, San Francisco managed to produce a conpletely sanitized public relations documentary for the Chinese authorities to use.  SF should bill China for PR services rendered.  

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