Security added for Olympic torch’s San Francisco lap
SAN FRANCISCO – Security was being tightened around the city Wednesday as officials mobilized for protests in response to the Olympic torch’s only North American stop on its journey to Beijing. Before dawn, supporters of China’s role as host of the games gathered on the city’s waterfront.
The Olympic torch’s 85,000-mile global journey is the longest in Olympic history, and is meant to build excitement for the games. But it has also been a target for activists angered over China’s human rights record.
As runners carry the torch on its six-mile route Wednesday, they will compete not only with people protesting China’s grip on Tibet and its support for the governments of Myanmar and Sudan, but also with more obscure activists. They include nudists calling for a return to the way the ancient Greek games were played.
Law enforcement agencies erected metal barricades Wednesday morning and readied running shoes, bicycles and motorcycles for officers preparing to shadow the runners chosen for the relay.
Local officials say they support the diversity of viewpoints, but have ramped up security following chaotic protests during the torch’s stops in London and Paris and a demonstration Monday in which activists hung banners from the Golden Gate bridge.
“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 Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom.
The torch is scheduled to travel a route hugging San Francisco Bay, but security concerns could prompt a last-minute change. Already, one runner who planned to carry the torch dropped out because of safety concerns, officials said.
Ambulances were to be stationed along the torch’s route, extra sheriff’s deputies and state law enforcement officers were put on patrol. Vans were deployed to haul away arrested protesters, and the FAA restricted flights over the city to media helicopters, medical emergency carriers and law enforcement aircraft.
The flame was whisked to a secret location shortly after its pre-dawn arrival in San Francisco on Tuesday. It began its worldwide trek from Ancient Olympia in Greece to Beijing on March 24, and was the focus of protests from the start.
On Tuesday, hundreds of activists carrying Tibetan flags gathered in United Nations Plaza, a pedestrian area near City Hall, to denounce China’s policy toward Tibet and the recent crackdown on protesters there. They then marched to the Chinese Consulate.
“This is not about us battling the torchbearers,” Lhadon 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.”
The day of protests culminated in an evening candlelight vigil for Tibet, with speeches by actor Richard Gere and human rights activist Desmond Tutu, who called on President Bush and other heads of state to boycott the opening ceremonies in Beijing.
San Francisco was chosen to host the relay in part because of its large Chinese-American population. Many residents spoke out Tuesday to ask for calm and express their pride that China was chosen to host the summer games.
“We are begging for five hours of peace,” said Sam Ng, president of the Chinese Six Companies, a prominent benevolent association.
Ling Li, 29, who immigrated from China’s Guangdong Province eight years ago, said she was disappointed that this pivotal moment in her country’s history was being marred by demonstrations. She said Tibet is a rightful part of China and its quest for independence should not be part of the Olympics.
“If I support the Olympics, of course I don’t support the protests. This is the first time China has had the Olympics. We should be proud of this,” she said.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said the body’s executive board would discuss Friday whether to end the remaining international legs of the relay after San Francisco because of widespread protest. The torch is scheduled to travel to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then to a dozen other countries before arriving in China on May 4. The Olympics begin Aug. 8.
“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.
Pro-Tibet activists and other human rights groups said they had encouraged their supporters to protest peacefully.
“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.”
Meanwhile Wednesday, the White House said anew that Bush would attend the Olympics, but left open the possibility that he would skip the opening ceremonies. Asked whether Bush would go to that portion of the games, White House press secretary Dana Perino demurred, citing the fluid nature of a foreign trip schedule this far out and the many factors that go into devising it.
“I would again reiterate that the president has been very clear that he believes that the right thing for him to do is to continue to press the Chinese on a range of issues, from human rights and democracy, political speech freedoms and religious tolerance, and to do that publicly and privately, before, during and after the Olympics,” she said.
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