Olympic torch does vanishing act in Calif.

April 10, 2008|By John M. Glionna and Maria L. LaGanga | John M. Glionna and Maria L. LaGanga,Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO -- What was planned as a celebration of international harmony turned into an exercise in subterfuge and frustration yesterday, as officials staged a cat-and-mouse game to keep the Olympic torch away from potentially violent protests.

The flame arrived late for its scheduled 1 p.m. appearance and blazed briefly on an outdoor stage near downtown. Then the torchbearer vanished into a nearby building, only to reappear later across town flanked by heavy security, leaving would-be spectators baffled.

After the torch parade was rerouted and shortened to prevent disruptions by crowds of protesters, the closing ceremony at the waterfront was moved to San Francisco International Airport. But the flame was put directly on a plane and was not displayed.

In an interview with the local NBC affiliate, Mayor Gavin Newsom defended the change of route. "We protected people's lives, and we protected people's rights of free expression," he said.

David Perry, a spokesman for the San Francisco Olympic Torch Relay, said he was saddened by the threat of violence, but safety trumps tradition.

Spectators "should not be surprised, because of violent actions in other cities and the potential for violence here, that there were changes made at the last moment," Perry said.

At least three of the 80 torchbearers dropped out before the relay began, some because of fears of violence.

There were scuffles among protesters, and a bus was vandalized, but the civic shell game and large police presence kept the city largely calm. There was none of the violence that disrupted the torch's run through Paris and London.

But the sleight of hand angered some demonstrators, who protested China's crackdown in Tibet, among other issues.

Still, Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition, said activists made their point. "Beijing can hide the Olympic torch, but today's events show they can't hide their torturous policy of aiding and abetting genocide."

Along the Embarcadero, after the relay was supposed to start, a cacophony arose from hundreds of protesters who spilled onto the roadway. Officials made no attempt to clear the route.

Protesters and spectators who swarmed around the historic Ferry Building, which was initially scheduled to be the end point of the relay, started chanting: "The torch is on the water."

"The city should have made known the torch route rather than be deceptive," said Yan Ko, a San Francisco retail worker.

The sudden turn at the start of the relay came after a ceremony in which Norman Bellingham, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee and former Olympic kayaker, welcomed the torch to San Francisco.

The torch carrier then ran from the podium, passed a statue of former San Francisco Giant Willie McCovey, and disappeared. Despite the temporary confusion and the change in plans, people who saw the torch at the opening ceremony seemed satisfied.

Zuo Shiquan, 29, a Chinese visiting scholar in economics at San Jose State University arrived at 6 a.m. to see the torch and was not disappointed. "Maybe it took another route, and that's OK. It's safety," he said. "We did see the torch and took many photos."

Faceoffs between protesters and Chinese loyalists were becoming increasingly frequent just before the relay was to start.

"You are a big fat liar," Andrew Kwok, a native of Hong Kong and a Fremont, Calif., software engineer, yelled at Matt Laubcher, 37, an electrician from Reno, who was wearing a Tibetan flag on his back, decrying what he called the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

After police near the Ferry Building separated them, Kwok said: "They're trying to hijack the agenda. We should give our hate, our differences away, and enjoy the Games."

Nearby, in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, about 100 protesters surged from the roadside along the Embarcadero and surrounded a bus. The crowd began beating on its sides and broke its rear-view mirror before a police officer on a motorcycle announced over a megaphone: "We dropped people off at McCovey Cove. This bus is empty!"

Someone from the crowd yelled: "This is a decoy!" and the protesters moved on.

The San Francisco leg of the torch relay -- its only North American stop -- comes after violent protests in London and Paris. In Paris, security officials halted the event and ushered the torch onto a bus after swarms of protesters forced officials to repeatedly extinguish the flame.

Unlike London and Paris, San Francisco is home to 30,000 Chinese-Americans, many loyal to Beijing. Police worried that there might be confrontations with protesters.

But Chen Zheng, a graduate student at Stanford University, said she hoped there would be minimal conflicts. "It's just a torch. Why try to put it out?" she asked. "This is a celebration. Be happy. Why ruin things?"

Burmese groups, monks and Buddhist clergy carrying signs paraded across the pedestrian walkway of the Golden Gate Bridge yesterday morning. There were no arrests, and the march went peacefully.

The flame embarked in March from Greece on an 85,000-mile, six-continent journey -- one of the most ambitious torch relays in the history of the Olympics.

It has also proven to be among the most contentious, despite China's slogan: "Journey of Harmony."

John M. Glionna and Maria L. LaGanga write for the Los Angeles Times.

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