Mr. Torch's Wild Ride: Olympic Torch Chaos in San Francisco

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From Justin Herman Plaza/San Francisco: 

More bad news for NBC Universal and Coca-Cola.

Around 3p onward:  according to the text messages coming in fast and furiously, the Olympic torch is now headed to SFO after a day of chaos and confusion.   The closing ceremonies, slated to take place here across from the San Francisco Ferry Building, have been cancelled.

All day long, crowds have been chasing down the elusive torch.  Thousands gathered along the planned route, even though Mayor Gavin Newsom warned the route could be changed.

"Changed" really doesn’t describe the inane planning here in San Francisco - more like a completely-altered-to-the-point-of-being-a-meaningless-exercise-that-enables- Newsom-to-claim-he-wasn’t-forced-to-cancel-the-run - is more like it.

But Newsom will have to answer to the absurd, almost farcical, cat and mouse game that ensued when city officials treated the torch’s route like a state secret, creating unexpected traffic snarls while denying almost everyone even a peek at the controversial flame. 

ETA:  San Francisco Chronicle - "Route Change Called Desperate, Last-Minute Act."

Finally, with rumors running rampant - first, the torch was said to be transported by amphibious vehicle to Pier 29, then it was rumored to be travelling down Van Ness toward the Marina District - protesters swarmed over The Embarcadero, the original route.

Apparently, security shut down both approaches to the Golden Gate Bridge when the torch landed in the Marina - just as rush hour traffic was starting to build.  And a main north-south artery to SFO (19th Avenue) is said to be closed as the torch departs for Buenos Aires under tight security.

Updates as the confirmations come in.

ETA:  yes, here’s the altered route. according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In the Embarcadero area (near the Ferry Building) a Chinese consulate official was observed and photographed (by moi) directing Chinese counter-protesters with their enormous red Chinese flags to stand amongst the Tibetan and Darfur activists.  Chinese consulate staff were also seen handing out lunch to the hired hands. 

Eventually, however, the Chinese were overwhelmed by the thousands of Free Tibet and End Darfur Genocide marchers.  From where I was standing in the vicinity of the Ferry Building, the pro-Tibet groups dominated.

There were reports of scuffles.  But I saw none, in spite of minimal police presence at times.  I did see a few incidents of aggressive and provocative behavior on the part of Chinese protesters. 

Police efforts to keep protesters from invading The Embarcadero itself were tepid at best. Considering the thousands of people on the street, the day was generally festive and peaceful.

One radio station reports that the Chinese consulate bused 11,000 Chinese supporters into McCovey Cove (part of the ball park) to greet the torch at the start.   Protesters were reportedly kept away. 

ETA: from today’s NY Times -
Some of the pro-China demonstrators had been brought from miles away.

Hai Ming, 37, a Chinese student of civil engineering at University of California, Davis, about 70 miles east, had come to the torch ceremony on a bus chartered by the Chinese consulate.

ETA:  From the San Francisco Chronicle editorial -
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?

ETA:  C.W. Nevius, the Chronicle columnist, offers a somewhat different perspective.  The column is a very interesting read.  Nevius says that it was the huge crowds of Chinese, bused in by the Chinese Consulate to greet the torch at AT&T Park and McCovey Cove, that sealed the fate of the Torch run.

Says Nevius:

For all the talk of protests leading up to the Olympic torch relay, we didn’t hear much from the supporters of China.

We learned why early on Wednesday morning. They planned to take over the event.

By 10 a.m. at AT&T Park, where the torch run was supposed to begin, it was obvious that the fix was in.

Thousands of supporters were already there, unloaded from dozens of buses parked across from the ball park. (One torch relay insider told me some in the crowd had been bused from as far away as Los Angeles.)

They were waving thousands of huge, red Chinese flags or holding up identical, professional-looking placards that read "Beijing, 2008, torch relay.

[I can confirm the professional looking placards and the red flags.  It appeared to be highly choreographed.  Absent among the Chinese were the many homemade signs that gave the opposition the look of a grassroots effort. ]

continues Nevius..

The official word is that the torch route was drastically changed because of "public safety," but the crowd at AT&T Park was no threat to the runners….But mayoral spokesman Nathan Ballard might have been closer to the truth when he said that the new route let people "enjoy the torch rather than political kabuki theater."

Those inside the command center say city officials and Mayor Gavin Newsom watched the spectacle with growing concern…Sending the torch down those streets would have been like providing the Chinese government with a made-for-television commercial to show that hardly anyone in San Francisco - or North America - had any qualms about human rights abuses in China.

Nevius also witnessed threatening and verbally abusive behavior on the part of the Chinese.  I also observed a few incidents, unfortunately.   I observed Chinese supporters deliberately attempting to disrupt the pro-Tibetan and Darfur crowd, several times at the urging of the Chinese consulate staff. 

ETA:  from the

SFTeamTibet media page

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To the members of the media:

We are sorry to report that the Chinese have taken all the numbers used as media contacts here, and are spamming our cell phones so incessantly with abusive calls that we can no longer receive media calls on our cells. (We are pursuing this with the phone company and the police, and hope you all will consider reporting on this unfortunately typical behavior of the pro-Chinese government crowd.)

Some fearsome protesters waiting to board the ferry in Marin:

Banner Across from the Ferry Building, on Embarcadero:

Protesters swarm the Embarcadero:

A smattering of the big Darfur crowd:

Chinese consulate employee (left) directing supporter:

Obviously, Gavin believes the Olympic torch must be kept far, far away from potentially disruptive protesters, like this senior citizen from Berkeley.

Chinese supporters breach the barricade and try to disrupt Tibetan and Darfur activists:

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