Two Sides of the Tibetan Coin
Olympic Torch Relay in San Francisco, April 2008
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Drawn to the Olympic Flame: a view from the ground
The Scene: Wednesday, April 9th, Justin Herman Plaza, rubber neckers....the gathering place for all torch protesters, torch supporters and torch
The buzz: it was all about being a part of the pageantry that is largely what the Olympics are all about. A little bit of light from the birthplace of the games that was coming to us. One that will inevitably spark strong feelings of nationalism for some, and anger for others. San Francisco, a city that honors free speech, will be the place to safely air strong feelings about what the torch and the games mean. Or so the thinking went.
The crowds gather in anticipation of glimpsing the torch along the originally scheduled route. The first thing that you notice is that besides the expected groups of protesters concerned with China's brutal policies and actions in Tibet, , and itself, there are huge expanses of red that upon further inspection were made up entirely of Chinese flags held aloft by thousands of pro supporters in red sweatshirts and jackets. I was suddenly reminded of the ugly history of the Olympic torch relay. It was devised by Nazi in 1936 for the purposes of propaganda and glorifying the Aryan race. That focus on pageantry goes a long way to explaining why the Chinese government itself had arranged for bus loads of supporters to be present that day.
The ones I spoke with said they were there primarily to show support for the Olympics taking place in their homeland. This common ground gave me hope. Everyone was there to celebrate what is good about the Olympics. However, I doubt the Chinese government organizers foresaw that the bussed-in fans of the Olympics in would have very little to say in defense of the Chinese policies that the rest were there to protest. All day I recorded conversations that these supporters had with the various protesters and many of them clearly had very little grasp of the history of the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the impact of China's policies in and other issues that formed the crux of the protests. At least on a very individual level, the Chinese failed on the propaganda front in terms of the few Chinese people I saw firsthand begin to ask questions, and then to acknowledge that the situation in Tibet is indeed problematic, or that China's implicit support for genocide in needs to be addressed. In one case, I witnessed a red clad China supporter reach across to hug a man draped in a Tibetan flag and call him brother. Brotherhood, common ground--could it be that the Olympic ideal was being honored, almost in spite of itself?
The crowds spread out along , the last known intended location for the torch run. As thousands waited, tensions mounted. That's where those images of angry protesters yelling in each others' faces come from. These images constituted the primary meal fed to the global media beast that day. It was apparent to me that aggressive verbal instigation was coming from all sides. The heated ad hominem debates I witnessed were pretty scary as they escalated to the brink of harassment and assault. Sticking a bullhorn in someone's ear and then shouting slogans, spitting on someone or throwing water at them--I saw this come from all sides and eerily the perpetrators were almost always grinning. The fact that the media was everywhere standing by ready to document an outbreak or some other visualization of the clash of opinions certainly added to the heated atmosphere.. I saw a laughing Chinese man throw pennies at supporters, and another shout through a bullhorn that all Tibetans are "losers." This powerful political statement had the unintended consequence of making him out to be a pretty weak pro-China advocate. In fact, most supporters stuck to chanting "One China" which, actually proved to be another excellent starting point for shared dialogue. Tibet supporters replied that they want one too, they just don't want to be a part of it. Of all the images I will remember from that day it's not the screaming crowds but the activists who were brave enough to repeatedly link arms and create a human barrier, effectively restraining their clearly provoked anti-China colleagues. "No violence, remember?" and "Peace, we're all brothers" were mixed in with the chants of "Free Tibet" and "One China". Any act of violence, regardless of who was responsible for sparking it would have played into China's excuse to suppress all demonstrations and to validate their pressuring the city to take such drastic measures to ensure that the all important face of the event remained intact.
1 PM --Whither the torch?
Christal Smith Essay on Torch Relay, San Francisco April 2008
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