Thursday April 10th, 2008

It was a cautious decision, a safe decision, the decision you'd expect from an actuarial, or a hand-wringing assistant principal. But this call was made by one of America's most high-profile mayors.

Fearful of disruption similar to that which marked the Olympic torch's tumultuous trips through London and Paris, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom called an audible just before Wednesday's torch relay, truncating and altering the course at the last minute. This meant that in its only North American stop, the torch was borne by athletes who weren't running so much as they were fleeing. It also meant that 10,000 or so spectators, including this reporter, never caught so much as a glimpse of the flame.

Thus did the security apparatus of the nation's 14th-largest city run up the white flag against an assortment of protesters with disparate agendas but one thing in common: a commitment to nonviolence. Sure, things might have gotten a bit bumpy if the (irony alert) Journey of Harmony had stayed the course. But no one was going to extinguish the torch -- not with San Francisco's finest surrounding the phalanx of Chinese special forces sent by Beijing to protect the flame at all costs. (Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London 2012 Games, described this Chinese Praetorian Guard as a band of "thugs.")

But protesters might have clashed with the cops, and those clips would have played on the evening news, a risk acceptable neither to Newsom, who has ambitions beyond San Francisco's City Hall, nor to USOC President Peter Ueberroth, who'd earlier expressed his concern about "our reputation as a country." A courteous reminder to Mr. Ueberroth: He lives in a democracy. Dissent goes with the territory. Yes, it's messy at times. That's part of the deal. At Justin Herman Plaza, while awaiting closing ceremonies that never came, I talked to a native Tibetan named Tashi Tsundue, who'd flown down from Portland, Ore. To the Chinese-flag-waving counter-protesters who screamed "Liar!" and scolded him for being duped by "false" accounts of Tibetan unrest in western media outlets, he had a simple, serene riposte: "We couldn't even be having this conversation in China. I'd be put in jail for 15 years." The late and legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen was fond of describing this city as Baghdad by the Bay, an affectionate nod to its effervescent multiculturalism. San Francisco has a proud tradition of embracing dissent. But not on Wednesday. On Wednesday, Newsom, his advisers and the Olympic apparatchiks huddling with them showed all the brio of so many claims adjustors. On Wednesday, this city was Hartford by the Bay.

The first torchbearer began running at the appointed hour from McCovey Cove, in the shadow of AT&T Park. But after just 300 meters, the runner ducked into a warehouse. The flame was smuggled to Van Ness Avenue, miles from the scheduled route. The "relay" came to an unceremonious conclusion on an on-ramp to the Golden Gate Bridge. Closing ceremonies were canceled, and the flame was hustled to the San Francisco Airport.

Memorable moments from one scribe's personal Journey of Harmony -- my long, fruitless day in search of the flame: 9:40 a.m. -- I am talking to a woman named Pema, a transplanted Tibetan living here, when she is upbraided by an elderly Chinese man. "Why are you here?" he asks, angrily. "You are supposed to be over there!"

"This isn't China," she replies, her anger matching his. "This is the United States. I go where I want!"

9:55 a.m. -- Walking south to AT&T Park, where the relay is to begin, I overhear a woman telling fellow members of Team Tibet, "Keep your banners up, be careful with your flags. Don't point them, or do anything that could be interpreted as provocative."

10:13 a.m. -- Team Tibet passes a group of pro-Chinese counter-protesters, many waving the red flag of the People's Republic. A sampler of the vitriol that follows:

"Free Tibet!"

"Tibet IS free!"

"China lies, Tibetans die!"

"YOU lie!"

And so on.

10:45 a.m. -- I am chatting with Mary, who is fiftysomething and of Chinese descent. "I'm not saying the [Chinese] government is right about everything," she concedes, "but these people using the Olympics as an excuse to protest, I don't like."

She sounds imminently reasonable, but then, she isn't finished. "You know what Tibetans do with their dead? They chop them up and leave them out for the birds to eat." After thanking her for this cultural insight, I take my leave of Mary, only to hear her shout at young woman in a Tibet shirt, "F--- you, Tibet!"

The young woman responds with a a retaliatory f-bomb, but Mary must have the last word: "F--- you and f--- all your ancestors!"

The relay doesn't start for another two hours and 15 minutes.

11:08 a.m. -- On the far side of McCovey Cove, I spy three cops on Jet Skis, plying the same waters that once welcomed Barry Bonds home runs. The mouth of the cove is blockaded by additional SFPD boats intent on thwarting, perhaps, a mini-submarine attack perpetrated by aggrieved ethnic Uighurs.

Turkic Uighurs from central China are but one of the many aggrieved parties with a fight to pick with China. Most of them are accounted for today. In addition to Team Tibet and the green clad members of the Save Darfur Coalition, is the plane towing the "Free Burma" sign. Falun Gong is here, as are some feisty anglers whose banner accuses, "Chinese Navy Harass[es] Vietnamese Fishermen." And then there's the guy with the "Go Warriors" sign.

12:58 p.m. -- A score of Tibetan protesters sit down on King Street, roughly a mile into the official route. After a few minutes staring down a cordon of very serious cops, they stand up again. "Back to Justin Herman Plaza," directs their leader, "where the action is!"

1:10 p.m. -- No sign of the torch. But a squadron of police goes roaring up 2nd Street on dirt bikes (the same mode of travel favored by the nihilists in The Big Lebowski). This is our first clue that the organizers have decided to pull an end-around and avoid the protesters altogether.

1:52 p.m. -- A guy near me says, "Have you noticed there are hardly any cops on the street anymore?"

1:56 p.m. -- Flipping his phone closed in disgust, another spectator says, "The torch is on a bus at Bush and Van Ness." We've been had.

3:16 p.m. -- We've all converged on Justin Herman Plaza for the closing ceremonies. Here comes a police car, lights flashing, down the Embarcadero, followed by a white van. Could it contain ... the torch? The van is mobbed by Team Tibet types. "If I get the torch," I hear one of them say, "I get a case of beer." They are told the torch is somewhere in the Presidio.

3:22 p.m. -- A protester reads a text message at the top of his lungs: "The Relay ended at the Golden Gate Bridge. The closing ceremony has been canceled." There is scattered booing, but it is drowned out by cheers. They way many of them see it, Beijing blinked.

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