Posted by: Reilly | April 15, 2008

The Tibetan Embargo on the Embarcadero

The City Speaks

Justin Herman, considered by many to be San Francisco’s answer to Robert Moses, was a controversially autocratic urban planner who used eminent domain at will to revitalize the city’s beleaguered waterfront. One wonders how fitting it was then to have the Plaza that was named for him host one of the largest political protests in recent memory, albeit against an authority of a different sort – the People’s Republic of China.

I was standing in Justin Herman Plaza on that cool, sunny spring day last Wednesday. Getting off the Embarcadero, one was drawn into the cavalcade of people wearing bright colors, waving flags, and bursting with endless political restlessness. Out of context, it could be mistaken for a World Cup soccer match (though with somewhat less drinking, hooliganism, and Zinedane Zidane). Even leaving the subway, several groups of local high schools students practiced pro-Tibetan chants, and the walkway to the Plaza attracted a diverse mix of hobos and beggars, who know the purchasing power of a good crowd when they see one.

Tibetan protestors waved signs and handed out sheets of paper profiling injuries claimed to have been sustained by Tibetans under Chinese rule. On the closing stage, a band played KC and the Sunshine Band’s iconic (and singularly irreverent) “That’s the Way (I Like It)”.

PRC-flag waiving supporters thronged the stage where the closing ceremonies were supposed to occur an hour later (the public was still ignorant of the route change); most were undeterred (and remarkably polite) despite the protestors, who have been a touchy subject to many Chinese nationals. If the locals were annoyed by the perceived threat to Olympic Pax Sinica that the Tibetans were causing, it didn’t show.

To get from one side of the Plaza to the other, I quickly found myself in the back of a line of Tibetan protestors that were working their way around the stage. This particular group was led by a Tibetan monk (or a man dressed as one), and was populated by a diverse mix of Tibetans, Chinese, and American college students wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the Tibetan flag.

PRC supporters and indifferent locals parted peacefully on both sides, their bodies forming a barrier to the escaping stream of people that headed to a nearby plaza. There, a group of local activists stood defiantly behind a “San Francisco Says: No Torch in Tibet” sign that stretched across the Plaza. Twenty or so Darfur supporters were also in the mix, their dark green shirts a reminder of how easy it is for the fickle public conscience to abandon old causes to support a fresh injustice.

Remarkable as the protests were, they should be lauded for the relative peace that pervaded the festivities. Despite the close proximity of such vastly different political views, San Francisco Police Chief Heather Fong reported only three arrests (undoubtedly due to the extensive police presence). Chinese state agency Xinhua issued an upbeat report as the festivities were underway, mentioning the Tibetan protesters in a brief article entitled ‘Tibetan separatists try to sabotage Olympic torch relay in U.S.’.

This article in NPR displayed a picture of PRC supporters apparently beating a man clutching a Tibetan flag. Heavy police presence kept violence limited, and I saw no evidence of any particularly negative act on either side – the city’s reputation for tolerance and diversity prevailed.

Given the city’s large but diverse Chinese-American population, one wonders how the Chinese Community (who make up some 20% of the city’s population) reacted to the storm of protest. In this article, Reuters points out that while the Olympics are a source of pride for the city, the actual community remains divided on the inherent political issues involved. Don’t blame them – San Francisco’s Chinese population ranges from recent immigrants to seventh generation (and greater) Americans who helped build the city during its formative years in the middle of the 19th century. Likewise, grouping them together as a political bloc is like grouping a recent Northern Irish Orangemen immigrant with a 6th generation Irish American college coed whose greatest contribution to Irish culture was stumbling out of a bar on St. Patrick’s Day.

It has been argued that the Olympics are an inappropriate vehicle for Tibetan protests. While this may be true, there was no turning back the tide of Tibetans on the San Francisco waterfront last week, all of whom seemed to beg the question: if not now, then when?

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