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Will San Francisco Torch its Olympic Moment?

The games are getting interesting in San Francisco, as the majority of the city’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday overrode Mayor Gavin Newsom’s desire for a drama-free Olympic torch run.

The torch passes through the city, its only North American stop, on April 9, and for the past several months human-rights activists have been pleading with Newsom to do what one might think a famously progressive city would do: boycott the torch run. But Newsom refused to even meet with the groups such as S.F. Team Tibet, and his office brushed off my questions at the time about why he wouldn’t hear out his own residents’ concerns on the matter.

Since then, the reaction I’ve heard from Bay Area activists has shared a common disappointment: “I thought I lived in a liberal city that would celebrate human-rights activism.” To the contrary, the city decided that protesters would be corralled into “free speech areas” on the day of the run, ostensibly to keep demonstrators out of sight of the route and to not embarrass China.

In fact, Newsom postponed releasing details of the torch route — to wind along the waterfront Embarcadero — until Tuesday, stymieing protesters’ organizational efforts. Protesters, he said, will be allowed to assemble at the end of the six-mile route, and officials also have designated Union Square, Portsmouth Square, Civic Center and Washington Square as acceptable rally points — also known as points far enough removed from the torch route.

Tuesday’s resolution, authored by Supervisor Chris Daly, was a symbolic, stern resolution that included the following:

  • Urges federal authorities “to call for an international inquiry to investigate these recent atrocities” in Tibet and asks China to allow free media inside the country;
  • Urges Newsom to buck up and express his concern regarding the Tibet crackdown and asks him to urge China to behave;
  • Urges Newsom to give protesters full access outside of the designated “First Amendment Areas”;
  • “Urges the Olympic Committee to boycott the Beijing 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony if there is no cessation of violence from Chinese security forces against peaceful protestors and other critics of the Chinese government”;
  • Commends the Olympic-protest flames also passing through town: the Human Rights Torch Relay and the Tibetan Freedom Torch;
  • Urges the city official who accepts the torch to do so in the name of human rights and “urges the above City Official to also make publicly known that the 2008 Summer Olympic Games Torch is received with alarm and protest at the failure of China to meet its past solemn promises to the international community”

The resolution passed 8-3. A resolution introduced simultaneously by Supervisor Carmen Chu — a watered-down statement welcoming the Olympic, Human Rights, and Tibetan Freedom torches equally without slamming China for human-rights violations — thankfully failed. Before Tuesday’s votes, the Chinese Consulate was quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle as saying the passage of either would be “an insult to good, friendly relations.”

In fact, on Friday morning Chinese Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong stopped into Newsom’s office for a half-hour meeting that his office was otherwise zip-lipped about. On Tuesday, Newsom was passing off Daly’s resolution as symbolic mumbo-jumbo. Hardly surprising. Shortly before his 2004 swearing-in, Newsom credited Chinatown with handing him the runoff victory: “There is one reason I won a very close election. And that is the support of the Asian community, and the Chinese community in particular. I could not have done it without you.”

Last month, a San Francisco Police Department spokesman said the city was “working with the (Beijing Olympic) committee to address the concerns they might have in regards to any protests.” China’s concern is that there are protests in the first place.

Yet next week, demonstrators from many walks of life and representing many causes — Burma, Darfur, Tibet, Taiwan, freedom of the press, and human rights in general with groups such as Amnesty International — will unite against a common foe: Not the Olympic Games, but the host nation that should have never been awarded the financial and P.R. bonanza in the first place.

The Tibetan Freedom Torch will come through San Francisco on April 8, when protesters will march from U.N. Plaza to the Chinese Consulate and back, starting at 11 a.m. A candlelight vigil that evening at Civic Center Plaza will include speakers Desmond Tutu and Richard Gere. The Olympic torch relay starts at 1 p.m. the next day, but protest organizers tell me that demonstrations will begin hours before that.

As a journalist, I’m looking forward to covering what should be an event to remember.

As a columnist, I’m eager to lend my support to the cause.

And as an American, I relish the freedom of speech that shouldn’t be confined to locales that don’t offend China.

Bridget Johnson is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News.