Apr 13, 2008

Them fighting words

Procrastinating on blogging is one of those things I really should stop doing. Most of the time it results in having some thoughts and never getting around to writing them down. On weeks like this, it's delaying to the point where it's simply not newsworthy anymore, but maybe it's still relevant.

I drove up to SF twice last week to shoot what was expected to be a lively event, the Olympic Torch Relay through San Francisco. Being the only North American stop, plenty of protesters were expected to be in town. I drove up on Tuesday night to catch a candlelight "vigil" organized by the International Campaign for Tibet.


The event reminded me a lot of the March for Freedom I saw in Kashmir; they even had a an open-bed truck, similar to the JKLF campaign truck. It made me wonder for a moment, "What's so special about Tibet, that people would care so much for it, and so little for Kashmir?". I can't say I've done much research, but from the cursory investigations, the main difference seems to be that Tibet has an international PR campaign, while Kashmir does not.


Overall, the event was not half as big as I expected it to be, given the media hype. There was a reasonably sized crowd, but I wouldn't say it was huge. There were people carrying candles, people cheering and chanting, people on stage giving motivational speeches, and a "Tibetan" band playing rock music and a bunch of Tibetan girls right up at the front of the stage cheering them on. Overall, it was quieter than I thought, but the event was photogenic, despite being dark.


The drive up was made worthwhile by discovering the best falafels I've had to date in the Bay Area, at Hayes & Kebab in Hayes Valley.

I took the bike up on Wednesday at lunch, expecting heavy traffic. I had applied for a press pass, but was arriving way too late to go pick it up. I'm not sure it would have helped, since even the press wasn't informed of the true torch route. I admit, I was hoping to catch some passionate protesters. Maybe police in riot gear mixing it up with Free Tibet and Free Burma and Save Darfur protestors all mixed up in a bunch.


A few days before I realized a number of Chinese coworkers were all planning to go up for the event. I was really surprised, since my main motivation was to go catch some pictures of the protestors, but it turned out that the various alumni associations of the major Chinese universities were organizing for their alumni to go up; they were told to bring flags and wear red. Later in SF, I talked to some people who told me that the Chinese consulate had sent busses to schools like Davis to bring in their students. Plus, on Tuesday night I had overheard a rumour that the Chinese consulate was arranging for people to show up early at the location for the start of the torch event, to crowd out protestors.


So I wasn't particularly surprised to arrive at AT&T Park seeing a flurry of red flags and yellow stars. I'm sure the Chinese in the Bay Area (and anywhere in the world, for that matter) far outnumber the Tibetans. The two sides shouted slogans at each other, one chanting "Dalai Liar!" while the other one yelled "Hu Jintao is a Liar!". Not exactly what I would call making progress.


There was a long wait as the torch ceremony was supposed to start, and much confusion about whether the torch would show up; there were plenty of (highly believable) rumours that the route would be changed, plus the layout of the police and barriers already suggested that the torch wasn't going to head down the expected path. After waiting around (and in the meantime finding a random building from which I could quietly dial into a conference call at work), rumours started floating around that the torch had already left, and the crowd started dispersing.


As I wandered around, I almost caught the only potential spot of conflict - some idiotic Caucasian male yelling at the "Chinamen" to "go back home", which, although elicited responses of "kill him!", didn't lead to any real violence.


The most surprising thing really though, was seeing my relatively staid and prim Chinese coworkers whipped into a nationalistic frenzy of red and gold. As I talked to another coworker back at the office later on wednesday, I could sense despair in her voice as she described how unfair it was that the western media was portraying China's police actions in Tibet. Most of the Chinese coworkers were pretty pissed at white Americans waving signs calling for the boycotting of the Olympics for the benefit of the 1.3 billion suffering human rights violations in China. They assert that the vast majority of those 1.3 billion actually want the Olympics in China, and I'm obliged to believe them.


On the other hand, I can't find any criticism for small and supposedly persecuted independence groups seeking publicity and support from foreign governments. Obviously, they'll be ignored at home. And this way is certainly a better alternative in terms of getting attention than say, resorting to terrorism or violence.


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