San Francisco Braces for Olympic Torch Protests
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Next week, the Olympic torch passes through San Francisco - it's only stop in North America on a symbolic journey that will eventually take it to Beijing and the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games this summer.
That North American stopover creates a unique dilemma for San Francisco, a city known both for liberal politics and its large Chinese-American population. Some in the city wants to celebrate the torch, others want to use its arrival to protest China's role in Darfur, Myanmar and Tibet, and some don't want the torch allowed in the city at all.
In the middle of this argument is San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, he joins us in just a moment. We have lots of listeners in San Francisco. We want to hear from you. Should San Francisco accept the torch, if so, what kinds of protests are appropriate? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Mayor Newsom, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mayor GAVIN NEWSOM (Democrat, San Francisco): Thanks for having me on.
CONAN: And there are several competing interests around the torch and it presents a - you, I guess, with a dilemma. It's not just the Olympic torch that's arriving; there are a couple of other torches coming next week.
Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah, we're hosting a number of torch relays. One's a Human Rights torch relay, one's a little less formal, and of course, the one being sponsored by the International Olympic Committee, the one that brings so much of the consternation and focus on April 9th, which will be going through our city streets at one o'clock. And that's the one that obviously is generating a lot of controversy and questions about whether or not the Olympics should be used for political purposes or whether or not the Olympic torch should be considered part of that political expression.
CONAN: Well, yesterday, you and your city council passed a resolution that, well, calls on the city to accept the torch with alarm and protest.
Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah.
CONAN: Are you going to sign that?
Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah, though it makes no sense to me to accept a torch that we're not accepting. The city does not accept the torch. We do not actually physically handle it, it does not come to any politician. The resolution fundamentally is flawed. The resolution, though, the spirit behind it is , I think absolutely right on. It expresses frustration, consternation, critique and condemnation to what's going on in Tibet and concern around Darfur and Burma/Myanmar and even issues in Taiwan.
And so, I think, those are legitimate fodder in the context of free expression and those are legitimate points. But the resolution itself, I think, has missed the mark in terms of actually what it calls for and what actually can be delivered.
CONAN: So you don't plan to sign it.
Mayor NEWSOM: The resolution is not something that I've even looked at yet, except to note the fundamental flaw that has been referenced.
CONAN: Now, when the idea of sending the torch for its North American stop, San Francisco was first proposed, I wonder, did you anticipate this level of acrimony?
Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah, of course, we did. I mean, this is a city that prides itself on controversy, and you've seen that expressed in different ways. We have a parade or a special event almost without exception every week. We just celebrated our Chinese New Year and we had a lot of protest. Falun Gong, in particular, and others that we try to accommodate each and every year. So we're not immune to those controversies or been - or necessarily surprised by these.
CONAN: And I also understand that when the idea was first proposed, you wanted to take the torch across the Golden Gate Bridge and through Chinatown.
Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah, I wanted Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown. I actually wanted to take the torch on one of our fabled cable cars and I thought it would be -iconic images would, obviously, be an extraordinary opportunity for the city to showcase itself.
What we then discovered is the logistics of doing that - A, were impossible, even in the best case scenario, and then subsequent consideration, of course, now is that less is more. That the controversy around the torch is such that we've got to keep people safe - the protesters, as well as those that wanted celebrate the torch and the Olympic spirit. And that's why the route has been reduced in size and scope. It's a rather simple route along our waterfront six miles, it would take an hour, hour and a half. And we're just here to make sure everybody's rights are protected and freedom of speech is expended.
CONAN: As you know, there were concerns that the route had not been disclosed until earlier this week and that this was an attempt to, well, try to dampen down dissent.
Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah. That's just absolutely, fundamentally wrong. And what happened is people weren't willing to accept a fundamental fact that was we didn't have the route. So it was impossible to showcase the route that didn't exist. And I think your question is suggestible and a preamble to the follow-up question and that is, I originally wanted it over the Golden Gate Bridge, that's true.
So that fact that we didn't get that suggests that some of the ideas that we had did not manifest, some of the changes that we've made we made up until, literally, the end of last week. And we were always forthright on where it would begin and end, and that's where most of the staged-protest will be in. We said it would go along our waterfront, it turns out that everything we said all along was, in essence, a 100 percent accurate, save just literally a small portion of the event which goes down on what we call our Bay Street as opposed to the Embarcadero, which was the only new surprise.
CONAN: And as long as we're dealing with complaints about this, are there going to be just designated areas where that's the only place where protest is going to be allowed?
Mayor NEWSOM: No, another myth. it's amazing that the myth that's been manifested. San Francisco does not require people to have permits to protest. And we've made that crystal clear, we couldn't say it enough. Anyone who wants to protest can go up and down the parade route. And, in fact, we have designated areas throughout the city if people want to shut down plazas or squares, they can do that as well.
And we've accommodated - I think we have five permits to literally shut down our Washington Square, Portman Square, Ferry Plaza, Maritime Plaza for protest. And we have areas right next to the opening and closing ceremonies. For obvious reasons, it has to be next to that will be designated for protest, because you can't have permit - two permits for opposing points of view in the exact same location, you logistically can't facilitate that. So we're facilitating those protests right next door to those closing and opening ceremonies.
CONAN: We're talking with San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom about the situation that has developed in his city with the Olympic Torch due to arrive there next week.
If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's talk with Jim(ph). And Jim's calling us from San Francisco.
JIM (Caller): Yes. Hello. Thanks for taking my call. I am going to be attending the ceremony and protests. I'm intending, like I believe many others, simply to turn my back on the torch as it makes its way down the Embarcadero. And I just wanted some assurance by the mayor that that kind of act would not lead to any kind of arrest. And that, you know, the city's acts will simply be confined to ticketing the cars of protesters.
Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah. Of course. And Jim, as you know in San Francisco, we have done, I think an admirable job. It's never perfect and I think you saw that example of the 5th year anniversary of the war and the protest that ensued, of trying to accommodate. In fact, we're actually doing - or doing training or actually hosting some training for more organized protests to allow people the opportunity to ask and get answers to those questions along the lines of what you've asked. But everyone has a right to a peaceful protest, the only thing we don't have a right to do is go in the middle of the street and shut it down and disrupt other people and their rights, and that's the fine line.
But common sense dictates that everyone who wanted that right of free expression. And you could turn your back, you can have a sign, you can walk up and down, you can yell and scream, you can do all of the above, whatever you wish and your rights will be advanced and protected.
JIM: Well, thanks for that assurance.
CONAN: Jim, thanks for the call.
Here's an e-mail we have from Ling(ph). From my point of view, the Olympic Games is supposed to be about peace, friendship and better mutual understanding. However, for some of the messages of the protesters, for example, down with China, shame on China, I see politics, discrimination and hatred. I thought it rather hypocritical, when these protesters claim they care about the human rights condition in China.
So far as I know, 99 percent of the 1.3 billion people in China welcome the games to China. They're excited about the games in China, and they've been spending so much effort to make the games ready for the whole world. What the protesters say and do deeply hurt the feelings of those 1.3 billion people. It's only going to generate more hatred among people and how is that going to help with any human rights?
And I know you've far have received that not dissimilar messages from some of the people - the Chinese-American people there in San Francisco.
Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah. I mean, no - you know, rare in life that two people agree completely with one another. But the idea is to allow people to disagree, to be afforded the opportunity to disagree, but not in a disagreeable manner. And that's why when the consul general office was put in flames because of flammable liquid that was thrown out, we think we thought someone crossed the line, and common sense dictates that's inappropriate. But people have the right of free expression on all points of view.
Some people hate the notion that the Olympic Torch should be politicized like this. And someone suggested if that's the case, what will the international community think about our bid for 2016 Olympics in the context of Guantanamo, in the context of our war in Iraq. Is that then a reason for us not to be afforded the privilege of having the Olympics in 2016?
If the litmus test for the International Olympic Committee is public policy, foreign policy, the context of agreements and disagreements - both domestically and internationally - and human rights and the like, then the IOC is going to have a very difficult time finding the perfect country.
That being said, we would like to think we're a little closer to perfect than most, but good people can disagree. China clearly has a lot of issues, not just - least of which the ones brought up in Taiwan being another. And we have to acknowledge that, and we have to deal in that reality-based world that people are going to want to use the torch to raise awareness for their cause and protest it.
And I think we value, I know you should value the rights of everyone to their free expression. But we also, in that context, value those that are for something as well. And those who believe that this is about athletes, this about sports, this should not be about politics. And those are the people that will be carrying the torches that are not part of a political agenda that were actually identified 41 of the 80 torch bearers by San Franciscans, not by the Beijing government. And they should be afforded their own protection and free expression as well.
CONAN: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom talking about the arrival of the Olympic Torch in his city next week. 800-989-8255. E-mail: email@example.com. And this is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And Mr. Mayor, how was San Francisco chosen as the one place the torch would stop in North America?
Mayor NEWSOM: Well, some are self-explanatory. We are a gateway city. We're the city with the largest and oldest Chinatown in the United States. We have a population, a third, of Asian descent. We have formal sister-city relationship with Shanghai that goes back a quarter of a century. And we've always been very prideful of the diversity within in our city, particularly our connection and contribution from Chinese community.
CONAN: Let's go to Phil(ph), another caller from San Francisco. Phil, you're on the air.
PHIL (Caller): Hello, Neal.
CONAN: Go ahead please.
PHIL: Yeah. Hi. I'd like to echo some of Mr. Mayor's comments earlier. And my feelings of that the torch symbolizes competition - athletics. And there are many people who have spent many years training for these events, and they're looking forward to participating in these events. And I think that it's wrong to politicize the torch and the activities that it represents. And I'll take my comments up here.
Mayor NEWSOM: I appreciate it. And this is what I'm asking people to just appreciate that the Olympic Torch is not China's. It wasn't originated in China, and it won't end with these games. The torch represents something much bigger than the foreign policy or the human rights of - that are being advanced by the Chinese government. And it does unite people across their differences. And it is about connecting us to one another and focusing on the things that unite not divide us.
It doesn't mean that the torch hasn't been used politically. In fact, going back to 1936, quite notably it was. So we're not naive, again, to that. But at the end of the day, if you look beyond all of it, it is about athletes. It is about the pursuit of excellence. It is about the spirit of human competition and capacity. It's about living life out loud. And that is a human construct, and it's one that should be celebrated and cherished as well. But we - then in that spirit too, must not deny those that disagree with what I've just said and want to express that disagreement. So it's finding that balance, that common cause, that connects the opportunities and the responsibilities of freedom, and that's free expression.
CONAN: As I'm sure you also know when the torch was lit in Olympia in Greece, that's the start of this whole journey. There were protests there, peaceful protests, nevertheless the ceremony was disrupted somewhat, I wonder, does that concern you? And also, that disruption was not broadcast back to China, there was no coverage of the…
Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah.
CONAN: …of the protest allowed back in China.
Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah.
CONAN: And does that concern you?
Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah, of course, it does. I mean, you know, I'm living in a different universe here, in the city, in the county San Francisco, that even by American standards is quite progressive in terms of its distribution of information and freedom of expression, speech, and the focus on, again, celebrating not just accepting all of our diversity. Of course, that does.
And obviously, the most important thing for me is to keep people safe. I don't want to see a mother with a stroller and two kids that wants to see their uncle who's a Paralympian, and here he is given a moment of his life, the greatest moment he's ever been afforded, and that's to carry the Olympic Torch, and the spirit and pride he'll have. I don't want to see that person's right is trampled, and I don't want to see that Paralympian who's running up our streets, trampled either.
And so, it's about keeping people safe, allowing people to disagree, but not be disagreeable. Allowing people be fully expressive and feeling that they have a right to participate in that expression. But don't break the rules. Don't hurt other people, and you'll end up, ultimately, again, hurting even your own cause when you do that.
CONAN: As you mentioned earlier, there will be 80 people who will carry the torch for a little bit long. I guess, what, the six-mile journey it will pass through in San Francisco. You said 41 of those would be San Franciscans. Have they been identified yet? Can you tell us who?
Mayor NEWSOM: Yeah, they haven't been publicized, and that is out of our hands. That goes to the IOC and the Beijing Organizing Committee, but they've signed off internally, and they will release all of those names. The names will be released along with 40 other torch bearers that come from the Beijing Organizing Committee, but most dominantly from the International Olympic Committee.
And to be candid with you, a majority of those come through their sponsors, the three core sponsors. And I think there's a lot of myth that Beijing is dictating the terms. The reality is the IOC is the one that holds the cards in terms of opening and closing ceremonies around the Olympic torch. And they have rules and regulations as it relates to how the torch bearers are picked. We created an independent body, and we were representing not just San Francisco and San Franciscans, but all of North America, Mexico, and Canada, and the United States, and so, you'll see a very diverse group of torch barriers selected from our panel.
CONAN: Mayor Newsom, thanks very much for your time today.
Mayor NEWSOM: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And good luck next week.
Mayor NEWSOM: Thank you.
CONAN: Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco. Again, the Olympic torch arrives where it's only stay in North America, a brief visit in San Francisco next week.
And before we leave this hour, an update from our earlier story on Zimbabwe. The Associated Press reports that security agents and paramilitary police in riot gear are surrounding a hotel in Harare that houses foreign journalists. A man answering the phone at the hotel says they're taking away some reporters. The man refused to give his name but said about 30 police entered the hotel today and were preparing to take away four or five journalists. Foreign reporters have been in Zimbabwe to cover the elections in which President Robert Mugabe's party lost control of parliament, and now, apparently, faces a runoff election in three weeks' time for the presidency.
Stay tuned for more news on that as it becomes available from NPR News.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ira Flatow is here tomorrow with SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you again on Monday.
I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.