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The British prime minister's office says he's sending no special message. It's just a coincidence that amid protests against China, Prime Minister Gordon Brown will miss the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. But it's no coincidence that protesters tried to block the Olympic torch yesterday in San Francisco. They were determined to send a message about China's human rights record and its crackdown on Tibet.
Then police took the torch on a wild, unscheduled route through the city. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, they kept the Olympic flame out of reach and largely out of sight.
Unidentified People: No freedom, no peace.
RICHARD GONZALES: Even before the opening ceremonies, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome was telling reporters he was determined to avoid a repeat of the kind of disruptions that happened when the torch passed through London and Paris. Newsome said everything about the torch relay through San Francisco was subject to change.
Mayor GAVIN NEWSOME (Democrat, San Francisco): Make no mistake, this is a very organic and dynamic process, not a static one. And we want to accommodate everybody. And everyone's free expression will be protected and everyone's safety - it is my intention to protect that as well.
GONZALES: And Newsome stayed true to his word after his chief of police told him there were so many demonstrators lining the torch's planned route she could not guarantee public safety. Thousands of Tibetan exiles and their supporters faced off in angry and raucous shouting matches with Chinese counter-protestors.
(Soundbite of protest)
GONZALES: Less than an hour before the start of the relay, the six-mile route had been cut in half. But more surprises were in store. Once the torch was finally displayed, the first runner immediately carried it to a nearby warehouse, where it remained out of view for half an hour. Then the torch and its 80 bearers were finally bussed across town a busy boulevard far from the relay route and protestors.
One of the torch runners, ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes, says the experience was surreal.
Mr. DEAN KARNAZES (Torchbearer): Ten minutes before we were supposed to start, they said the plan has changed and they totally moved us to a different area in the city, and it was just a very stealth, incredibly orchestrated maneuver. And even then the crowds were unbelievable. I would say 90 percent of it was positive, but there were protestors out there. It was just a whirlwind of activity and energy.
GONZALES: Once the torch runners were out of the bus and on the street, they zigzagged north towards the Golden Gate Bridge as protestors scrambled to catch up. Back at the waterfront, where most of the demonstrators were waiting, word spread quickly via cell phones that the torch wasn't coming.
For many in the Tibetan-American community, the sense of disappointment was palpable. Tensing Chanden(ph) is a member of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile.
Mr. TENSING CHANDEN (Tibetan Parliament in Exile): I know for a fact all of the people that are gathered here today, especially our American friends and Tibetans from all over North America, they want to express in a peaceful and non-violent way their sympathy and their solidarity for the people inside Tibet, and there would have been no problems.
GONZALES: The Bay Area's large Tibetan-American community became a magnet for Tibetan demonstrators across the country and around the world. They were hoping to use the Olympic torch as a way of drawing attention to China's rough relations with Tibet. Lauda Titong(ph) says the protest was important to her father and thousands of other exiles like him.
Ms. LAUDA TITONG (Protestor): And there's lots of elder Tibetans here in the crowd who for so many of us we just want our parents, our grandparents, to see Tibet before they die.
GONZALES: The torch wound up bypassing not only protestors but scores of spectators who lined up to see it. Mayor Newsome said he was sorry but the city did what it had to.
Mr. NEWSOME: But we deal in the real world. We deal practical realities. The practical reality is we couldn't accommodate for them, and I wish we could have.
GONZALES: Newsome was speaking from the San Francisco Airport after a quiet departure ceremony for the Olympic torch was completed. It was placed on a Chinese charter flight headed for its next stop, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.
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