Wednesday, March 12, 2008
San Francisco is planning to restrict protesters of the Chinese government to specific areas of the city when the Beijing Olympics torch makes its only North American stop here next month.
Organizations that oppose China's human-rights record said Tuesday that they've been denied demonstration permits at large outdoor gathering areas on April 9, the day of the torch relay. They will instead be forced into certain areas, possibly far from the main torch route.
City officials said that the restrictions are necessary to ensure security at the event but that those precautions shouldn't limit the protesters' rights to gather, a right guaranteed in the First Amendment. Tens of thousands of protesters are expected, organizers said.
The event will be open to everyone, said Mayor Gavin Newsom, including "those who want to see this as an opportunity to raise the flag of concern about issues of disagreement with the Chinese government. That is something that is sacrosanct to us."
But that opportunity will be limited in ways uncommon for the city that hosts myriad rallies and protests.
Protesters will be restricted to "areas set up for First Amendment rights issues," according to Sgt. Neville Gittens, spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department.
When asked if the areas would be along the route, Gittens replied, "They will be in areas associated with the route." He said the city was "working with the (Beijing Olympic) committee to address the concerns they might have in regards to any protests." He would not elaborate on those concerns.
Nor would Gittens say what the torch route would be, only that the Beijing Olympic committee is working with police and other city officials. He said the route would be announced at the latest possible date. Newsom, however, said emphatically and repeatedly that the committee would by itself decide the torch route through the city.
Newsom also said he would not "politicize the Olympics" - but he may be asked to do so.
Supervisor Chris Daly on Tuesday introduced a resolution that urges the city official who receives the torch for the city - quite possibly the mayor - to state publicly that the torch is "received with alarm and protest at the failure of China to meet its past solemn promises to the international community, including the citizens of San Francisco, to cease the egregious and ongoing human rights abuses in China and occupied Tibet." Supervisors will vote on that resolution in the coming weeks.
The restrictions on protest locations are "a de facto limitation on the First Amendment rights of protesters," said Libby Marsh, director of the Northern California area for Human Rights Watch, an international organization.
She said she believes the city is "under pressure from the Beijing Olympic Committee and the Chinese government" to minimize the protesters' influence.
Several groups are planning to hold protest events in the days before the April 9 torch relay. Critics of the Chinese government's policies toward Tibet, Taiwan, the Falun Gong spiritual movement, Burma and Sudan's Darfur region are trying to organize a rally on that day.
They have been denied permits to use Civic Center Plaza and have been told that all other large gathering spots in the city are on hold in case they are used as part of the Olympic festivities.
"San Francisco is the only one stop in North America and I know the Chinese government is going to broadcast that to mainland China to show what kind of support they have," said Huy Lu, a Chinese immigrant who came to the United States via Vietnam 20 years ago.
Lu is helping to organize Bay Area events for the Human Rights Torch, an alternative torch that is also traveling the world and will arrive in San Francisco on April 5. Organizers are planning a rally and a march to the Chinese Consulate in the city.
"We want people to see something different, the two faces of the Chinese government," Lu said.
Another group is organizing the Tibetan Freedom Torch Relay, which is also traveling around the world and will stop in San Francisco's United Nations Plaza on April 8.
View the route the Olympic torch will take:
Chronicle writer Cecilia M. Vega contributed to this report. E-mail Wyatt Buchanan at firstname.lastname@example.org.