Chasing the Olympic Torch & Catching Protesters

Today was the only stop in North America for the Olympic Flame. San Francisco had the honor of hosting the Olympic Torch relay today amid throngs of Beijing Olympic Supporters, Fans of the Olympics, and Protesters. With this once in a life time opportunity, I took the day off to try my luck at chasing a photo of the Olympic Torch.

And my luck wasn’t that good. Or maybe you can say that I got sucked up in the protests and didn’t follow my instincts and the clues all around me. I was able to capture a number of photos of the protests along The Embarcadero and in Justin Herman Plaza, where the relay closing ceremony was to be held. But the torch route was changed (some say at the last minute, some say as early as last night). Regardless, here is a sideshow of photos that I captured today:

Since the events of today will be a widely publicized and hotly contested for the next few weeks, maybe longer, I want to give a run down of my thoughts of the day as well as point out some surreal moments I encountered during my chase of the flame.

The Olympic Torch relay was schedule to start at 1pm and follow a route previously published. As I drove into San Francisco this morning with my wife, we heard a local radio news station interview prior San Francisco mayor Willie Brown about his opportunity to be a torch bearer. He dropped the first clue of what was to come when he indicated

“The torch relay officials were asking all torch bearers not to bring cell phones with them. They don’t want us to give away our locations prior to the relay.”

Later on the same radio station, they interviewed current San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Newsom dropped the second, more definitive, clue when he indicated

“There will be changes to the route. … But everyone who shows up at Justin Herman Plaza for he relay closing ceremonies will see the torch.”

Tonight I heard on the local television news stations that Mayor Newsom meet with an official from the Chinese Consulate last night where they proposed the route change, including an ending spot on the other side of town from Justin Herman Plaza, and the Mayor agreed to their proposal. (What’s that old saying about politicians and knowing when they are lying?)

Between 10am and 11:30am, as I walked around AT&T Park and the area where the torch relay was supposed to start, I noticed multiple groups of Motorcycle Police. They were all riding in formation and kept coming and going from the area. In retrospect, this should have been my third clue that a different route would be taken in a rolling traffic break maneuver. What better way to protect the Olympic Torch from being assaulted by protesters than to take a totally un-prepared route through the city? However, I didn’t realize this at the time. So I decided to scout ahead on the known route.

At about 11:30am, I was about half a mile down the published route where a group of Free Tibet protesters were marching down The Embarcadero, across both lanes of traffic, toward the starting point of the relay. Very little police had been visible until this point. Suddenly a squad of motorcycle police came down the street and blocked off the intersection in front of me, cutting off the protesters. Next came a tour bus that turned at the intersection; which caused the protesters to surge forward and totally surround the bus. Some protesters briefly started hitting the bus. Only in retrospect, when I examined my photos of this incident, did I notice that the motorcycle police escorting the bus took off right away and didn’t try to help the bus escape the protesters.

It was a classic probe of the enemy lines with a decoy! Fourth clue. The police were testing the protesters to see what they were going to do. Shortly after this probe, the additional police that were originally behind the protesters disappeared as well. From that point on, there was no noticeable police on the published route from the turn on to The Embarcadero to Justin Herman Plaza (a stretch of about 1.5 miles). Gladly, there was also no need for the police as the protesters were peaceful in their actions.

Side Blur: There was one surreal event that occurred about this time that made me crack a huge smile. During the protester’s march down the Embarcadero I heard the ringing of bells. As I turned, here came a hand cart Ice Cream vendor trying to sell ice cream. I had a huge grin on my face as he looked at me. He was just trying to make an honest buck off of the day’s events. Only in San Francisco!

At this point I made my way down to Justin Herman Plaza hoping to eventually catch a shot of the Olympic Flame as it approached for the relay closing ceremony. The first thing I noticed as I was within 3 blocks of the Plaza, was again how little Police were present. There was no way they were going to bring the relay through here when there were protesters all over the street and the barricades that were put in place that morning were pushed aside, creating huge gaps.

As I made my way to the north side of the plaza, I notice the same situation there. If they were going to bring the Olympic Flame here, there was no way they could prevent the same thing that happened in Paris. As I came around the crowd, I saw my last clue for the day: a squad of about 25 San Francisco Police Officers just hanging out by their support vehicles. They were the backup in case the crowd got out of control, and that was all they were there for.

At this point, I realized that Mayor Newsom’s promise was an empty one to keep the protesters distracted and contained in Justin Herman Plaza. Time to get out of the crowd and check my shots on the computer. So I made my way up to a coffee shop in the Embarcadero Center, a set of four buildings stretching west from the plaza that have shops on the first two floors (if you see a photo of San Francisco skyline with buildings outlined in white lights, that’s the Embarcadero Center…and the photo was taken in in December when they light the buildings up for the holidays). I passed a store with a group of people coming out the front door, all watching the torch relay live on TV. The torch was heading toward the Marina District and the Golden Gate Bridge, away from where we all were.

Quoting one of the local evening news casts from San Francisco:

“You know what they say about San Francisco: One of the reasons we are here is to give the rest of the country something to talk about.”

Unfortunately, I feel sad that what the rest of the country, and world, is talking about is how we as a city continued away from the Olympic ideals that the torch represents. It is sad that this Olympics seems to be so disruptive to those Olympic ideals. Not able to bring people together despite their different political and national views.

While I’m sure there will be political rumblings regarding today for for quite some time, maybe the way this was handled was the best of both worlds. The protesters were able to get their spotlight and air time with the media (even the media didn’t know where the torch was until it suddenly appeared over a mile from the starting point…). And the Olympic torch relay was able to have what might be the most dignified, even if highly manipulated, leg so for. So, in a certain way, I have to give credit to Mayor Newsom and the San Francisco (and other regional) Police that participate in today’s ruse.

If only the cost of that dignified leg wasn’t so high. All the people who came to San Francisco, myself included, specifically to see the Olympic Torch were robbed of that once in a lifetime experience…

(Even if i wasn’t able to catch a shot of the Olympic Torch, I did at least catch a sunburn. Some advice from your friendly San Francisco area photography: remember your sunscreen kiddies… Also, If you have some photos from today, FocalPower has a posting where we are looking for links to your shots. Share them with us!)

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