S.F. Braces for Olympic Protest

When San Francisco was chosen as the only North American city to host the Olympic torch as it travels from Athens to Beijing, Mayor Gavin Newsom looked forward to his city's "extraordinary honor." But the passing of the flame through the city's hilly streets next Wednesday threatens to become a giant headache for the mayor, as thousands of activists prepare to descend on the six-mile route.

This week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution criticizing the Chinese government for its human rights violations and calling for an international investigation into China's recent actions in Tibet. Although the board has demanded that Newsom sign the resolution by next week, it is unlikely he will take any action before the April 11 deadline. The Chinese government has condemned the resolution, saying that it would hurt San Francisco-China relations.

Activist groups gathered earlier this week on the front steps of San Francisco's city hall, accusing the mayor of limiting free speech by requiring protesters to apply for permits and stay within "free-speech zones" marked off for protesters. (Protesters will be able to demonstrate anywhere in the city without permits as long as they do not block public access to the area.) Demonstrators are also planning to gather on Sunday to host the Human Rights Torch Relay and on Tuesday for the Tibet Freedom Torch Ceremony, featuring celebrity protesters including Richard Gere and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Police in this protest-happy city are bracing for the largest demonstrations since the eve of the Iraq war, when 150,000 people rallied—and several hundred were arrested. As he reviewed plans to keep the 80 torchbearers (35 selected by a San Francisco review panel, 18 by corporate sponsors, 16 by the U.S. Olympic Committees, six by Newsom, four by the Beijing Organizing Committee, and one by the International Olympic Committee) safe—while also guaranteeing the civil liberties of protesters—Newsom took a few minutes to speak with NEWSWEEK's Miyoko Ohtake. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The torch's trip around the globe is supposed to be a celebration of the Games. With all the negative press and protest, can the torch's stop in San Francisco still be the feel-good event it's intended to be?
Gavin Newsom: I think it will be. I think people will be surprised by the number of people who will be there to celebrate the Olympic spirit and the Olympic torch. I think you're going to see a lot more focus in terms of the number of people participating in the event that are focused on that than are focused on protesting. There were tens of thousands of people in 2002 celebrating the Olympic torch when it came through the city. There were protesters condemning American human rights and reminding us of our own past with American Indians, but it was overwhelmed by the number of people there to celebrate the Olympic spirit.

Do you still feel the same sense of honor today as you did 11 months ago, when San Francisco was chosen to host the torch?
I still feel very proud, because this is not China's torch; this is the Olympic torch. We cannot deny people their right to feel differently and communicate that, and I respect—and in many ways admire—the organizations that are protesting. But I'm still very proud of [the torch passing through San Francisco], because I'm proud of the spirit of the Olympics, which is the spirit of unity and the spirit that transcends cultures and connects people. This is an incredibly opportunity. We're celebrating everything this country stands for: the right to advance a principle and the right to also condemn it. That's the spirit of this country and, boy, that's something to celebrate. How appropriate for San Francisco to receive the torch. It couldn't be better. The consequence, of course, is a potpourri of challenges—not easy, but wonderful nonetheless.

On Tuesday the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution condemning China for human rights violations, calling for an international investigation into the recent events in Tibet, and encouraging you to accept the torch with "alarm and protest." Do you plan on signing and acting in accordance to this resolution?
God as my witness, I haven't seen it. I'll take a look, but it doesn't even come to my desk until the torch relay is gone. With respect to my former colleges, the board, I'm more than capable of deciding for myself what to say. As an advocate of issues of human rights that has expressed condemnation of what has happened in Tibet, I don't feel it's inconsistent with my beliefs, but I'm not obliged to be told by politicians how I should speak. That's up to me, and I'll make that determination. I'm not a mouthpiece for Supervisor Chris Daly; I'm a mouthpiece for my conscience. I'll decide what's appropriate. That's my right of free expression that shouldn't be dictated to me any more than I would dictate it to anyone else.

What are you doing to ensure the safety of both those planning to cheer and those attending to jeer?
The good news is that this is a city that sees protests of some scale almost on a weekly basis. The key here is to accommodate everybody: to accommodate those that are there to celebrate the spirit of the Olympics, removing any politics from the torch relay, and to secure the safety and comfort of those who wish to protest, and see this as a political opportunity. We're trying to balance both, and we've made it clear that this should be done peacefully and respectfully.

Do you fear that the protests are going to get out of hand?
By no means are we naive nor are we foolhardy to not know that conditions could dramatically change. We will watch the other cities [receiving the torch] to see what happens, and that will play a role. What happened in Athens a week ago [where the relay was cut short due to concerns about protesters interrupting the ceremony] precipitated the reduction in the size of our route. After that we said, "Let's really simplify it." I have to keep people safe and secure, protesters and participants, without letting this become a police state. I don't want to see people in riot gear; I don't want to see helicopters overhead. I want people to be out there on all sides. Disagree, but don't be disagreeable.

Are you concerned that the event will end up being an international embarrassment for the city?
It would only be an embarrassment if we didn't put our all into it, only if we look back and say, "Coulda, shoulda, woulda." We're taking this very seriously. We recognize we're the only city in North America to host the torch, and we recognize the responsibility. If something—God forbid—occurs that we could never have anticipated, I can look back and say we did everything in our power to accommodate safety and security and balance people's rights and privileges on all sides. It's important for us to show the world that we can protest but we can be respectful. That's the ultimate expression of freedom: accepting someone else's right to express a difference. That's America, and that's a great thing. That's why I disagree with the people who say don't let the torch come into our city, because everyone has a right to free expression.