The Crestone Eagle, May 2008:

Free Tibet!
Thousands protest China at the Olympic Torch Relay in San Francisco – Crestonians go there to lend their voices

by Kathleen Willow

This spring, as witnessed by the world, peaceful protests by monastics and lay people in Tibet have been met with arrests, brutal imprisonments and death of innocents by the Chinese regime. As news of courageous acts of civil disobedience by Tibetans across that vast region emerged, it felt imperative to add my voice in protest of China’s abysmal human rights record when the Olympic torch passed through San Francisco in April. With the Beijing Olympic Games approaching in August, China finds itself on the world stage.

Hundreds of protesters greeted the torch relays in London and Paris. In San Francisco anticipation was thick in the days leading up to the only North American stop in the torch’s world tour. On Monday, April 7, two days before the relay event, Team Tibet members climbed suspension cables near the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge and hung huge banners. “One World, One Dream, Free Tibet.” It was brilliantly successful, infusing those of us who planned to protest with excitement and determination. “One World, One Dream” is Beijing’s stunningly ironic slogan for the 2008 Games.

The following day, after marching from city hall to the Chinese Consulate with flags, banners and loud chants, several thousand Tibetans and supporters of Tibet from across the country gathered at the U.N. Plaza for a rally and candlelight vigil. The mood of the crowd was passionate. No matter our ethnic heritage, we were joined as brothers and sisters seeking justice for those in Tibet who have suffered cultural, spiritual, economic and linguistic genocide at the hands of the Chinese government for nearly 60 years.

One young man held a big banner with images of 15-20 bloodied dead Tibetans, all with bullet holes in heads, hearts, torsos—killed by Chinese police. The photos had been taken in the previous month as Tibetans in Tibet have taken advantage of this narrow window of time leading up to the Beijing Olympics, drawing world attention to their plight through non-violent protests, along with displays of the Tibetan flag and images of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. These seemingly benign acts are illegal in Tibet according to Chinese law, guaranteeing arrest, imprisonment, and sometimes death. A Tibetan mother and daughter from Los Angeles sat cuddled next to me on a stone wall. I shared my shawl as we tried to keep warm. Like thousands of others, the mother had escaped into exile by walking over the Himalayas to Nepal. She was gravely concerned for family members still in her homeland.

Pro-Tibet speakers and others, speaking on behalf of those suffering in Darfur (China is closely associated with the Sudanese government which is brutalizing and killing the people of Darfur), Burma (China supports the country’s repressive military thugs) and Uighar (a people north of Tibet whose repression and marginalization by the Chinese has been quite similar to that of Tibetans), all spoke with great hope for change. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu talked of his dear friend the Dalai Lama, “One of the most holy people,” and strongly discouraged attendance of the Games by any head of state.

As it became dusk, candlelight flickered throughout the crowd. Richard Gere ended the evening by reading recent words of His Holiness discouraging violent response to the Chinese crackdown. Clearly the message was also to keep our protests non-violent during the following day’s torch relay. After offering fervent prayers and singing the Tibetan National Anthem one last time, we dispersed in all directions to rest.

The next morning, filled with enthusiasm from the previous night’s rally, a friend and I took the subway from Berkeley over to the city. Walking out of the Embarcadero BART station into the light of day, we were quickly immersed in a sea of flag-waving Chinese people. I searched for Tibetan flags, seeing just one or two in the distance. Emotionally I felt completely unprepared. Big red Chinese flags, pro-Olympic and anti-Tibet signs. The emotions that arose within me were strong. Anger. Animosity. I began to say “Free Tibet” in a calm almost subliminal voice as I passed Chinese individuals in the crowd. Quickly my tone had an edge.

Young Chinese couples with kids in strollers, elder Chinese, and all ages in between lined the route along with protesters, whose numbers and presence began to grow. It was a wild mix of people—some who took great pride in their country and had come to celebrate this momentous event and some who despised what that same country represented. One young Chinese man carried a sign saying “Dalai Liar.” It pierced my soul. To hear of this sentiment through the media is one thing. To see it in person was devastating. I wish I had tried to speak with him.

I did talk with two young Chinese men in their mid-twenties, making clear from the start that I wished to speak peacefully, human to human. One had grown up in China. The only thing he learned about Tibet was its location on a map. Since coming to the West, he had learned more and was sympathetic to their plight, as well as that of the millions of poor in China. He felt the Olympics was not the place for protest because the Chinese are very sensitive about “saving face.” I peppered our conversation with facts about Tibet’s history and, looking deeply into their eyes, offered hope that their generation might have the wisdom to bring change.

Opening ceremonies for the torch relay were slated to begin at 1pm at McCovey Cove, south of where we were at the Ferry Building. Around 12:45pm, the crowd began to spill out into the street from behind the barricades. The many police in attendance simply stood by and watched. There began to be much yelling and heated verbal clashes between pro-Tibet demonstrators and Chinese. “Tibet has always been part of the motherland.” “The Dalai Lama is a splittist.” Chinese government propaganda digested and regurgitated hook, line and sinker. I looked at my watch … 1:00 … 1:15 … 1:30pm….

The street filled with more and more people. Tensions mounted. It was easy to imagine how in other parts of the world it could quickly have escalated into individuals picking up rocks and hurling them at one another. And worse. Far worse. In my journal on the flight home I wrote, “So clearly I saw what an easy and poor choice violence would have been. Indeed non-violence is hard and wise. Hard in that one must subdue one’s own egoic reactionary mode of being. One needs to turn 180° in the moment. It highlights the extreme importance of diplomacy. With the eyes and pressure of the world on China to dialogue with His Holiness, may something shift. May it be so.”

The afternoon wore on. At one point a man climbed up a pillar and hung a “Free Tibet” banner on the Ferry Building. Another man with a Chinese flag used the end of the flag pole to tear at the banner. People from both sides loudly rallied around them. Several people held onto the flag to immobilize the pole; the flag tore and was trampled. Police rushed over. Thankfully there was no physical confrontation. From time-to-time groups of 50 or so Tibetans marched down the street with flags and banners. Chance encounters with 2 Crestone residents warmed my heart.

Later we heard that the torch relay had shifted to Van Ness Avenue. It was a good thing. The torch’s passage through that crowd could very well have incited a violent response. It was far safer for the relay runners as well. One runner, Majora Carter, an environmental activist from the Bronx, pulled a Tibetan flag from her sleeve and was able to briefly wave it while carrying the torch in her other hand!

At day’s end, we made our way to a nearby park where Tibetans and supporters of Tibet had gathered one last time. We laid our tired bodies in the grass in the sun and napped. Such protests could never have happened in China. A young Tibetan girl wore a colorful cap with “Free Tibet” crocheted across the front. What changes will her generation see?

The Chinese government has said that their “feelings are hurt” by protests that have dogged the torch relay in Europe and North America, as well as by suggestions of an Olympic boycott of any sort. In fact, China boycotted the Olympics twice: in 1956 when a delegation from Taiwan was welcomed at the Melbourne Games in Australia; and in 1980, along with many other countries, when the Moscow Games were boycotted after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

A mere 100 days remains before opening ceremonies on 08-08-08. It is a critical time for action. Check out International Campaign for Tibet’s websites (www.savetibet.org and www.racefortibet.org) for specific ideas of what you can do. Write letters. Raise awareness. Pray. Once it reaches China, the torch is slated to go through Tibet, which will no doubt be seen by Tibetans as a provocation, likely leading to more protests, arrests and abuse. This cycle of violent repression must end.

May Tibet be free and a zone of peace!