We’re pretty disappointed by yesterday’s events in San Francisco. The ACLU of Northern California worked tirelessly to make sure that everyone at yesterday’s Olympic torch relay – pro-Tibet protestors, pro-China protestors, fans of the Olympic Games, and the torch carriers themselves – had the opportunity to make their voices heard. City officials, perhaps in concert with federal authorities or the International Olympic Committee, decided to change the torch route and kept everyone, including news teams, in suspense about the torch’s location. The thousands of people who spent hours lining what they thought was the official route never got to see the torch. We believe that these people were effectively deprived of a unique change to make themselves heard on matters of worldwide concern.
If the route was changed at the last minute because of serious threats of violence, that would be one thing. But we have serious concerns that the route was changed to avoid the protestors.
As any ACLU member worth their salt knows well, the First Amendment protects robust and even unruly expression, and unless absolutely necessary, the city should not have deprived groups on both sides from expressing their views as the torch went by.
Michael Risher, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, who recorded a podcast about the ACLU’s negotiations with the city about the torch relay, reports that despite securing previous agreements with the city that it would not discriminate against protestors based on message, the ACLU’s legal observers witnessed police ordering peaceful protestors carrying Tibetan flags and signs to leave Justin Herman Plaza, the planned location of the closing ceremony. The police were also standing at the entrance to the plaza discouraging people carrying signs or even wearing T-shirts relating to Tibet or Darfur from entering, telling them that if they entered the plaza there would be ‘confrontations’ and that the police could not promise to protect them.
The torch was rerouted to San Francisco International Airport instead, where it departed for Buenos Aires after a mere two-hour tour through the city.
The San Francisco Chronicle opined on yesterday’s events today:
Everyone who turned out should feel cheated. Along the Embarcadero route, Beijing’s backers and the groups opposed to China’s policies in Tibet, Burma and Darfur didn’t get a glimpse of the flaming torch. Casual observers who wanted to take in the torch’s only North American stop were likewise left out. In effect, the event was canceled.
This was San Francisco’s chance to show how it respects and handles vigorous political dissent. It is also the hub of a region with great pride in its Olympic alliances. Thousands gathered to see the torch and express their passions, positive and negative, about the upcoming Games. Regrettably, our city leaders chose to run away from them.
It’s a shame that San Francisco, a city with such a rich history of political protest, ultimately didn’t allow its residents the opportunity to fully participate in such a momentous event. The ACLU will continue to investigate yesterday’s events.