I plan to go to the city to watch the Torch run by. I have been considering what it means to me. I am appalled at the atrocities in Tibet, and, perhaps, this torch is a place where we unite and gently speak. As Nevius says, the issues are complex.
Pondering the Olympic torch and protest
Olympic Torch In S.F.
Life is always easier if we have a villain. So if a member of the Chinese secret police - someone directly responsible for beating, torturing and jailing Tibetans and Fulan Gong practitioners - would run through the streets of San Francisco with the Olympic torch, everything would be simple.
We could boo him, protest his presence, and deplore his actions. Who in San Francisco would disagree?
Unfortunately, Wednesday's torch run is more complicated. In this case, no one is really wrong. Not the protesters, not the torch runners and not the members of the local Chinese community who want to support the symbol.
The truth is, this is how it always seems to go. As torch runner Lisa Hartmayer, a nurse at UCSF who is running to raise awareness of worldwide climate change, said, "This is one of the largest global events there is." No wonder that people want to make a statement.
And they should.
Consider the case of 36-year-old Jigdol Ngawang. Today he is a bus driver in San Jose. But 14 years ago he was in a Chinese prison, arrested for demonstrating in support of independence for Tibet. Passengers who get on his bus today have no idea what he endured.
"I was living in hell," said Ngawang, who was in prison for five years. "They put your hands together behind your back and hung you from the wall. There were electric shocks, bamboo sticks under your fingernails. They wanted to know who you knew and whether you had contact with anybody."
A Tibetan monk, Ngawang was so committed to the cause that, before participating in a big demonstration in the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa, he went to tell his friends goodbye.
"We expected to be killed," he said.
So, given the chance, do you think Ngawang and his friends at "Team Tibet" are going to miss a chance to protest China's sports festival? Not likely. Do you blame them?
In fact, after hearing that, how could anyone support the Chinese Olympic Games?
Local attorney Edward Liu, for one, doesn't support much of what the Chinese government does. Liu, who immigrated in 1970, says, "I have to tell you, not many of my friends are favoring Chinese officials."
But Liu also speaks of "cultural passion," a large transplanted Chinese community in San Francisco, "who felt a sense of pride, of validation," when they heard that China was going to hold the Games.
"This is once in a century," Liu said. "At last, after a history of put downs and cut downs, to call a truce and set aside our differences. It is almost like preparing and preparing, and then having someone trying to sidetrack your wedding."
Again, Liu is no apologist for China. He travels there on a regular basis and says, "I see problems every time I go." But he's been caught up in the idea of a bridge between nations.
"I suspect that when the Olympic Committee picked San Francisco," he said, "it was because they believed sincerely that this is a symbolic backdrop - the oldest and most historic Chinatown in the United States - for a chance to make a connection with the people inside China."
But what about those torch carriers, running blithely through town? They probably don't have a clue about the issues in China, right?
Not quite. Take torch runner Helen Zia, a writer and activist who was in China when she received her invitation to carry the torch. The author of "Asian American Dreams," an award-winning book, Zia testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1997 and traveled to Beijing in 1995 for the United Nations Fourth World Congress on Women.
"A lot of my work has been with those suffering in China," said Zia. "I know what people there have experienced."
Zia doesn't deny that she had some second thoughts when the demonstrations in Tibet - and the subsequent crackdowns by the Chinese police - began.
"But I've been a human rights activist for most of my life," she said. "And I believe that the purpose of the Olympics is to bring people together."
Oh, and she also has a personal cause. In 2004, she and her partner, Lia Shigemura, were married at City Hall. Zia is also running in support of same-sex marriage - in case you'd forgotten, this is San Francisco.
In the end, on the day the first runner takes the first step with the torch, he or she will be following a long tradition. Not just of carrying the flame, but of sparking protest.
In 1980 the Americans boycotted the Soviet Union Games, and four years later the Soviets returned the favor. I've been to eight Olympic Games and there's been a controversy at every one - from the complaints about hunting whales in Norway to the Basque separatists in Barcelona. There were protests about the treatment of Aborigines in Sydney, and a bitter standoff between North and South Korea in Seoul.
There has just been one constant. Although often the causes were advanced by the debate, once the Games began, the protests were put aside.
There's been only one exception. In 1972 in Munich, 17 people were killed in a terrorist attack and subsequent rescue attempt.
As the day of the torch run approaches, and passions run high, it is important to remember what was accomplished by that descent into violence and death.