Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Event that Wasn't

I have (oddly) fond childhood memories of getting minor frostbite on my toes while waiting for a torch to be trotted past me on the way to the 1980 winter Olympics at Lake Placid. So when I heard that San Francisco would be the only North American stop for the 2008 Olympic torch relay, I immediately wanted to bring Big A to see it. San Francisco usually throws a fine public party. In addition to the music, dancing, and pageantry, San Francisco seasons these events with a whole range of protesters and a light sprinkling of nudists. That's just how we do it out here, and for the most part, it works out fine.

After the protester mayhem that occurred in London and Paris, I considered not taking Big A after all. But in the end I simply went early, assuming any problem protesters were likely not locals, and would therefore be sleeping off jetlag while Big A and I walked around the plaza in the morning.

Big A loved the BART commute. "Our train is the biggest thing in the WORLD," she marveled as she watched Oakland streets zip by far below the elevated tracks. In San Francisco we checked out the Olympic flags and music first. I explained to Big A about how the torch goes all the way around the world to where the games are taking place. Big A was duly impressed. I talked about how China is very far away, a beautiful and interesting country. I said I would love to travel there with her someday.

Then we made our way over to the side of the plaza where the protesters gathered. It was hard to know exactly what to tell a four year old about all the "Free Tibet" signs. So I just said that even though China is full of fabulous things and people, it is not perfect. Sometimes China has been a very bad neighbor. Sometimes it mistreats its own people, too. So a lot of people were protesting to try to get China to behave better.

I wondered if Big A would be confused by the two radically different stories about the same place, but she just accepted it all, as four year olds sometimes do. We walked around some more. She marveled at the balloons and banners. I bought a "Hot Chicks Dig Obama" button from a guy wearing a "peace for Darfur" shirt. Big A received an "honorary SFPD" sticker from a policeman, and the nice bomb squad guy let her pet the explosive-sniffing dog. We eventually met up with DH (who works downtown) for an early lunch.

By that time Big A was overstimulated and tired. She was too jumpy to eat her sandwich. Helicopters circled overhead and Big A began shouting at them to stop bothering her. Even though it was only 15 minutes before the torch was supposed to arrive for the welcome ceremony, I decided to leave right then rather than deal with a huge meltdown on the BART platform if I lingered much longer.

It was only later in the day when I turned on the radio that I learned San Francisco opted to scuttle the originally planned event. They raced the torch through parts of town where nobody was expecting it. Well, maybe raced is too strong a word -- apparently the lines of police around the torch bearers were so tight that they couldn't really run at all, but just sort of shuffle along en masse.

Inspiring? Well, I suspect Big A will always remember her first BART ride. But for the rest of public out there waving the whole range of signs and flags? Feh.

Sure, San Francisco foiled any rowdy protesters from dousing the torch flame by doing what they did. But thousands of people waited downtown to catch a glimpse of it, and SF doused something in them instead.


Which Box said...

I don't know how I feel about this. China is a bad player and I don't think the IOC really took that into account when deciding to award them the Olympics. And I love a good protest, and some of those scenes in London and Paris were crazy.

On the other hand, that poor wheelchair bound athlete in Paris who was pelted with cans and bottles and fruit - um, not cool.

Wabi said...

Yes, as you can see by the dichotomy of what I said to Big A about China, I don't quite know how to reconcile it all either. In the end the "China problem" is such that I felt I couldn't bring my kid to an Olympic festivity without explaining something of both sides of the issue to her, in however small a way. I'm not saying I did a great job. But I feel like I did a better job than SF did, somehow.

To be fair, violent protests are a very serious matter. And SF had a huge bullseye on it. I'm sure City officials feared people would get hurt and honestly wanted to protect them.

Yet this is an area with many connections to China, and it seems to me that the business groups are the ones who won out, rather than having their desires balanced against those of the humanitarian groups. SF already had demonstrated that it was bending over backwards to hide opposing views of China for this event before there were problems in Paris or London. For instance, San Francisco created a relay route that bypassed Chinatown. Why would they do that? Because God forbid someone living in Chinatown protest from their apartment balcony! They opted for streets where they could control the media message more.

It all just sits funny with me. I think the motives for the change in the torch relay were not all good ones.

thrice said...

I'm not up for getting all political at the moment, but I was so impressed that you had the ENERGY to take Big A out to experience the event that wasn't.

You made me feel, like I was there. Thanks for that.

Julia said...

This was a very vivid account. Much better, to be honest, than anything I heard on the radio. I also very much liked what you said to Big A. I might steal it for Monkey come August. Kids are so good with holding contradictory thoughts in their heads when gently encouraged to do that.

Antigone said...

I'm a fan of peaceful protests. Unfortunately, no matter what the issue, they always seem to attract a more volatile element.