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Tibet's Moment

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Length: 7:07

lhadon tethong

Lhadon Tethong, executive director of the Students for a Free Tibet, rallies protesters in San Francisco.

It's the night before the highly anticipated Olympic torch relay in San Francisco, and I am watching a training session for protestors led by Students for a Free Tibet, the group who scaled the Golden Gate Bridge to unfurl two banners the day before. A stream of young Tibetans files into the back of a Berkeley church until the room is filled. Lhadon Tethong, the executive director of the organization, arrives with a caravan of weary protesters who had attended a candlelight vigil in San Francisco. Nobel Peace laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu had spoken there. So did actor and activist Richard Gere. Draped in Tibetan flags, with their face paint reading "Free Tibet," the protestors look like sports fans after a long tournament.

But the outcome of this event is still to be decided.

The organizers of Students for a Free Tibet are sophisticated. In their black American Apparel tracksuit jackets with "Team Tibet '08" on the back, they immediately plug their white Apple laptops, iPods, and Blackberrys into the available jacks in the room and get wired. One organizer, a tall Tibetan in a black leather jacket said I could subscribe to their Twitter account to receive text message updates on my cell phone. He shows me how.

The leaders are recent college grads, who are savvy when it comes to the media and technology. They immediately begin drilling the group of mostly teenage immigrants about "message discipline" and "how to talk to the media." The trainer, Gopal Dayaneni, tells them "Free Tibet" has been a useful message, but he encourages them to trade it in for a stronger catch-phrase: "End the Occupation."

The trainer, Gopal Dayaneni, tells them "Free Tibet" has been a useful message, but he encourages them to trade it in for a stronger catch-phrase: "End the Occupation."

This is definitely the next generation of Tibetan activists.

April 9, 2008

Today's the day that many people, both protesters and supporters of the torch, have been preparing for. It's a beautiful spring day. Sunny, clear skies. There are thousands of people in the streets.

I encounter San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly, an outspoken opponent of the torch relay, as he heads to an impromptu press conference in support of Tibet. I ask him if he thinks the Chinese community, who have gathered here in force with an aggressive display of flag-waving and slogan shouting, might erupt in violence. "I wouldn't be surprised," he says, "but the real test of non-violence is how you react to violence."

chris daly

San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly, an outspoken opponent of the Olympic torch relay.

At the press conference, one of the organizers I met last night tells me in confidence to go to a street corner several blocks away to look for a woman in a red jacket, who will be engaging in civil disobedience. There on the corner, I meet Kirsten Westby, a board member of Students for a Free Tibet. Although she is not Tibetan, she grew up in a Tibetan Buddhist community in Boulder, Colorado. Her first direct action for the Free Tibet Movement happened last August, when she went to the Mt. Everest base camp to disrupt the Chinese Olympic climbing team's training. The Chinese police detained her. She says that in jail the police showed her the news announcing that San Francisco would be on the torch's route. They laughed and pointed at her saying that her protest had been in vain, she recalls bitterly.

As we're talking, she spots three comrades who are striding down the street. They're the climbers who hung the "One World, One Dream, Free Tibet" banners from the Golden Gate Bridge two days ago. Released from jail last night, they had just been dismissed from their court hearings and were set free in time to join the torch protests.

Kirsten and I part ways -- she goes to get into position, the secret location where she and a dozen protesters hope to jump the barricade and block the torch's path, while I head towards the San Francisco Giants ballpark, where the relay is set to begin.

China supporters wave yards of red Chinese flags, even from atop the Willie Mays statue.

As I approach the ballpark, I notice the crowd becomes increasingly pro-China. Small groups of Tibetans engage in shouting matches with the Chinese. China supporters wave yards of red Chinese flags, even from atop the Willie Mays statue. The bridge has been barricaded, but with press credentials I am allowed to pass and enter McCovey Cove, which is filled with people chanting, drumming, and dancing to Chinese nationalist songs.

A live swing band fires up. But the city's attempt to make the mood more celebratory and less partisan fails, as the band has to compete with the drumbeats of thousands of Chinese clad in bright costumes marching in place. It sounds as if they are marching into battle. It's a strange scene. It feels like a Chinese nationalist rally. A troupe of middle-aged Chinese women in shiny red spandex dresses and red knee-high boots do a choreographed dance to the drumbeats. They face a metal barricade -- performing to no one.

A flock of thirty police wearing black riot helmets march in formation down the street lined with Beijing Olympic supporters. They push through the barricade and disappear past the crowd.

The relay is due to begin.

I get a text message that says:

TORCH LOCATION: Shed A near parking lot A across from McCovey Cove.

sf police

A group of San Francisco policemen march down a street lined with Beijing Olympic supporters.

As I look over towards Shed A, a building on the pier where men in black are standing on the roof, a second deployment of officers in riot gear carrying semi-automatic pump guns arrive. They form two lines with the unarmed SFPD facing the thick crowd of China supporters, while the armed CHP face me and the other journalists.

TEXT MESSAGE: 100 SFPD with gas masks gathering at Pier 48 near torch.

TEXT MESSAGE from Kirsten: 1000+ pro Tibet marchers going down Embarc. [Embarcadero, the road along the San Francisco Bay.] Just crossed Howard. People still waiting here for torch.

Instrumental music begins to blare through the speakers. Five Chinese people in blue tracksuits jog down the line of cops carrying video cameras and equipment. The police open the barricade and let them slip out. They look like "flame attendants," a special detachment of Chinese police sent by Beijing to guard the torch as it makes its way around the world.

TEXT MESSAGE: Torch is moving to opening ceremony--may be inside stadium.

Still, I have not seen the torch, nor has anyone else in this crowd of media and spectators.

Still, I have not seen the torch, nor has anyone else in this crowd of media and spectators.

The drums and cymbals intensify, drowning out the piped in music of Chinese children singing. Six helicopters circle overhead.

CNN reports that the torch is on a police boat. I call an organizer from Students for a Free Tibet, who says she hasn't seen the torch. Charlotte Buchen, my camerawoman, wonders if we missed it.

The red flags begin to sag as the crowd starts to lose hope.

TEXT MESSAGE: 20ft banner dropped at Embarc & Howard "No Torch in Tibet"

"Looks like no torch in San Francisco, either," I think to myself.

Baffled TV news crews begin breaking down their equipment.

Then, abruptly, the first mention of a torch sighting.

TEXT MESSAGE: Torch lit at Van Ness and Pine. Going up Van Ness to Bay Street.

chinese dancers

A group of Chinese dancers awaits the arrival of the Olympic torch.

The City has pulled a fast one, changing the route at the very last minute. A bus has taken the torch across town to Van Ness, leaving an estimated 10,000 disappointed people here at what was supposed to be the starting point along the original route. Saddest of all are the patriotic Chinese. Some of them spent the night here to watch this torch spectacle. Many are elderly. All of their costumes, signs, boxed lunches, and eager anticipation are for naught. At the moment, the City gives no explanation. And the once-fiery crowd responds with resignation.

Later, San Francisco Police Chief Heather Fong says, "If we had started down that [original] route, I guarantee you would have seen helmet-clad officers with batons pushing back protestors." Mayor Gavin Newsom wanted to avoid the confrontations that occurred in Paris, where the Beijing Olympic torch was extinguished.

TEXT MESSAGE: Torch bearer at Van Ness & Chestnut just pulled out Tibetan flag!! Had torch taken away. YAA!

Majora Carter, a civil rights and environmental activist, is the runner who pulls out a Tibetan flag while carrying the Olympic torch. Immediately, the Chinese security forces grab the flag and hustle her off the route. Later, she receives a hero's welcome from the Tibetan community, who gather to celebrate what they consider to be a victory -- a successful disruption of what was supposed to be China's "harmonious" running of the torch in the only U.S. city it's scheduled to visit.

In the back of a TV news van, I catch my first glimpse of the torch. On the video monitors, a woman steps off a bus carrying a silver torch surrounded by police. It's a disappointing and pathetic sight.

On the video monitors, a woman steps off a bus carrying a silver torch surrounded by police. It's a disappointing and pathetic sight.

Kirsten calls me from the back of a police truck. She's been arrested for doing a sit-in at Justin Herman Plaza, where the closing ceremonies were planned to take place. The ceremony is cancelled.

I go to Ferry Park where the Tibetans want to celebrate "a splendid victory," says writer Topden Tsering. Before the seated crowd on the grassy open space, the Tibetan's torchbearer-turn-hero, Majora Carter, says, "I only wish I could have carried the torch a little further for you. But the spirit is getting stronger."

Across from the Ferry Building, where early this morning, groups of Chinese and Tibetans shouted and shook their flags at each other, two men -- one carrying the red, blue, and yellow ray flag of Tibet, the other clutching the red star-studded flag of China, calmly and respectfully discuss their political beliefs in the middle of the intersection. A mixed group of Tibetans and Chinese gather around the two listening quietly.

There were some angry confrontations in the streets of San Francisco today, and a definite show of force by the large Chinese community here. The torch itself pulled a humiliating disappearing act. But in the end, there was no violence, and Tibetan activists continued to win more attention for their cause than anyone ever could have imagined just a few short months ago.

Alison Satake is a student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a production assistant at FRONTLINE/World.

Video producer Charlotte Buchen is a regular contributor to the FRONTLINE/World website and a 2007 graduate of the Berkeley journalism school.

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Jared MacLane - San Francisco, CA
Mike Garcia is right on... Just a reminder, not all of us in San Francisco are Liberals... and to the Free Tibet Movement, try spending some time being productive in the society you live in- by contributing to the betterment of your local economy- instead of wasting our tax dollars on trips to jail. If you want China to hear you then go there... they are in need of educated workers and teachers and college grads with extra time..yet so is the U.S. Choose your battles wisely and consider the energy your wasting...we could use it here too!

Tenzin Gyaltsen - Salt Lake City, UT
Economic boycott of products "made in China" is definitely one of the strongest & most influential means through which we 'free tibet' activists can influence change on China's part. Sure, many might not agree with boycotting products made in China, but violence and $$ seems to be the only language the Chinese government understands, therefore, since violence is not an option we Tibetans condone, Economic boycott is our only means. Buying goods made in China directly & indirectly supports the brutal and oppressive actions of the Chinese military inside Tibet, and in other occupied areas such as East Turkistan, Inner Mongolia, and in China itself, & let's not forget Darfur and Burma!! Therefore, when you buy something "MADE IN CHINA" please know you are indirectly supporting the Chinese Communist regime which has its hands soaked with the blood of my people, the Tibetan people and countless more oppressed people. I AM TIBETAN, AND I KNOW TIBET BELONGS TO THE TIBETANS! BHODGYALLO!!

Mike Garcia - Chicago, IL
Agree with Jeff and Tim regarding the protests; they're totally useless in creating or making any real policy change. The Free Tibet protesters aren't anymore effective than the typical global warming, globalization, or World Bank street rally nutjobs.
In regards to buying Chinese made goods, I'm all for it. Buy as much Chinese, Peruvian, Polish, Irish AND American goods as you like. I don't want a nationalist policy where our choices are limited. If people in the US subscribed to the "Buy American" only policy we would have far more people around the world living in poverty or performing hateful physical labor in fields or mountain sides.If not for the low cost foreign made goods from emerging and established global markets, none of us would be typing out our thoughtful posts for Frontline. Free markets are the answer to more low costs goods and services; free markets produce jobs domestically and abroad. Free markets allow families in historically poverty stricken areas around the world to afford a home, heat, air, utilities and purchasing power to buy American goods and technologies. And before someone gets on their high horse to reply, please consider every bit of clothing you own, your car or many of its parts, your appliances, your entertainment centers, your game systems, healthcare products, ipods/mp3 players, cell phones, athletic equipment, pet products, vision ware, plates, cups, etc. etc. etc. are made and/or assembled outside the US. If you absolutely buy none of the above items from a foreign/emerging market, you're lying to yourself and all of us.

You Americans, do you know the facts? If somebody wanted to separate Louisiana from your nation, would you accept? Invasion? Ridiculous! You can say anything after you come to China! Yes, Chinese human rights are not as good as you have in the U.S., but it's improving. The U.S. has developed over more than 200 years; was your human rights situation good in your early times? Some people say you are losing work to China,OK, but without China, you Americans will not have enough money to afford consuming! Stupid Americans!

Nathan Dorjee - Brooklyn, NY
Jeff, you will be glad to know that Students for a Free Tibet (the primary group behind the SF protests) has sponsored and promoted a "No Made In China" campaign for over five years.
learn more at:

Tim Liu - Palo Alto, CA
I find the protests strategically moronic for the Tibetan cause. Sun Tzu teaches us that to gain leverage and win wars, one should provoke internal strife and not external force (as Japan learned in WWII). The sensible thing to create better leverage for the Tibetan cause would thus be to convince the Chinese in China that Tibet is better off with more autonomy. All the attention/protests have been pandering to Western media/audiences which when acted upon, get seen as an external push by the Chinese within China. This thus creates an increase in nationalism that the Chinese government is all but too smart to use (unblocking BBC) to ride the nationalism wave. So the end result of these highly publicized stunts is really more legitimacy for the CCP with its own population, and less room to maneuver in regards to real negotiations with the Dalai Lama.
China has always valued sovereignty and stability as keys to enable the inflow of capital that allows its rapid economic growth. It is paranoid about the slippery slope of giving into activist demands which could spark off unrests in the Uighur and other ethnic groups. This is why human rights negotiations with the West and legal reforms has always been done in secret behind close doors via diplomatic channels.All in all, I feel like this is the strategic blunder for the Tibetan cause.

Kirsten Westby - Boulder, CO
Thanks Alison and Charlotte! We never got to lock down as planned, but I think the fact that the torch had to be shrouded in secrecy and riot police is a victory for us. The Chinese government can spin it however they want, but the fact is that the torch run in SF was disrupted and the world heard a collective call for e Free Tibet. I have video of our small action at the closing ceremony site if you'd like (just e-mail me). Thanks for your comprehensive coverage! Kirsten Westby, SFT.

Jeff Moore - Chicago, IL
I find these protests pointless. How are they going to help? Yes, China is a brutal dictatorship with a horrible human rights record. The only reason why they have experienced such economic boom is because we have allowed them to trade with us. You may be protesting the invasion of Tibet but, the minute, you buy something made in China, you just gave them more money to pursue their policies. Do you want to nip this in the bud? Stop buying stuff made in China. This would help us recover the jobs we have lost to China and it would stop the flow of cash that finances its brutal regime.

China's economic success is not owed to the America in the way many people here seem to think. People like Jeff (below) seem to imply that by Americans rejecting Chinese goods they are somehow able to kowtow China into conforming with their ideas. This is nonsense. But the thing is, China does owe America its economic triumph. America provided an excellent example of free market and economic success to the pragmatist wing of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] in post Mao era. So it seems ironic that many here seem to think that by throwing up barriers and forcing artificial trading schemes is the way to move China forward towards greater individual freedom. As for their perception of China being a brutal regime bent on terrorising its people into submission, it is obvious that they have never spent any significant time in China. Ask any expat that has lived in China how life really is and I think you will get a very different answer.After reading these comments and others related to China, I am still deeply saddened by the lack of understanding between China and West. I earnestly hope that reactionism and sermonizing will be frowned upon soon on both sides.

Justin - Toronto, Ontario
The targets in this recent rash of unheaval is not a free Tibet (at least it did not start that way). It is about ethnic and economic pressures. With the majority of Tibet's businesses and well paying jobs in the hands of Han chinese, the Tibetans are not responding to a renewed sense of patriotism and nationhood but rather changing demographics and the feeling that they are leftout of the money boom. The telling story in this episode I feel is how it has been portraited in the same old way by western media, another chance to fan those anti-Chinese flames that has long existed.This is getting tiresome and wearing thin, the prospect of China responding positively to protests that are designed to humliate and condemn it is unlikely. The Tibet issue should be seen as what it really is: a political fulcrum for those serving their own agenda and not Tibet's. Much along the lines of Britain's Northern Ireland, and Russia's Chechneya. I hope that people in those countries can relate and empathsize in China's dilemma and stand up to those who demonize and slew the truth.

Eric Polaski - Exeter, UK
US media coverage did not show the extent of the protests in London. There were many difficulties along the route on live TV coverage in the UK. Protesters were allowed to speak out in Western countries. France is being criticized by China now. Who else will be the next to feel the pressure?