Monday, April 07, 2008

A tale of two cities- united in purpose

The peaceful scene as pro-Tibetan protestors and some spectators gather ahead of the Olympic torch's arrival on Waterloo Bridge.

For the two hours or so yesterday that I followed the Olympic torch and protested at its symbolism, my impression was of a largely peaceful and well educated group of protestors. This was not a rent-a-mob but a group of people who really believed in the issue of Tibetan freedom and human rights for all Chinese. There is no doubt that many felt passionately about the abuses in Tibet and elsewhere and did not want London used as a PR opportunity by the Chinese Government. In preventing this there is no doubt that the protest succeeded.

In looking at this morning's papers the protest bought Tibet and its issues more coverage than any amount of advertising could offer.

The one surpising and disappointing aspect of the day was the heavy handed approach from some of the Metropolitan Police. This mainly seemed to consist of those who followed the flame rather than the ordinary police officers around the city.

The protestors ranged from families, to students all the way to pensioners. Whenever the torch approached the police officers bellowed "GET BACK" at anyone who expressed so much as a glimmer of interest in the torch. At one point a group of ladies, probably all in their seventies were bellowed at in this way.

Stories were heard, and repeated in today's papers of police telling people to remove "Free Tibet" t-shirts.

Aggressive filming of protestors occurred. At one point, I myself had a police video camera thrust towards me to record my face while I was walking along the pavement. The Metropolitan police seemed to want to give us a little taste of China.

All in all the policing aspect left a nasty taste in most people's mouths. There is no doubt the Metropolitan Police do a difficult job and there is no doubt that in the event of a major crisis such as the 7/7 bombs everyone would rally together. However in terms of routine events, the Police did themselves no favours in alienating and treating harshly largely peaceful protestors.

They showed no such bravado when dealing with Islamic protestors who paraded with slogans such as "Kill the unbelievers" last year. With a million pounds spent on overtime it would be nice to think that such a budget was also available to help local policiing rather than just protect the Chinese government's ego.

Also visible were the sinister "Flame Attendants" an entirely male group of minders dressed in blue and white track suits who followed the flame everywhere. These were like a Chinese private army who jostled protestors with free will and even shoved a person in Downing Street who could have only been there with police approval.

All in all my two hours on the protest were an amazing experience. There was a great sense of unity of purpose and a common belief that the charade of the torch relay was completely wrong given the circumstances of the Olympic host nation.

The fact that it had to protected by police and Chinese guards at every stage gave the lie to this being a popular event.

As I walked back through the "City of London" I passed entirely empty streets that the Torch was supposed to travel down in minutes. Very few ordinary spectators had turned out. On London Bridge the relay runners' bus dropped a school boy in position to pick up the flame. A police officer advised him that when the flame arrived he was to stand still as he was to be "enveloped by Police". That was the day - one enveloped by Police.

Only briefly in Fleet Street was there a real sense of joy when demonstrators seemed to briefly out number and out manouvre the police and Torch procession. At this point the Flame was retired onto a bus much to the cheers and the boos of the crowd. People in coffee shops looked on at the spectacle unfolding.

Today in Paris the Torch ceremony was cancelled and the flame had to be extinguished several times due to protestors. In San Francisco, the next City to see the Torch a protest on the Golden Gate Bridge has already started.

All over the world the message is clear. Despite China's economic power and long and often distinguished history people have serious reservations and concerns about its treatment of Tibet and human rights in general. People in London, Paris, San Francisco and beyond do not want their cities used as a stage to promote a nasty regime that cares little for human rights.

While we may not be able to change what happens in China we can at least show our feelings when the Beijing PR machine visits our home cities. That is a cause that even unites London and Paris !

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