On Scene With the Olympic Torch

The threat of violence in San Francisco prompts officials to reroute procession.

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Photo Gallery: Olympic Torch Relay in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO—The white-clad protesters who lined the route of the Olympic torch before its only visit to North America were forced to improvise here yesterday. The threat of violent protests prompted officials to make a last-minute change in the torch procession, and after a brief lighting ceremony at AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants, the torch was taken into a warehouse, only to re-emerge about 45 minutes later in a different part of the city, where it was carried through town on a different route from the one previously announced by city officials.

The torch slowly made its way up Van Ness Avenue, about 2 miles from its planned route along the city's downtown waterfront, and surprised motorists and pedestrians found themselves with front-row seats. As word spread and news stations began publicizing the torch's location, the crowd began to swell. Office workers peeked out of their windows and walked out onto the street, only steps away from the half-mile-long motorcade. The median down Van Ness was soon filled with onlookers, many of whom applauded the torch as it passed by. Four lanes of traffic in the opposite direction were jammed with stopped cars, most of them empty, some with drivers standing in their sunroofs, talking excitedly on their cellphones. Teenage baseball players, clad in their red uniforms, stood on one street corner next to their practice field, mouths agape. Four layers of police surrounded the torch, some on motorcycles and many carrying long batons. No one was able to get within 15 yards of the sweatsuit-wearing torchbearers.

About halfway into the procession, the protesters, finding themselves flat-footed in the wrong part of the city, caught up. Tibetan flags began to pop up next to the motorcade as it slowly snaked its way through town, pausing frequently as each new runner made his way to the front of the line. Huge Chinese flags also appeared, snapping in the wind coming off the bay. Chants of "Free Tibet" and "China out of Tibet" were taken up by small groups, and as the crowd grew, hundreds of people on both sides of the street began to run alongside the motorcade. A few scuffles with police ensued, as officers tried to keep runners and cyclists on the sidewalks. The mass of humanity slithered between the dozens of empty cars left on the opposite side of the median. A few cyclists hit the ground after being shoved by officers, and one woman carrying a Tibetan flag appeared to fall in front of a policeman on a motorcycle, who bumped into her with his front tire. Engines roared as more police zoomed up from behind, their sirens chirping. Buses full of police lined the road ahead.

The change of venue seemed to have the desired effect. The protesters never got organized enough to make a run at the torch, though a few people screaming, "Fascists!" and "Blood on the torch!" tried to incite the crowd into action, adding, "Douse that flame." Nothing like the chaos that surrounded the processions in London and Paris, where the torch was extinguished several times, happened here. One teenage boy, running alongside the motorcade in a knit sweater, yelled, "Free Tibet," then stopped to take a puff on his inhaler.

Most of the crowd seemed content to watch the torch go by behind the phalanx of police. One portly man in a Giants cap shouted, "Nice work, San Francisco PD!" A few people wondered aloud why the torch hadn't taken its original route. "Why are they hiding?" asked Obsang Dharchei, a middle-aged Oakland resident, who ran alongside the torch with a Tibetan flag for most of the afternoon. "That's cheating!" Dharchei, who says he has several family members still in Tibet, is not affiliated with any of the groups that have rallied in recent days to protest Chinese policy. He said he didn't have anything against athletics or the Olympics and that he'd played soccer his whole life ("I love sports!"), but he couldn't allow an opportunity to protest against the Chinese government go by without action. "I'm here with my wife because we support human dignity," he said. "I haven't heard from my family in Tibet since March 10. That's not right."