By Rachel Gordon, Cecilia M. Vega, Wyatt Buchanan, Tanya Schevitz,Marisa Lagos, Chronicle Staff Writers
Demonstrators shout slogans in protest against China's treatment of Tibet prior to the unveiling of the Olympic torch along the wharf in San Francisco on 09 April 2008. Demonstrations which followed the torch in France and the UK disrupted the torch's progress and San Francisco officials increased security to prevent violence. EPA/SEAN MASTERSON
SAN FRANCISCO - San Francisco leaders surprised thousands of supporters and protesters today by rerouting the Beijing Olympic torch run from its advertised route to a more picturesque course that avoided the throngs of demonstrators lined up along the Embarcadero.
Authorities confirmed that the closing ceremony at Justin Herman Plaza had been canceled, though thousands of people remain there. City officials said it would soon head to the airport, where it is scheduled to leave for Buenos Aires on a China Airways flight.
The torch was originally scheduled to head from McCovey Cove to Fisherman's Wharf and back to Justin Herman Plaza. But after an opening ceremony, the torch was instead driven from McCovey Cove to Van Ness Avenue, where pairs of runners - buffered by dozens of police officers - carried it north to Bay Street and Marina Boulevard and onto Doyle Drive near the Golden Gate Bridge. That route was originally discounted by city officials because it was too high profile.The change in plans allowed city officials to avoid the majority of protesters and spectators, though some sprinted to catch up with the convoy as it reached the Marina district. The run remained peaceful and was not interrupted by protesters, as it was in France and London last week.
City officials said this morning that they planned to cut the relay route short because of the large number of demonstrators. They never indicated that they would completely change the course, but City Hall sources familiar with the police response said the current route had been the plan since at least this morning.
Crowds in the street at the Embarcadero forced the city to change the Olympic Torch route. Chronicle photo By Kurt Rogers
The bait-and-switch was immediately blasted by Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, a vocal critic of Mayor Gavin Newsom's administration.
"Gavin Newsom runs San Francisco the way the premier of China runs his country - secrecy, lies, misinformation, lack of transparency and manipulating the populace," Peskin said. "He misled supporters and opponents of the run. People brought their families and their children, and (mayoral officials) hatched a cynical plan to please the Bush State Department and the Chinese government because of the incredible influence of money.
"He did it so China can report they had a great torch run," Peskin said. "It's the worst kind of government - government by deceit and misinformation."
The torch was lit at McCovey Cove around 1:20 p.m. and the first runner, surrounded by Chinese and American police, headed away from the crowd and into the Pier 48 building on the waterfront. About 20 minutes later, a convoy of vehicles, including vans and police on motorcycles, pulled out of the building and headed through downtown and the Tenderloin to Van Ness Avenue.
The convoy stopped at Van Ness Avenue and Pine Street and the torch - along with several runners - was unloaded from one of the cars. The runners, carrying the flame in pairs, then began to make their way north on Van Ness Avenue.
The torch being handed off every half-block or so to a new pair of runners.
As the route progressed, the crowds slowly grew. At one point a knot of pro-Tibet demonstrators yelled, "Shame on China! How dare you represent China!" In return, a group of torch supporters yelled back: "They represent the U.S.!"
Thousands of protesters shout at the California Highway Patrol as they march down the Embarcadero at Folsom Street before the Beijing Olympic torch was to be carried along the waterfront. Chronicle photo by Lacy Atkins
By the time the runners got to Broadway, the crowds were five people deep on the sidewalk, mostly screaming support and craning for good views beyond the police lines.
Nancy Chan of San Francisco, with her son Christian, 4, ran over to the route from her house two blocks away when she heard that the route was along Van Ness instead of the waterfront.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for us to see the torch," she said. "There is a lot of politics around it, but that is the great thing about America - the free speech."
Joan Woodaver, who works near Van Ness, saw on television that the route had altered, so she ran over with a sign reading "Free Tibet and Free Burma."
"I really admire the Dalai Lama, and I feel disturbed that the government of China treats people so poorly," said Woodaver, watching with her 12-year-old sons Jason and Jarron as the torch was trotted past her.
Early this morning, thousands of people gathered along the planned route on the Embarcadero, with pro-torch demonstrators facing off against protesters who are hoping to draw attention to the nation's human rights record. Many of the pro-torch demonstrators carried red Chinese flags and said they were bused in by the Chinese consulate and other pro-China groups, though others said they had come of their own accord. Meanwhile, many of the protesters carried Tibetan flags and preached independence for the country. Others were on hand to support Burma or rail against China's backing of the Sudanese government in its war in Darfur.
As it became clear that the torch would not be headed down the Embarcadero, tension began to rise in the big crowd assembled in front of the Ferry Building. Around 2:15 p.m., flag-waving pro-China demonstrators attacked a 7-foot-wide pro-Tibet sign hanging on the Ferry Building. A man tried to restore the sign, but a swarm of opponents surrounded him. Another man rushed from the crowd and grabbed one of the China flags from a protester, triggering a pushing match between the two sides. Eventually, the squabble dissipated and a pro-China man grabbed the Tibet sign and tore it clean off the wall.
Pro-China and anti-China protesters clash outside AT&T Park near the corner of Third and King Streets in San Francisco. Chronicle photo by Kim Komenich
Originally, the route was supposed to begin at McCovey Cove, head past the Ferry Building, then loop past Fisherman's Wharf, up to Aquatic Park and down Bay Street back to the Embarcadero.
Police said no arrests had occurred and that clashes related to the protests had been minor. But the situation was tense for hours before the run, and at least one person was detained in front of the ballpark this morning. A few hours later, a confrontation between the two sides escalated to a physical violence, when a San Francisco man named Kevin Johnson, 48, walked into a crowd of torch supporters and began yelling, "Communists!"
The crowd encircled Johnson and the confrontation escalated when Johnson pulled a Chinese flag off a man's backpack. Then, someone grabbed Johnson's throat and another person punched him in the face before police intervened and walked him to safety.
"I know it sounds racist, but if they want the Olympics in China they should go back to China," he said.
Earlier, pro-Tibetan protesters in the area complained that they had been pepper sprayed, although they didn't know who did it. San Francisco resident Matt Winger, 22, flushed his red eyes with water and said, "It stings like hell."
And around noon, about 300 Tibetan protesters pushed past a line of police in the middle of the Embarcadero near Folsom Street, part of the torch route. Police had warned that anyone who crosses the metal barricades set up along the route would be arrested, and were yelling at the demonstrators to get out of the street.
San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly was one of the protesters in the street, holding a 40-foot sign that read, "San Francisco says: No torch in Tibet." Daly wrote legislation passed last week by the Board of Supervisors that was critical of the Chinese government and called on local officials to receive the torch with "alarm and protest."
The group headed back toward the Ferry Building around 1 p.m., after nine protesters lay down in front of what they thought was a bus carrying the torch at Bryant Street and blocked its passage. While supporters chanted slogans, police removed them.
At least one Tibetan protester was detained at Willie Mays Plaza in front of the ballpark this morning after a tense standoff between both sides. The detainment of the man, who was identified by witnesses as an 18-year-old from Tibet, prompted angry demonstrators to surround police and their van, yelling that the detention was unfair and asking why the Chinese government supporters were not arrested. Officers pulled out their batons and pushed the group away.
The city has been under close scrutiny by civil rights groups for its handling of protest permits, and there were some questions today about how protests were being handled.
Police escorted some pro-Tibetan protesters out of Justin Herman Plaza this morning, in some cases telling the demonstrators that the area was reserved for those supporting the torch run. In most cases, however, police simply told the protesters that they could not guarantee their safety in the area, which is packed with torch supporters holding Chinese flags.
Newsom's spokesman said the plaza was open to anyone.
"The Chinese don't have a permit at Justin Herman Plaza - (the city) has a permit for the closing ceremonies at Justin Herman Plaza, but anyone is allowed to go in there and that's city policy," said Nathan Ballard. "That space is open for everyone. No one will be denied entry."
San Francisco Police Sgt. Mark Hernandez said authorities are not forcing anyone to leave the area.
"But when they're in conflict with people, for their own safety, we are advising them to leave,' he said, adding that there have been about 20 confrontations in the area since 7 a.m.Chronicle staff writers Jaxon VanDerbeken, Wyatt Buchanan, John Koopman, Michael Cabanatuan, Robert Selna, Kevin Fagan, Michael Taylor, Reyhan Harmanci and Meredith May contributed to this report.