Olympic Torch Draws Protests and Clashes in London
LONDON — Protesters objecting to China’s human rights record clashed with the British police on Sunday as the Olympic torch was carried through London on its way to the summer Olympic Games in Beijing.
Thousands of demonstrators crowded the streets of central London, and the police that at least 30 people were arrested.
Carried by a chain of British sporting stars and entertainment celebrities, the torch completed its eight-hour, 31-mile journey from the new soccer stadium at Wembley in west London to the principal site for the 2010 summer Olympics at Stratford in east London. But along the way, numerous protesters who broke through police barriers were wrestled to the ground as they sought to grab the torch, and the police said one man was beaten off as he ran toward the flame with a fire extinguisher.
What had been billed by the organizers as an occasion to celebrate Olympic sporting ideals turned instead into a daylong contest between China’s supporters — many of them Chinese students and people of Chinese origin living in Britain — and groups and individuals who gathered to protest China’s recent crackdown in Tibet and its wider human rights record, including its labor camps. To get the torch safely to its destination, more than 2,000 police were deployed along the route.
Caught in the middle was the British government, which like many others around the world has sought to find a middle way between fostering good relations with China by supporting the Beijing games, and placating those at home who oppose holding the games in a country often cited as having one of the world’s worst records for punishing dissent.
The centerpiece of Sunday’s parading of the torch was a stop at 10 Downing Street, where Prime Minister Gordon Brown greeted the Chinese party accompanying the torch and wished China well for a successful Olympics when the games begin in August.
The most intense scuffles on Sunday occurred as the torch moved through the heart of London, from the fashionable residential district of Notting Hill Gate through Hyde Park, Oxford Street, Trafalgar Square and Whitehall, before crossing the Thames and moving east to Tower Hill and on toward its destination at the future British Olympic site. The torch was protected by an inner guard of Chinese security men wearing blue-and-white Olympic tracksuits and an outer cordon of yellow-jacketed British policemen on foot, on bicycles and motorbikes.
At points along the route where the crowds of protesters were thickest, including Whitehall, Scotland Yard security chiefs deployed double rows of crush barriers in a bid to keep the demonstrators back. Where streets narrowed, including Oxford Street, the torch was placed in the back of a single-decker bus and returned to the runners only after the crowds had thinned. Still, the organizers had many tense moments when they feared that the torch might seized or extinguished.
In one incident caught by BBC cameras, a man in a black woolen cap who broke through the cordon of policemen and Chinese bodyguards attempted to seize the torch from a popular children’s television presenter, Konnie Huq, as she ran with it in the Notting Hill area. Beaten off by the Chinese guards, the man was wrestled to the ground by the police and led away handcuffed.
Others who carried the torch included the five-time Olympic rowing gold medalist Sir Steven Redgrave, the tennis star Tim Henman and the Olympic pentathlon gold medalist Denise Lewis.
The warmest reception for the torch came as it passed through the Chinatown area of central London, where red lanterns and Chinese flags had been hung for the occasion. Knots of Chinese supporters there and elsewhere cried out, “One world, one dream” — the slogan adopted for the Beijing games.
A spokesman for the torch relay’s passage around the world, Qu Yingpu, putting a brave face on the protests, said Chinese officials were grateful to the British police “for their efforts to keep order.”
He added, “This is not the right time, the right platform, for any people to voice their political views”.
But at many places along the route, supporters of the relay were challenged by protesters and replied with taunts of their own. “Shame on you,” a Chinese supporter shouted during one confrontation with demonstrators in Trafalgar Square. “How much are you being paid to be here?” a protester shot back. Narrowing the allegation, another demonstrator asked, “Are you from the Chinese embassy?”
One protester who managed to break through the police cordon, David Allen, said that he was angry enough that the torch was being paraded through the British capital and that his anger only increased when he saw British sporting stars being guarded in the streets of London by Chinese security men. “What really got my goat was our sporting heroes being surrounded by the Chinese security heavies guarding the torch,” he said. “It makes us complicit in the regime’s repression.”
One of the protesters who sparred verbally with pro-China groups in Trafalgar Square was David Phillips, a 25-year-old American from Austin, Tex., who said he had worked for six months at the American embassy in Beijing two years ago. Now working at a travel agency in London, Mr. Phillips said he had witnessed human rights abuses in China at first hand. “There are serious human rights violations going on, and you can’t ignore that,” he said. “And this is an appropriate place for us to voice our feelings.”