Goodwill snuffed out by relay bullies

As the Olympic torch girded the world, it proffered peace through sporting games. But in some places, relay-escorting thugs extinguished goodwill as they demonstrated some people have a lot yet to learn about the right to peaceful protest.

Part of a statement for Civil Liberties Australia concerning incidents at the Olympic torch relay route in April 2008 through Canberra, Australia

I support the right of Tibetan Buddhists to peaceful protest against the treatment by Chinese officials of their monks and followers in Tibet. I’ve sat with Canberran Tibetan Buddhists at some of their candlelight vigils opposite the Chinese embassy in Yarralumla.

At their vigil the night before the torch relay I asked them for some Tibetan flags to show my support for their rights. I was given a large flag and three small ones.

On 24 April 2008 at 9:50am I walked from my house to the nearest point of the route, carrying the larger Tibetan flag. When I reached the median strip of Limestone Avenue, around 20 young people wearing red, with Chinese flags on their cheeks and flags in their hands came towards me and when I crossed the road they began circling around me, shouting “One China” and blowing plastic horns or whistles and sneering. They made other taunts but I did not listen in detail to what they were saying at that point. Many pointed cameras at me.

Some of them can be seen in the photographs taken by a member of Civili Liberties Australia. I was then joined by a woman I did not know. She said she had watched the Chinese surrounding me and had come from her home to stand near me for my protection as she could see the aggression in their movements. Other people who had presumably come to see the torch relay also came and stood near me for the same expressed reason.

We stood behind the barricades facing Limestone Avenue. One uniformed police officer was visible, standing in Limestone Avenue on the other side of the barricades, at the T-intersection between the Avenue and Girrawheen Street. (The street was blocked off only just before the relay cavalcade came through). There was a van parked in Girrawheen facing Limestone with lights on its roof. Later I saw two men in grey suits standing on that corner also. Other Tibetan supporters – or citizens concerned for human rights – came along. Only four were known to me. I gave the large flag to a male friend taller and stronger than I.

There were no media representatives from any news media organizations visible where we were. When the intersection between Girrawheen and Limestone was cut with barricades, the pro-Chinese supporters moved in to the right of our group and put large flags across the barricade, looking back at ours and adjusting them until theirs concealed our one flag. (The smaller ones were then spread out). Our flag bearer held ours higher. The same pro-Chinese supporters then used their bodies to force people to my right along the barricades in a crush towards our flag. The police officer watched this. One of the women called to him that they were being pushed. He hesitated and then said “I cannot do anything unless they become, ah, hostile.” The woman said they were being hostile and were forcing us physically along the barricade. He said nothing and stood watching the Chinese people. He had radio contact and was using it at times.

The pro-China supporters became much louder, screaming at us “you’re cheating, you’re cheating”. Some people spoke back at them. My daughter was on my right. I called to her “do not engage with them. Remember what the monks said last night”. (Factually it was a speaker at the vigil who had advised that – the monks had said nothing, I had forgotten that). None of the supporters dressed in Chinese colours ever called out in favour of the Olympics, only in favour of “China” and “one China”.

When the cavalcade was nearly due a few of us, as well as keeping our flag flying, began to call out “Free Tibet, Free Tibet, Free Tibet”. The pro China supporters became very angry and vicious in their attitude, screaming out to try to drown out our words.

When the cavalcade arrived, suddenly we were mobbed from behind by other people who crushed us against the barricade and tried to force Chinese flags in between us to conceal our Tibetan flag further. I didn’t see them but felt them against my head and upper body in particular. The top of my body went forward over the barricade. My arms were forward. I yelled to the police officer as loudly as I could “Help. We are being mobbed”. He heard, I believe, as he looked at us directly and called out “They will move on”. They did.

The civil liberties member later said this mob was travelling with the cavalcade and their appearance had been sudden because they were able to conceal themselves amongst low over hanging branches from gardens along that side of Limestone as they ran.

I turned from the barricade after they had left and was very dizzy and had to sit down against the barricade. The dizziness got worse and I realised I had pain across the back of my head and upper back and then I couldn’t hold myself up at all so had to lean forward or back. After a while I was carried to the corner curb where I still couldn’t sit up and then under a tree where I had to lie down and was at times unable to speak. I felt enormous turmoil and was retching and shaking. I was told the police had called an ambulance. A Chinese woman (I am told) also offered help.

Ambulance paramedics said I needed to go to hospital. I explained why I preferred to manage this at home. Finally, my husband signed a form for me as I couldn’t write and we went home in his car. I experienced severe dizziness whiplash symptoms that day, overnight and the next, but improved with appropriate first aid at home.

– Katherine Beauchamp, CLA member, Canberra
Written in the interests of freedom of expression and the historical record.

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