Hundreds of people gathered on the State Street steps of the Wisconsin Capitol on Saturday morning to voice their thoughts on the approaching 2008 Summer Olympics, to be held over the course of seventeen days this August in Beijing. This was not merely one rally, though.
A Madison stop by the Human Rights Torch Relay, an international campaign focusing on the policies of the Chinese government towards Falun Gong and Tibet among other issues, was met by a counter rally of demonstrators voicing support for China's hosting of the Olympics, all amidst the season opening of the outdoor Dane County Farmers' Market.
A photo gallery of the competing rallies at the Capitol can be viewed above.
The Human Rights Torch Relay, which describes itself as "an international campaign that seeks to bring an end to all human rights abuses against people in China while highlighting the persecution of Falun Gong," has organized a series of events around the world in advance of the Olympics this summer. The gathering in Madison on Saturday consisted of a rally at the Capitol and subsequent march down State Street to the UW Library Mall, centered on the lighting and procession of a torch symbolizing the group's objections to China's human rights record.
Tibet and the recent unrest there was the focus of the gathering in front of the Capitol. A forest of Tibetan flags were displayed and waved by many attendees, dozens of whom were also wearing traditional Tibetan dress. The rally even kicked off with a Tibetan children's dance. Madison has a long history of connections with the Tibetan exile community; the Dalai Lama has visited the city and nearby Deer Park Buddhist Center multiple times, and is returning for a six-day series of talks and teachings this July.
Human rights violations against Tibetans by the Chinese government were a primary focus of the rally, both in the comments of the speakers and in the prepared statements sent by various elected officials from Wisconsin who did not attend.
The marquee speaker at the gathering was Casey FitzRandolph, the speedskater from Verona who won a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He commented on China's policies towards Tibet, Sudan, Burma, and the practitioners of Falun Gong, as well as noted the work of hopeful athletes and his support of the Olympic movement itself, and urged that people take advantage of this year's Games in Beijing to raise awareness of these human rights abuses.
"In the end, we share the hope that the Games somehow might bring the values of peace, dignity and human rights to all people suffering at the hands of the Chinese regime, both in and outside of the mainland," FitzRandolph concluded in his prepared remarks. "And that's a ray of hope that all average men and women, from Olympians to the oppressed and persecuted, may look toward."
Other speakers included Wisconsin State Rep. Joe Parisi and a supporter of Falun Gong, as well as representatives of the Southwest Wisconsin Association of the United Church of Christ, the Madison-area Urban Ministry, the Wisconsin Tibetan Association, Students for Free Tibet, Action in Sudan, and the U.S. Campaign for Burma. Also sending statements of support were Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin State Sens. Fred Risser and Lena Taylor, Wisconsin State Reps. Terese Berceau, Tamara Grigsby, Mark Pocan, and Christine Sinicki, as well as the Wisconsin Council of Churches.
This was one of two gatherings on the steps front of the Capitol on Saturday, though. While the group protesting China's involvement in the Olympics clustered on and around the platform just below the Capitol, another group of people, many of whom were bused into Madison, gathered on and around another level of the steps just above State Street.
The counter rally in support of the Beijing Olympics likewise featured a forest of flags, in this case those of the People's Republic of China and the Olympics, along with various handmade placards and banners. These sported various slogans, including "GO Olympics Go Badgers" and "Stop Media Distortion," as well as "One World One Dream One China," the first two stanzas of which comprise the official slogan for the 2008 Olympics. Also present were numerous inflatable versions of the Fuwa, the official mascots for the Bejing Games. This gathering did not feature any speakers, but was quite loud nonetheless though a variety of chants and cheers in support of Olympics and China's hosting of them.
Others affiliated with this rally lined the sidewalk of the Capitol Square along small stretches of the farmers' market on Carroll and Mifflin Streets, holding Fuwa, flags and signs, and passing out flyers to passing shoppers. The most common of these was a folded piece of paper; it featured the Beijing 2008 logo on its front, a comparison between the U.S.-Sino ping-pong diplomacy of the '70s and this year's Olympics as "a bridge for FRIENDSHIP" on the first interior page, a photo of a confrontation during the Olympic relay in Paris where a Tibetan protestor tried to take the torch from a Chinese athlete in a wheelchair accompanied by a caption denouncing violence and supporting sports on the second interior page, and a list of URLs and brief description of websites and online videos from the U.S. and U.K. described as "ways to know more about Tibet."
Both groups were animated but largely non-confrontational, though members of each occasionally waved their respective flags amidst the other contingent, particularly where they met on the steps. There were some moments early during the rallies when stronger emotions where expressed, though, such as when a man waving a Tibetan flag danced amidst the pro-Beijing Olympics crowd, as seen in the photo gallery. There were also dueling chants in what turned out to be a pair of marches down State Street. Both groups policed themselves, though, and the atmosphere was marked most distinctly by the number of people pointing cameras at one another.
This pair of rallies in downtown Madison comes in the midst of increasing tension and outrage in China and around the world over the Beijing Olympics and protests against them. The Olympic torch relay has been met by protests around the world, including major confrontations in Athens, London, Paris, and San Francisco, while there are demonstrations around China against Tibetan independence and Western media, with NBC News reporting Friday about growing protests in Beijing and increasing restrictions on visas for visiting businesspersons and journalists.
These rallies were quite the spectacle, and not the kind of political gathering that one typically sees at this singular location for political protest in Madison. However, one symbol regularly seen at demonstrations at the Capitol was present. A few people on each side waved American flags in addition to those of China or Tibet, and as remarked by speakers with the torch rally, the overall scene spoke to the freedom they want the Olympics to embody.