The Olympic torch arrived in San Francisco at 3:40 a.m. Tuesday on a flight from Paris, in silence that is not expected to last for its relay on Wednesday.
This is the only city in North America the torch will touch and it also has the highest number of Tibetans outside New York. And it is China's policies towards Tibet that are the subject of numerous protests across the city.
San Francisco, with its Mediterranean climate and activist social climate, is on alert for turbulence, after protests in London and Paris turned violent.
"We have more protests than any other city in America, but we are also better prepared for it," a police spokesman said on Monday night.
Tibetans flew in from Europe, Canada, Mexico and many parts of America to protest China's brutality against their country, including the killings and violence since March 10. They gathered by the hundreds in UN Plaza opposite City Hall, joined by supporters to peacefully affirm human rights worldwide.
On an unusually cold gray day with high winds gusting through the plaza, they all carried Tibetan flags of bright red, yellow and marine blue, and banners stating "Olympics in China -- Torture in Tibet", "Free Tibet", "Share the Dream -- Freedom and Justice for Tibet", "Beijing 2008 -- Game's over -- Free Tibet".
After blessings chanted by six Tibetan monks, a performance in vivid costumes of the Tibetan Dance and Opera Company, the release of crates of white doves of peace, and strong speeches, the protesters marched over to City Hall, with its gold filigreed dome and elegant gold balconies, then on to the Chinese Consulate.
Chris Daly of the city's board of supervisors noted that attention should be paid to China's human rights record, as they "support genocide in Darfur, propping up dictators in Burma, silencing and demonizing activists, limiting freedom and persecuting those who practice something different form the top ruling officials of the PRC."
The marchers picked up velocity and volume as they headed towards the Chinese Consulate. They sat on the ground in the parking lot and listened to speeches while many cars driving by "honked in support" and an airplane circled overhead with a banner "STOP THE CULTURAL GENOCIDE IN TIBET" in lipstick red letters.
Tibetan monks in crimson robes with orange, red, and ochre shawls ( called "zen") expressed the views of most demonstrators when they said they hoped president Bush would not attend the opening ceremonies.
Three Tibetan young women, all 29, friends from childhood in Dharamsala where they were born in exile and schooled at The Tibetan Children's village, spoke of their wrenching longing to one day see their country.
Kalsang, who just graduated nursing school in Missouri, wants to move to San Francisco and get a job. She flew from Missouri for the torch protests. "I wanted to be part of this. We hope China will change. That's the point of all this today.
"Nuns and monks are dying, not getting food or medicine, locked in the monasteries. We were all born in India. I have never seen my country! I long to see it before I die."
All three women still have relatives in Tibet they never see. "Uncles, aunts, many relatives."
"They've been given the opportunity to host the games so they should live up to the standard of what the games stand for. It would be nice if George Bush boycotted the opening. Not the whole games. That would put pressure on China and if he is first, maybe other world leaders will follow."
Alpha Gardner, a retired nurse and quilt-maker of San Francisco, joined the protesters today."We're trying to raise awareness of what's happening in Tibet. I'd like to see peaceful dialogue between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese. The original meaning of the Olympics, after all, is to have peace. If war was going on in Greece, it was suspended while the games went on. That isn't happening now."
TheTibetan peace torch, introduced today at the rally, will cross Tibet's border the same day the games begin in Beijing.
Thupten Donyo, a monk exiled at a monastery in San Jose, said, "Many monks and nuns are starving in their own monasteries and dying. So we can't just be here silently.
"Politics and sports and not separate," he insisted, as he proudly displayed a large photo of the Dalai Lama. "If I were in Tibet and held this portrait of the Dalai Lama? I'd be in jail! I could never do this there, never! Never."
The director of the China Internet Project, Qiang Xiao, spoke to a group in Berkeley Monday night with the International Campaign for Tibet. He is also the founder and publisher of China Digital Times, a news portal independent of the government and a 2001 winner of a MacArthur Fellowship. To the many people who say "China must be free" he says, "China cannot be really free until Tibet is free."
As the city warily prepares for what it expects will be a turbulent relay tomorrow, the Tibetans lit candles against the dark night and gathered again in United Nations Plaza to hear Bishop Desmond Tutu, actor Richard Gere, and others speak.
The brightly colored flags and Tibetan fabrics of their clothes fluttered constantly in strong winds, all day, against grey cold skies, like prayer flags of hope.