After disembarking from the ferry this morning the first thing I noticed, as I approached the plaza, was all the crowd-control barriers up. Oh, bother, I thought. The barriers lined much of The Embarcadero. As we left the ferry gate at pier 2 they blocked our usual jay-walking routes across the Embarcadero to Justin Hermann plaza and Market street. Then I noticed the parked vehicles were mostly news trucks rather than delivery vans and I thought, oh, right, it’s the Olympic torch.
As I navigated across the Embarcadero I approached the plaza and saw the scattered groups of people — a lot of news cameras and people with flags, commuters hustling by, and tourists watching and waiting for anything momentous to happen that might spice up their vacations. There were scattered clusters of flags, too, American, of course, and then I noticed there were no Tibetan flags.
I’ve gotten used to Tibetan flags at the Civic Center. With City, State, and Federal buildings in the area we get all kinds of protests, and there have been frequent processions of Buddhists and friends in the neighborhood, marching along with drums and other instruments, flying the warm, bright colors of the Tibetan flag and chanting slogans to free Tibet.
But not down at Justin Hermann plaza this morning. I saw a few earthy-looking types who could have been savvy, better-dressed street people or grunge-prepared Buddhists, boh types looking for their own opportunities. But not many. Otherwise, it was very mediagenic, with this unusual note — alongside the American flag was a banner with the hammer and sickle.
It was the red and yellow, the same colors as the Chinese flag. Yellow stars, on rippling fields of red, each with semicircles of yellow stars. The flag of the People’s Republic of China. I hustled on by and down Market street, with new images crowding out the morning’s prior musings as I walked to work.
I don’t see the hammer and sickle often in the U.S. I mean, you see it in pictures or on TV, but out on the street? Not so much. That little Marxist logo somehow seems obsolete, like nuclear bomb shelters, or LP records and album covers, or 50’s cars with shiny, streamlined fins. But that’s right — China is the most populous country on earth, and they do fly the hammer and sickle. It made parts of Justin Hermann plaza look like a Clash album cover.
It used to be an anti-establishment thing, like Che Guevara posters in college dorms. Now it’s the symbol of an establishment that makes our establishment look benevolent (well, viewed through the right lens) and it’s revolutionary significance has been replaced … by the Tibetan flag.
I do like the Tibetan flag. It is bright and warm, and has a cheeriness that stands in such upbeat defiance to what has happened in Tibet. And I completely sympathize with the Tibetan people. China seems bent on making all of William F. Buckley’s worst warnings about communism come true.
The 21st century is a semiotically topsy-turvy place so far. Symbols take on new meanings. I hope this century is kinder to the Tibetan flag than the last one was.
And the Chinese hammer & sickle now seems about as revolutionary as 50s rock’n’roll dancing on American Bandstand.