Protesters dodge security for risky stunt

Dressed in casual clothing and using baby carriages to conceal and transport climbing equipment, three members of a pro-Tibet independence group were able to evade heightened security measures on the Golden Gate Bridge Monday to complete a risky 150-foot climb up the span’s suspension ropes in protest of the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing.

By the time officials from the California Highway Patrol and Golden Gate Bridge arrived on the scene — approximately three minutes after they were tipped off to the protesters climbing the cables — Laurel Sutherin, 30, of Sausalito; Duane Martinez, 27, of Sausalito; and Hannah Strange, 29, of Oakland, were already 30 feet above the roadway, according to Kary Witt, the Golden Gate Bridge manager.

The three climbed the cables at about 10:30 a.m. and were detained after managing to unfurl two large banners in support of a sovereign Tibet state.

All three protesters came down on their own volition at around 1 p.m. after communicating with bridge officials, Witt said. Four others — identified as Alli Taub, 22, of Vancouver, Canada; Tashi Sharzur, 47, of San Mateo; Thomas Parkin, 38, of San Francisco; and Leslie Kaup, 38, of St. Paul, Minn. — were also detained for roles in organizing the protest.

By 1:50 p.m. bridge ironworkers had removed the banners from the span, according to Lt. Lisa Locati.

The protesters were members of Students for a Free Tibet, an activist group founded in 1994 with approximately 40,000 members worldwide, said organization spokeswoman Yangchen Lhamo, a Tibetan-American who lives in the Bay Area. Lhamo said the three protesters that scaled the bridge were all Bay Area natives and skilled climbers who had been preparing for Monday’s protest since April 2007, when San Francisco was announced as part of the international Olympic torch run.

“They were willing to risk injury and arrest to draw awareness to the plight of the Tibetan people,” Lhamo said.

The climbers and four group members who assisted were booked on charges of felony conspiracy, and charges of creating a public nuisance, a misdemeanor offense, said Officer Mary Ziegenbein of the California Highway Patrol. The three protesters who scaled the suspension ropes will face additional misdemeanor charges of trespassing, according to Ziegenbein. The District Attorney’s Office said they have yet to file charges.

This is not the first arrest for Sutherin and Martinez. Martinez was one of six detained by Chinese authorities last August after rappelling from the Great Wall of China and unfurling a 450-square-foot banner reading “One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008.”

Sutherlin unfurled a similar message atop Mt. Everest last April and was later arrested at the mountain’s base camp.

The Golden Gate Bridge has security cameras strategically placed along the span, but Monday’s heavy crowd of tourists made it difficult to spot the group immediately, especially since they were clothed in nondescript outfits, Witt said. The bridge district began deploying extra security officials as of Monday in preparation for Wednesday’s torch run, Witt said.

“We’re going to take a close look at how this unfolded,” Witt said. “If security adjustments need to be made, we’ll make them.”

The group’s organizers say they’ll hold additional nonviolent protests when the torch relay takes place Wednesday.

wreisman@examiner.com

The Associated Press and Bay City News contributed to this report.

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