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Protesters greet Bush with flag bonfire

By
BRIAN ROONEY

SAN FRANCISCO -- Protesters unfurled a 25-foot-long American flag outside the hotel where President Bush was speaking Wednesday night, danced on it with open cans of lighter fluid, and set it afire before a crowd of 2,000.

The flag bonfire, uninterrupted by police until the flames were nearly out, was part of a broad-based protest against Bush's $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser for Republican gubernatorial candidate Sen. Pete Wilson.

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'Wake up and smell the flag,' protesters chanted. Organizers denounced a proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning.

'It's just a piece of cloth,' said Peter Stevenson, a member of the Emergency Committee to Stop the Flag Amendment and Laws. 'If they have laws like that, it shows something is really wrong with the values of our country.'

Except for occasional routine confrontations, the protest was peaceful. About 200 police officers cordoned off the streets around the Westin St. Francis hotel where Bush was speaking and kept the demonstration confined to the streets surrounding Union Square.

An estimated 2,000 protesters and curious onlookers attended the boisterous demonstration, authorities said. Police reported four arrests, including one for assault on a fireman.

Firemen were called in to put out the first of two flag bonfires set during the night and protesters grabbed hold of their fire hose and attempted to run off with it.

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As they dragged it through the crowd, the heavy high-pressure hose burst, soaking the protesters and doing a better job of dispersing the crowd around the fire than police probably could have done themselves.

Later, a group of protesters who had booked a $200-a-night room at the posh hotel, 'disguised' as sober business people, unfurled a banner from a window above the protest and dropped 1,000 flyers on the police lines below, protesting U.S. involvement in El Salvador.

The group was escorted out of the hotel after it unfurled another banner in the hotel lobby.

The protest culminated with a final flag burning. As a loudspeaker blared dead rock star Jimi Hendrix's screeching electric-guitar version of the 'Star Spangled Banner,' protesters danced across the flag with bottles of lighter fluid.

Blackened by the shoes of the crowd, the flag proved tough to burn. At first it only smoldered, but liberal doses of lighter fluid and the addition of cardboard boxes, anti-Bush banners and plywood fueled flames 6 feet high.

An old tire thrown on the blaze poured out huge clouds of thick, acrid smoke that drove many protesters back with shirts pulled up over their mouths.

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After the fire had died down into a campfire-sized blaze, firemen moved in with two trucks and doused the flames with their hoses.

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