Falun Gong protest exclusion from parade

San Francisco, USA - Members of a spiritual group outlawed as a dangerous cult in China banged drums and cymbals near the city's annual Chinese New Year Parade, which had excluded Falun Gong for violating rules against political activity.

"We are peacefully trying to deliver the message that there shouldn't be any discrimination and they shouldn't extend discrimination from China," said Sherry Zhang, 35, a Falun Gong organizer.

The San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which has directed the parade for nearly 50 years, claimed followers violated parade rules two years ago when they handed out anti-China leaflets while marching.

Falun Gong members accuse the chamber of discriminating against them to appease the government in China, where many chamber members have business interests.

Police agreed to allow roughly 100 Falun Gong members to hold banners and organize on the sidewalk on the parade route, but Falun Gong members said Saturday they weren't allowed into the Chinatown district.

Falun Gong members wore yellow and red jumpsuits often worn for mediation and exercise. Others held lanterns decorated with flowers and dressed in traditional Chinese garb from the Tang Dynasty, nearly 1,000 year ago. Several passers-by apologized for the group's exclusion from the parade and shouted encouragement.

"We're taking every opportunity we can to present the best of Chinese culture to the whole world," said Falun Gong member Joel Ng, 42, of San Leandro.

The controversy had a widespread resonance in San Francisco, where nearly 20 percent of residents are of Chinese descent. The city's Chinese New Year's parade is one of the biggest Chinese events in the country.

Falun Gong mixes Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chinese thought with meditation and exercises that adherents say lead to improved health and well-being. Beijing banned the group in 1999 following a major demonstration outside the main government compound. Thousands of followers were detained and imprisoned.

Falun Gong member Li Mei, 31, said she only wanted the opportunity to participate in a major Chinese cultural event regardless of her personal beliefs.

"I'd like to be able to celebrate my culture and not be discriminated against," she said.