Piedmonter gets peek behind the scenes at APEC conference

John Tulloch at one of the entrances to the APEC conference in San Francisco last week.

Former Piedmont City Clerk John Tulloch was a college student when he landed a gig as a driver during the tumultuous 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle — an experience that never left him. When San Francisco announced it was hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference this year, Tulloch — who said he’s always been fascinated by the logistics of coordinating large-scale events — said he was eager to be part of another international event and signed up to help.

Tulloch was one of 750 volunteers that included all manner of people — high school and college students to retired residents of the Bay Area and beyond. All volunteers went through security screening before being selected to help, and were assigned to any one of 25- 30 different jobs during the conference. Assisting with access control, media relations, bilateral meeting room set-up, making gift bags, serving as an interpreter, and more were just a few of the options. The conference drew in more than 20,000 attendees and 22 world leaders, according to local news reports. It was the largest international conference in San Francisco since the United Nations Charter was signed there in 1945.

The volunteers were deployed across the “exclusion zone” in a 4-block radius around Moscone Center, said Tulloch. “I volunteered for 2 1/2 days and it was a completely different experience each day,” he said. “It was a very tightly controlled security zone,” with conference attendees having to contend with traffic diversions, and layers of bag checks, metal detectors, and credential checks to get into the meeting site. Solid black fences about 10 feet tall surrounded some locations — Tulloch says volunteers think these fences may have been brought in from Washington, D.C., after seeing signage about the U.S. Supreme Court still affixed to a few.

On his first day, Tulloch said he was assigned to the media room — a staging ground for the international press corps where he got to answer questions from reporters from countries like China, Colombia, and Japan. Perhaps most fun, Tulloch said, was guarding the Golden State Warriors championship trophy the event organizers brought in that afternoon. “My job was to stand next to it and make sure no one touched it or tried to run off with it,” he said, and to take photos of the trophy for international fans of the team.

But it was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time that brought him practically face to face with 18 world leaders on Thursday.

Tulloch said his job that day was access control, checking the credentials of conference attendees as they worked their way into Moscone Center. He said a volunteer coordinator came up to him and said “You’re large and imposing, can you stand next to an escalator and not let anybody through except when escorted by the Secret Service?”  And that’s how he ended up with a front seat at the entrance for heads of state. While he did not get a glimpse of President Biden, Tulloch ticked off an impressive list of world leader sightings: the Prime Minister of Australia, President of South Korea, Hong Kong Delegation Leader, Trade Minister of New Zealand, President of the Philippines, Sultan of Brunei, President of Mexico, President of Colombia, President of Chile, President of China, Prime Minister of Japan, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, India delegation leader, Fiji Prime Minister, Prime Minister of Thailand, Prime Minister of Canada, Prime Minister of Singapore, and the Taiwan delegation leader. He also saw John Kerry, Janet Yellen, and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre while at the conference.

Tulloch said watching how the local police, diplomatic security, and Secret Service worked together to secure the conference site was fascinating. On his final day he was posted on the outer perimeter of the security zone next to the Metreon, where he got to see the conference from a different perspective. At that location, local residents who were trying to get to businesses like Target that were within the zone had to go through bag checks — and expressed a mix of annoyance and curiosity with the security measures. “It was a major inconvenience for anyone in the area — businesses, residents,” Tulloch said. “But on the inside it worked well.”

Tulloch said the Chinese delegation stayed at a hotel right across from Moscone Center and he observed the interplay between Chinese security teams and the Secret Service. At one point, he said, a large group of China supporters brought in large banners and bullhorns, waving the flag and playing the national anthem in a show of nationalist support for President Xi Jinping. Wednesday was a big day for protests of all kinds outside of the security zone — In addition to a large-scale “No to APEC” coalition and groups calling for a ceasefire in the Middle East, protesters opposing China President Xi Jinping on issues like Tibet and Hong Kong were on the streets as well.

Tulloch, who took BART in each day of the conference, said while the security zone was cleaned up for the visitors, the area outside did not appear markedly more spruced up, an observation echoed by conference attendees in a recent San Francisco Chronicle article on Nov. 18. Nevertheless, Tulloch said from his perspective “inside the bubble” San Francisco managed to pull off a remarkable conference that showcased the best of the Bay Area.

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