Raising a Ruckus in Sacramento
Come down for the convergence! Even the Sac Bee is hearing the call of the earth.
Lesley Adams of Ashland, Ore., and Dave Meddle of Santa Rosa paint a sign Thursday to welcome activists at Sacramento's "mobilization" center at 12th and C streets.
Sacramento Bee/Andy Alfaro
Lessons in how to raise a ruckus
The capital's ag expo is drawing old and new activists.
By Edie Lau -- Bee Science Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Friday, June 20, 2003
When The Ruckus Society came to Sacramento three weeks ago to teach the art of street demonstration, one thing in particular stood out about the folks who attended.
"There were a lot of new people who were interested in meeting like-minded people in the Sacramento area," said Colette Mercier, who organized the two-day training. "It wasn't a bunch of people who already knew each other."
Activists by the thousands are expected to gather in Sacramento beginning today to protest the U.S.-sponsored international Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology happening at the Convention Center from Monday through Wednesday.
Their chief objections: U.S. policies promoting the adoption abroad of factory-style farming, including the use of genetic engineering and food irradiation, and the fact that big agribusiness is part of the conference, while the public is excluded.
As the state's capital, Sacramento sees demonstrations routinely, but rarely on the scale of this one, which is drawing activists from up and down the West Coast and beyond. And while some of the protesters are old hands at demonstrating, a notable share have little to no experience in taking to the streets.
They are people such as Jay Fuller, a 45-year-old Sacramento father of one who says he recently began trying to learn more about the connection between food and environment and the role of biotechnology.
"I'm concerned about my family and other people's families," Fuller said. "Everybody, whoever they are, they have the right to eat what they're comfortable eating."
They are people such as Daljit Bains, who works in the laboratory of a pharmaceutical company. A 30-year-old Sacramentan with a biology degree and an interest in medicinal plants, Bains is concerned about corporations patenting the genes of plants used for food and medicine.
They are people such as Cory Fulton, a University of California, Davis, graduate trained in biological systems engineering. A leading organizer of the local protest, he says he's a recent convert who was for most of his 33 years "a couch-potato progressive."
The collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, blew him off the couch. The terrorist attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon struck Fulton and his wife, Susan Oldland, the same way. "Where did this come from?" they wanted to know.
The two started reading up on the history of U.S. foreign policy and American corporate activities in the Middle East. And they began to believe, Fulton said, that this country "has been meddling there way too long."
A few months later, Oldland joined peace vigils responding to U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. About the same time, the couple became involved with the Unitarian Universalist Church. Through mini-courses they helped put on for the congregation, the couple delved into subjects such as child labor and sweatshops; the World Trade Organization; the history of colonization; consumerism; and the environment.
At work, meanwhile, Fulton felt increasing stress. Employed by a consulting company doing water and soil pollution cleanup, he wondered about all the energy and materials -- the plastic pipes, the piles of paper documents -- required to support the cleanup. "Are we sure we're not polluting another water supply somewhere else?" he thought.
So in February, he quit his $46,000-a-year job. He decided he would spend his days full time as an activist, unpaid.
That act virtually halved the couple's household income. Living in a midtown apartment, they eat out less and drive less. Fulton tries to make what they need by hand -- stuff like shelving -- and they pay less on their student and credit card debt.
Oldland, also a UCD alumna, works for the state Department of Water Resources giving grants to restore urban streams, a job she loves. She supports her husband's decision completely.
"My life doesn't look in any way like I thought it would," she acknowledged. "I thought we'd have a home and kids and work our jobs, have a career. ... But we feel comfortable. (And) I feel a whole lot better inside."
This spring, Fulton helped found the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture, which has been at the center of planning for "alternative" events and protests against the agriculture conference.
The conference has drawn activists interested in a smorgasbord of issues -- from the impacts of free trade to the lot of peasant farmers, and from environmental degradation to farm-animal welfare.
For those new to "direct action" as a form of political expression, The Ruckus Society of Oakland came to town at the end of May to offer training.
The organization supports environmental and human rights causes by teaching activist techniques including blockades, climbing, banner rigging, political theater and using the Internet.
In Sacramento, there was no course in climbing (trees, structures or otherwise), but participants did learn theater techniques and the art of "facilitation" as a way of helping groups make decisions by consensus.
Among the thousands expected in Sacramento, some, of course, are familiar with street protests. Lesley Adams, a Sacramento native now living in Ashland, Ore., learned about the dangers and the power of mass dissent at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, where protesters shut down the first day of meetings.
A college student studying biology at the time, Adams picked up a singular souvenir from that trip: a rubber bullet. But Adams, now 26, wasn't the least bit scared off by the experience. On the contrary.
"It totally changed my life," she said. "The collective power and strength, standing side by side in the streets with tens of thousands of people saying, 'There can be another way' ... it just blew my mind open."
As a form of popular dissent, street demonstrations date back to 18th-century Europe and Colonial America. Ed Walsh, a professor emeritus of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, notes that America itself was born out of what today's activists would call "direct action."
"Wasn't it people dumping tea into Boston Harbor, is how this whole (nation) started?" Walsh said. "The original Founding Fathers ... they were all protesters."
Numerous social movements that started with civil disobedience or rallies since then have become accepted into mainstream thought and practice -- abolition, women's suffrage, civil rights and labor rights, to name a few.
And yet street activism struggles for respect. "It tends to be the method of people without power," said Alex Zuchas, a historian at National University in La Jolla. "It's insistent. It tends not to be the most polite way to get a point across."
In the Sacramento "mobilization," as it's called, most participants hold up organic farming as the healthy, viable alternative to the industrial agriculture model that relies on intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
But some organic farming organizations are taking care to distance themselves from any rabble-rousing. California Certified Organic Farmers, for example, will rent a booth inside the conference trade show, and is not lending its name to outside activities.
"Our focus is, we have an alternative (to factory farming), and we think that if we can talk about it amongst the ministers, that's our most powerful tool," said Brian Leahy, the group's president.
Some organic farmers are involved as individuals, however. One is Bob "Amigo" Cantisano, who grows organic olives outside Nevada City.
Cantisano is part of troupe of organic farmers, "The Genetic Manipulators," who express opposition to crop biotechnology through comic theater. On Monday, they'll present a skit Cantisano co-wrote and produced called "Who's Been Getting in My Genes?"
Cantisano, 52, and his colleagues have a different goal from the activist groups that want to "shut down" the Sacramento conference.
"We're trying to spin the positive story, stay out of the fracas," he said. "... It's not up to us to tell the ministers of agriculture what to do. We just want them to know that there is a viable, healthy alternative currently existing in California."
Another event that will highlight organic agriculture is a meal Tuesday evening for the visiting dignitaries prepared by Alice Waters, celebrated founder of the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley.
Waters, 59, who pioneered a culinary movement using fresh foods grown locally and sustainably, will be expressing her support for organic agriculture in a much different way from the people on the street, though she, too, counts herself as an activist.
"I hope we can make some small impression by feeding (the ministers) something good," she said. "I've always felt that's the way to reach someone is through taste, and the ritual of the table. It's something that I think people like. They feel cared for, and want to be there."
About the Writer
The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is a sampling of alternative educational events and protests planned in response to the USDA Ministerial Conference and Expo.
* 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. -- Teach-in at the University Union at CSU Sacramento, 6000 J St. Workshops and speakers.
* 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. -- William Land Park, near Sutterville Road and Freeport Boulevard. Community festival and organic food-tasting fair.
* 11 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. -- Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, 1017 11th St. Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, speaks on food and peace.
* 2 p.m. -- St. John's Lutheran Church, 1701 K St. Panel discussion on community gardening and urban agriculture.
* 2 p.m. -- Demonstration to protest biotechnology and other corporate impacts on farming . Begins at the southeast corner of Capitol Park near 15th and N streets.
* 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. -- Rally at the Capitol west steps.
* 1 p.m. -- Protest march through downtown Sacramento begins at the Capitol's west steps.
* 7 p.m. -- Debate on genetic engineering at the Crest Theater, 10th and K streets on the mall. $5 donation. (This is the only event where USDA conference participants will meet the general public.)
* 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. -- Legislative briefing in the state Capitol, room 113, convened by the Senate Select Committee on International Trade Policy. Topic: "Biotechnology, International Agreements and the Risks to California Legislative Power."
* 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. -- Roundtable discussion at St. John's Lutheran Church, 1701 I St., on trade policy and its impact on agriculture.
More information is available online at www.sacmobilization.org.
Cory Fulton and his wife, Susan Oldland, consider the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks a wake-up call and are helping plan "alternative" events and protests of the agriculture conference.
Sacramento Bee/Manny Crisostomo
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