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Biotech meeting to be target of diverse protests

Help Reclaim the Commons June 3-9!
Biotech meeting to be target of diverse protests

Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2004

Thousands of activists and a week of demonstrations await 15,000 people
planning to attend a major biotechnology conference in San Francisco
next month, as protest organizers plan to use the gathering to rally
against everything from food policy to the Iraq war to homelessness.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual convention bills itself
as "the largest gathering of biotechnology leaders in the world," and,
with the help of attendees from 55 countries, it will show how biotech
is addressing issues ranging from AIDS treatments to agricultural
technology.

This year, conference organizers are touting the event's return to
biotech's San Francisco birthplace. More than 800 of the 1,457 biotech
companies in the United States are located in the Bay Area.

The region is also a national hub for activists of all sorts, including
those who think the biotechnology industry is the perfect illustration
of corporate power that drives everything from the war to international
food policy. Last summer, many of those activists were among 2,000 who
demonstrated against bioengineered food at an international meeting of
agriculture ministers in Sacramento.

Organizers hope to shut down the biotech conference with street
demonstrations June 8, in concert with protests planned that day at the
Group of Eight conference of international leaders in Savannah, Ga.

"We are planning not just to shut down this conference, but to provide
people with other alternatives," said Luna Pantera, one of the
organizers of the weeklong series of events beginning June 3 that
demonstrators are calling "Reclaim the Commons." They define the
"commons" as "everything needed to support healthy life on earth: from
air, water and food to public spaces, culture and genes."

Dan Eramian, vice president of communications for the Biotechnology
Industry Organization, said the gathering "will be the best and the
biggest meeting this industry has ever had, and nobody's going to shut
it down.''

Eramian said protesters had first targeted the conference in 2000, when
it was held in Boston. Only a handful showed up in Toronto in 2002 and
in Washington, D.C., last year, he said. But conference officials have
always anticipated that demonstrations would be bigger in San Francisco.


"I'm not always sure what they're protesting about, but if you asked a
woman who's taking one of our drugs for breast cancer, I'm sure she'd
have a different point of view on what biotechnology is about,'' Eramian
said.

Among the events planned by protesters are a community meeting on how
biotechnology affects low-income areas such as Bayview-Hunters Point,
and a "Really, Really Free Market" in Union Square -- a theatrical
flourish where "people will be able to trade, say, knowledge about
something, for a poem or a song," organizer Meddle Bolger said.

Activists also promise to disrupt the conference's "after-hours schmooze
fests."

And wherever the activists will be, San Francisco police will shadow
them.

Police ordered officers not to take vacation during the week of the
biotech conference and are bracing for "everything from 200,000
protesters to a few thousand," said Deputy Chief Greg Suhr. He expects
most of the action to be South of Market near the conference's Moscone
Center location.

The last time the department was at this level of alert was to handle
the street protests that knotted downtown the day after the United
States invaded Iraq in March 2003.

"We have contingency plans to ramp up to the highest levels, or to
redeploy to lesser levels if need be," Suhr said. "It's a crapshoot. It
could be a lot of people out there, or not."

Chronicle staff writer Bernadette Tansey contributed to this
report.E-mail Joe Garofoli at  jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com.