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actions & protests | corporate dominance | genetic engineering biodevastation 2004

Protesting BIO 2004

An account of the June 8th protest at the biotech convention in San Francisco
On the morning of June 8th, I awoke from frightful visions of being surrounded by grotesquely mutated demons. Some were dressed in blue and others wore pinstriped jackets and neckties. The ones in pinstripe seemed to be in charge; they had monstrously bloated heads which vaguely resembled Dick Cheney's.

Bluish early morning light oozed in through the window and dispelled the images, but feelings of apprehension lingered on as I dragged myself out of bed, got dressed, found a bite to eat, and set out for San Francisco. That's where the BIO 2004 convention was taking place, and this was the day of our protest. I was determined to be extremely careful and not get arrested, clubbed, trampled by a horse, or any of the other unpleasant things that seem to happen these days to protesters at major conferences such as this one.

Despite my fears, I was glad to be demonstrating in San Francisco, which would at least be safer than Atlanta, where the G8 summit was being held. I'd read that the governor of Georgia was going to declare martial law in order to control protests in that area. The news was disturbing. We all live in the shadow of the Miami Model. I hoped the people in Georgia would be okay.

It was around 7 a.m. when I arrived at Market & Powell, which was one of our designated assembly places. About a hundred people were there; before joining them I first took a look around to see what the police presence might be. On the other side of Market Street were a large number of riot police.

A few more people arrived to join our relatively small contingent, and we set out, walking on the sidewalk down Market, then crossed and headed south on 4th Street. The police who'd been across the street followed us, but they didn't interfere with us. Two blocks later, we were at the Moscone Center, which consists of three huge buildings, each covering a whole city block.

It's a gigantic place, centered on the intersection of 4th and Howard streets. There were massive numbers of police all over the place. They occupied the streets, had set up metal barricades and wouldn't let us cross. We were on the northeast corner and there were perhaps a hundred and fifty of us there. On each of the other corners were more of our people. I could see their banners and hear their drums and chants; they seemed pretty lively, but it was impossible to tell how many they were.

I was told there were more protesters at other places on other streets. Later I heard estimates from various sources that there were a total of perhaps 500 of us.

However, 500 people in a large area like this really seemed like only a handful. We'd expected a lot more; just the Saturday before, some 10 to 12 thousand of us had marched in an antiwar demonstration organized by the A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition. Where were all those people today? Probably most of them had jobs to go to, and it's also probable that people generally tend to get more fired up over the war in Iraq than over agricultural gene splicing. But I would guess that a lot of people had stayed home out of fear.

People who are politically aware follow news events closely and know about the Miami Model. Our country is rapidly becoming a police state and few progressives have any doubts or illusions about that. Conferences and conventions where corporations promote their agendas are closely guarded and to approach one is to step into a danger zone where truncheons can start swinging at any moment.

Noisy police helicopters buzzed overhead, and there seemed to be at least three cops for every protester. Nevertheless, the police didn't try to drive us of out the area. They did order us to stay on the sidewalks and off the street.

Meanwhile, out in the middle of the intersection was a circle of 14 protesters who linked arms through plastic tubes. The police circled around for some time, apparently trying to decide what to do about them. I was watching them from where I stood on the northeast corner. They were quite a distance away from me.

"Did you go to the Super Bowl 30?" an officer across the barricade asked me good-naturedly.

"The what?" I asked, a bit taken aback.

"The Super Bowl 30," he said. "It was played in Arizona in 1996." He then added that it said that on my cap.

"It does?" Someone had given me the cap. It had a colorful design with three large Xs, and I and others in my affinity group had been wondering what sort of event it might be from. "Was that a bowling tournament? Or was it a football game?" I asked.

"Football. It was the championship game. The Dallas Cowboys played the Pittsburgh Steelers." He also told me who won and what the score had been.

I was impressed that he remembered all those details from an event that had taken place eight years before. I told him that.

Some of the police, like this fellow, were good-natured, and if they gave any orders, like telling us to stay off the street, they did so courteously. But some police were downright nasty.

A few minutes later, some distance down the street, an officer snarled at us: "Get back from the street! Back on the sidewalk! If any of you step on the street you're under arrest!"

At that moment the police were escorting convention delegates down the street, and one protester immediately pointed to the delegates and shouted, "Arrest them! They're on the street!"

The rest of us took up the chant,

"Arrest them! Arrest them! They're on the street!"

"Arrest them! Arrest them! They're on the street!"

Despite the presence of the nasty officer, who didn't say anything more to us, we continued to heckle the delegates who passed in front of us.

"Keep your genes out of our food!" was a favorite chant, and another was, "Biotech not welcome here! Go home! Go home!"

According to the newspapers, there were between 15 and 18 thousand delegates from 56 countries at this convention. But only a minority of the delegates were involved with gene splicing. Many were from the pharmaceutical industry. There were also patent attorneys, lobbyists and others who make up the corporate teams that manipulate the government, avoid regulations and work out ways to get tax breaks while doing so.

For our part, the protesters came from a broad spectrum of views, ideologies and religions. There were Pagans, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims. There were socialists as well as a sizable and extremely visible contingent of anarchists. The anarchists were especially noticeable because many of them dressed in black and carried black or black and red flags. There were also a good many protesters like myself who just call themselves "progressives." Numerous organizations and affinity groups were represented. Our project was organized by a coalition called "Reclaim the Commons."

In a statement of unity we said: "The COMMONS are the universal heritage of people and all living things. They are everything needed to support healthy life on earth: air, water, food, shelter, health care, energy sources and our genetic heritage. They are what is needed to sustain culture: our multicultural heritages, education, information and the means to disseminate it, essential human services, public spaces, the airwaves, and political space. They are equally the land, its forests, the oceans, and all ecosystems."

Many of our signs bore pictures of corn and slogans expressing our concern that mutant crops might cause long-term problems, and that the biotech corporations were out of control.

None of the protesters I met seemed to be against science per se. As for myself, I have a science degree in geology, which doesn't qualify me to speak on biology, but I can say that I'm very much in favor of scientific research in general. It's just that I don't want to be poisoned by the results of somebody's experiment.

The problem is that biotech corporations are currently unregulated and often find it profitable to ignore matters of community health, community need and planetary sustainability. At the very least, we need regulations based on community good to guide these corporations.

Mostly the delegates avoided us, which is understandable. After all, we weren't here to welcome them to California. Nevertheless, a few of them paused to speak with us, and there were several informal discussions between protesters and biologists.

One delegate was a cardiologist who told us some impressive examples of how his research had saved lives. How well it worked in reality, I couldn't say, but I'd like to think that some of projects being done by the biologists are useful and valid. When he was about to leave, a woman told him, "Eat organic!"

"I need your name for that quote," said a bystander who then identified himself as a reporter. "B.J. Avery," the woman told him. I didn't hear which newspaper the reporter worked for, but the next morning I saw the quote in the Oakland Tribune.

As this conversation was going on, I glanced back at the intersection; the circle of 14 persons with arms linked were now being arrested and put in a paddy wagon.

It was later reported that a total of about 30 protesters were arrested in the course of the morning.

Two hours or more passed and by 9:30 a.m. the flood of delegates had slowed to a trickle. That part of the protest seemed to be over, and a lot of the people who'd arrived early to take part in the demonstrations apparently left to go to work. Police withdrew from 4th Street, and some 2 or 3 hundred of us who were still in the area gathered and moved to the middle of the street to hold a meeting. After business was concluded, social activities followed.

Starhawk, who had come with a group of Pagans, led us in a spiral dance. We linked arms to form a long chain which circled in and out in spirals. As we did so, we sang in a rhythmic chant:

"The seeds will grow
when the empire cracks!
Reclaim the commons.
Take it back!"

Around noon we took a break. Some people took thick pieces of chalk to write slogans and draw pictures on the asphalt. Before long, the street was covered curb to curb with drawings, mostly of plants. One person drew a large picture of a beautiful butterfly and under it he wrote, "Please don't kill me."

We also exchanged experiences of the morning. Rachel, a bicyclist, told me that she and a group of about 75 bicycle riders had been conducting operations along 2nd Street, from Folsom to Mission. The bikers kept moving around, interfering with the shuttle buses that were bringing delegates to the convention center. Motorcycle police harassed the bicyclists, bumping into them, and knocked one woman over, but they didn't arrest any of them. The bicycle riders kept splitting up, them meeting and getting back together.

She also told me three protesters had crawled under buses and thus held them up. Police had a great deal of difficulty in getting them out from under the buses. Later there were photos of that on Indymedia, and it was also reported in the Pittsburgh Business Times. A CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council and his delegation had been forced to exit their shuttle bus and walk several blocks to the Moscone Center, the Business Times reported.

I thought of how I might feel if I were a delegate attending a scientific conference and people came out to protest. Whether I agreed with the protesters or not, I believe it would cause me to think it over.

Eventually people left to do various things. I went to the library, and after that went to the "Reclaim the Commons" convergence center which was just a couple blocks away at 960 Howard Street. There, "Food Not Bombs" served us a vegetarian meal. We held another meeting, chaired by Starhawk, where we discussed various proposals for actions we might do. The action that generated the most interest was the 5 p.m. "Reclaim the Streets" (RTS) event which was to meet at the U.N. Plaza.

There will be a Part II of this account to cover the evening of June 8th -- the mass arrest of 128 protesters on Market Street.

address: address: Oakland, California

great report, Daniel! 13.Jun.2004 00:27

an indy reader

i look forward to part 2

SF Chronicle story on BIO 2004 and Reclaim the Commons-- one of many 13.Jun.2004 12:20

repost sfc

Thanks for the great commentary, Daniel. I went to the mobilization also. It was amazingly well covered in the corporate press, and there was an outstanding debate on the radio(KGO?) between Andrew Kimbrell, quthor of fatal Harvest, and the BIO 2004's PR hack. It wasn't even a contest!

Reclaim the commons
Take it back
Seeds will grow
Where the Empire cracks...

www.sfgate.com Return to regular view
Biotech protesters held
Marchers disrupt rush-hour traffic near convention
- Rona Marech, Joe Garofoli and Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Protesters demonstrating against the world's largest biotechnology convention took over a major San Francisco intersection for several hours Tuesday night, blocking traffic and throwing bottles as police made more than a hundred arrests.

At 6 p.m., after a largely peaceful day of demonstrations, about 150 protesters walked into the street at Fifth and Market streets -- blocks from where the convention was being held at Moscone Center -- bringing rush-hour traffic to a standstill.

Police in riot gear surrounded the protesters and ordered them to clear the street, but most refused. After about an hour, police began arresting the demonstrators, several of whom responded by throwing bottles and rotten food at the police. By 10:30 p.m., 128 protesters had been arrested, almost all on charges of failing to disperse. Demonstrators complained that police made the arrests without any warning.

"The mass arrests happened without warning,'' said Becky Tarbotton, an organizer with Reclaim the Commons. "People were arrested and being beaten up. It was pretty astonishing.''

Police said they did issue a warning with a bullhorn, which might have been drowned out by a loudspeaker used by the protesters.

The activists are concerned that corporations are being improperly awarded patents for plants, microorganisms, animals and human genes, and that some fledgling biotechnology-based solutions are being rushed to market before they're ready. Many of the protesters in San Francisco this week are particularly worried about genetically modified food and insist that such products be labeled.

"It's a symptom of one huge problem of who's controlling our lives," said Sue Skinner, 51, a midwife from Oregon who participated in a more peaceful demonstration earlier in the day. "The foods we eat, the medicine we take, the air we breathe are being taken over by corporations. It's not science they're doing. It's marketing."

Police said Tuesday night they seized from a protester a bag containing three wrenches that could have been used to damage parked cars or to assault officers. Traffic around Fifth and Market streets was snarled as pedestrians, including some who attended the BIO 2004 conference, watched in amazement.

Earlier in the day, 29 activists were cited and streets around the Moscone Center were closed, tying up the morning commute. Many convention- goers were heckled on their way into the convention center.

But the tone for much of the day was civil. Eventually, some actual conversations took place between protester and protested, under the watchful gaze of what seemed to be one police officer for every demonstrator South of Market.

Organizers with Reclaim the Commons, the umbrella group coordinating a week's worth of BIO 2004-inspired protests, estimated that more than 500 people attended Tuesday morning's event. Police were at their highest alert since the 2003 demonstrations on the day after the United States invaded Iraq. A police spokesman declined to say how many officers were on the street, other than to allow that it was a significant number.

While some conference participants ignored hecklers' cries of "Get out of our genes!" and "You can afford organic!" others stepped past the police line to converse.

Among the colloquies was the one between Joshua Stedman, a 21-year-old "houseless" person, and 62-year-old Horace Tucker, who owns an ad firm that deals with biotechnology companies.

Stedman worries that corporations have too much control of biotech research. Tucker said, "But if people with money didn't fund the research, who would?"

After a 15-minute discussion, they shook hands and parted ways -- Stedman to the streets, Tucker to the convention.

Peter Girling, CEO of a Swiss company that develops in-vitro models to reduce animal testing, chatted amiably with a cluster of protesters.

"I think the vast majority (of conference goers) here are working on positive things, but the framework in which they work often has negative elements," Girling said. "The negative side is that it has to be profit-driven, and that means that applications that are not profitable will not be pursued."

About 90 percent of the work that the biotechnology industry does is safe, Girling said. "My question to the protesters is, 'What would you have the industry do? Stop because of a risk?' "

There were also scenes of confrontation, however. At Third and Howard streets, a bus with conference participants was slowed to a halt by a group of almost 100 protesters on bicycles. Just as the bus came to a stop, three protesters dived underneath.

Police yanked on the legs of the men under the bus. Fifteen minutes and some pepper spray later, the protesters emerged onto the street, where officers handcuffed them.

"They're entitled to their opinion, but they're totally misguided," said Len Smiley, a biotech executive from Philadelphia who was taking photographs from inside the police barricade. "Half these people would be sick and their parents would be dying if it weren't for people who made drugs. What are they going to do, protest penicillin?"

Said Jeremy Graff, an emergency room doctor who worked all night before heading to the protest: "I'm here like many others because I'm concerned about the corporatization of our biological heritage."

By Tuesday night, as protesters were blocking Fifth and Market, Mayor Gavin Newsom was hosting a cocktail party for 600 elite conference attendees at City Hall, where police manned barricades to protect the building from any trouble.

"I can assure you that the overwhelming majority" (of San Franciscans) have embraced this conference and your work ...,'' Newsom said. "Don't forget this is where it all began. ... Don't forget we are open for business. Stay in San Francisco. Think locally."

Chronicle staff writers Steve Rubenstein, Katia Hetter and Charlie Goodyear contributed to this report.E-mail the writers at  rmarech@sfchronicle.com,  jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com and  jvanderbeken@sfchronicle.com.

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