Foes of biotech convention block downtown streets (9/6/2004)

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.

Foes of biotech convention block downtown streets
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."

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