No mass presence at protest

Opponents of biotechnology fall far short of their goal of closing down an industry conference at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco.

By Edie Lau and Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writers

Published Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Hilary Shelley, 32, an activist with East Bay Green Bloc, screams Tuesday as a San Francisco police officer tries to remove a connecting tube from her arm at a protest against biotechnology. Protest organizers had feared a small turnout because of the attention focused on the November election. Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

SAN FRANCISCO - A protest against biotechnology that aspired to shut down an industry convention at the Moscone Center on Tuesday ended up as little more than a sideshow, with a few hundred demonstrators chanting, waving signs, beating drums and dancing as hordes of police stood by.

Sacramento it wasn't.

Last year, demonstrations protesting a conference in Sacramento about technological solutions to world hunger packed a bigger wallop. That conference wasn't interrupted, either, but roughly 2,000 protesters created a spectacle of civil disobedience in the capital unlike any in recent history.

Jo-Shing Yang was at last year's protest, and she took the day off from her job as an environmental planner in Sacramento on Tuesday to join the San Francisco event.

"I'm surprised there's so few people here!" she said. "It's substantially fewer than in Sacramento. There, we had 2,000 to 3,000 people. Here, it's 200 or 300. It's very disappointing."

For the Biotechnology Industry Organization, protesters are part of the scene, and have been each year at its annual conventions since 1998.

Mary Bull of San Francisco, a computer programmer-turned-activist, said: "It's about stopping corporate powers; stopping the financial machine behind the war (in Iraq); stopping this system that's commodifying more and more (things), and now commodifying our genes, our genetic material, the substance of life itself."

Bull and other organizers suspected early on that BIO 2004 would attract fewer protesters than in years past because activists are shifting their attention and money to the presidential election.

Inside the Moscone, business continued without a hitch. Joel Cherry, director of biotechnology at Novozymes Biotech Inc. of Davis, said he saw a single protester on his way to moderating a morning panel. "The big day is not happening, I guess," he said.

The convention drew nearly 16,500 participants, who outnumbered activists many times over. So did police.

San Francisco Police Department spokesman Sgt. Neville Gittens said the department cancelled all patrol officers' vacations and days off for the event. He declined to say how many officers were present, though there were enough to handle the day's few minor confrontations.

Police are out in force Tuesday near the Moscone Center in San Francisco, where the Biotechnology Industry Organization was conducting an annual four-day meeting. Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

Police barricades and small knots of protesters blocking intersections snarled morning traffic for several blocks on every side of the convention center. One woman hoisting a large organic agriculture banner stepped in front of a bus bearing convention-goers.

"You'll have to run me over, because I really care," she dared the driver.

"Pick her up and move her," the driver shouted to nearby police. As he inched past the woman, the driver growled, "Anyone else who gets in my way becomes tire fodder."

Approaching the Moscone Center, pedestrians had to thread their way through protesters clustered on street corners shouting, "Quit your jobs! Quit your jobs!"

One conference participant shouted back, "Do something for humanity!" A patrolwoman touched him on the shoulder and urged him to keep moving.

Police reported 32 arrests as of 4 p.m., mostly for blocking streets. Officials arrested an additional 115 people by 10:30 p.m., most stemming from a rush-hour demonstration at Fifth and Market streets, said Eileen Hirst, sheriff's chief of staff.

A few users of biomedical drugs watched the ruckus from inside a conference hall, dismayed.

"I don't think they see the whole story. They only see the negative aspects instead of the human side," said Amelia Davis, a San Francisco photographer diagnosed with multiple sclerosis six years ago.

A biopharmaceutical called Betaseron made by the Chiron Corp. of Emeryville is helping her cope with the disease, Davis said.

Some of those attending the Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco watch Tuesday as protesters agitate in downtown streets. Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

"I am living proof that these drugs do work," she said.

The attempt to shut down the biotech convention came on the third day of the four-day meeting, timed to coincide with the start of a summit of the Group of Eight in Georgia. The G-8 - Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States - is made up of the world's leading industrial countries. Protests there - or in the coastal city of Brunswick, Ga., and in Savannah, Ga., as close as demonstrators could get - numbered just over 100 in each city, according to the Associated Press.

Not all the San Francisco protest events highlighted conflict. A "World Café" held Monday night drew about 120 people to a four-hour discussion about the future of biotech in San Francisco. The goal was thoughtful discourse, said organizer Karen Heisler.

The idea of finding common ground appealed to Joan Alderdice, who co-owns a San Francisco company that distributes organic produce.

"What I liked about this is that it was not about taking sides," Alderdice said. "It was not simple good guys, bad guys. I appreciated someone taking a more complicated approach."


About the Writer The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or elau@sacbee.com.