Everyone's thinking green: Police, activists, businesses clear the decks for ag expo

Nobody's sure what to expect Monday when the conference opens, but everybody hopes to be ready.

By Dorothy Korber -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, June 18, 2003

In Portland, young natural-food activists are hitching rides south on Interstate 5. In Woodland, a man is readying his home for a houseful of visiting demonstrators. And in Sacramento, the chief of police says he's ready for anything.

The raucous worldwide debate over food and farming rolls into California's capital this weekend. Sacramento is humming as it prepares to host hundreds of international delegates and perhaps thousands of demonstrators.

Police and protesters alike say it's hard to predict exactly what will happen during the three-day Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology that begins Monday. The invitation-only event will be held in the Sacramento Convention Center downtown.

The key to coping with the expo, everyone seems to agree, is to be nimble and prepared.

"We are planning and preparing for every reasonable contingency - from a trash can on fire to something significant," said Sacramento Police Chief Albert Najera. "We want the protesters to be able to voice their position. But the bottom line is, if there are people out there bent on violence and destruction, they will be arrested and prosecuted."

That said, Najera is optimistic about the conference and its array of passionate opponents.

"From my chair, this kind of event is what I love to see in Sacramento," he said. "This is the largest international event we've ever had in this city. We're making the jump from a big city to a world-class one. And we know we will be judged by how we handle things."

Najera said he could not estimate the cost to the city of providing this level of security, but the Sacramento City Council has earmarked up to $1.6 million for police and an additional $130,000 for fire protection, if necessary.

The conference, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, focuses on using technology, including genetically altered crops, to boost farm productivity as a means of alleviating world hunger. That message will be countered by protests, teach-ins, marches, organic food festivals, speeches and debates at sites across town from Saturday through June 25.

Organizers of the protests say they will be peaceful and nonviolent - though disruptive, no doubt, of downtown Sacramento's daily rhythms.

"Our goal is to get information into the hands of people," said Heidi McLean, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture. "We view this primarily as an educational opportunity, more than anything else. On Saturday, there will be this amazing teach-in. On Sunday, a great healthy food and alternative festival in Land Park.

"On Monday, at 1 p.m., we'll march around the Capitol. Things are really gelling."

Lurking in the collective memory is the violence that rocked Seattle in 1999 during a meeting of the World Trade Organization, when anti-globalization activists clashed with city police. Though the Sacramento event is not directly linked to the WTO, similar issues will be discussed and debated.

"I hope Sacramento can become a good example of how a city can handle controversial events," McLean said. "Instead of facing a veil of tear gas, maybe people here will be able to exercise their constitutional rights."

The call to "mobilize in Sacramento" echoes across the Internet these days, pulling in natural-food advocates and anti-government activists from across California and the Northwest.

"Sacramento is going to be amazing!" said Liisa Wale of Northwest Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, or RAGE, based in Portland, Ore. "About 150 of us are heading down there, just from our little group. This is a movement, a community. People in Sacramento have opened their arms to us."

Lars Gilstrom has opened his big Victorian house in Woodland to the visiting activists. Along with a dozen or so others, he has listed his home as a crash pad on the Sacramento Mobilization Web site, offering his floor, his sofa and his back yard.

"Most want to stay in tents in the yard," said Gilstrom, who participated in the Seattle protest. "We have six coming in one group, plus a couple and two singles. Some are coming from Ashland, most from the Bay Area. I'm going to have to draw the line pretty soon - we're running out of space."

Another chore is finding housing for the 1,500 conference participants - among them agriculture ministers from 100 nations. This is the responsibility of Steve Hammond, president of the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Hammond said the conference and its attendant expo will bring $1.4 million into the region in visitor spending.

"Reservations are coming in very briskly," Hammond said. "This is all very exciting. From the standpoint of a sales-and-marketing organization like ours, the worldwide exposure we're getting is priceless. We don't have enough money in our budget to buy that kind of attention."

Downtown businesses facing closed streets and other disruptions are more ambivalent about the conference's costs and benefits. Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, said his organization has fielded "a ton of calls" from business owners concerned about logistics and loss of customers.

He said the partnership's Web site - www.downtownsac.org - is full of information ranging from which mailboxes will be sealed during the conference to which parking garages will be open.

"We're all kind of trying to figure this event out, to figure out what to expect," said Ault. "Last week, we held a downtown merchants' meeting and 160 folks showed up. The Police Department made it very clear that they welcome the opportunity for folks to express themselves, but they'll have zero tolerance for violence and property damage. That's what the business community needed to hear."

About the Writer The Bee's Dorothy Korber can be reached at (916) 321-1061 or dkorber@sacbee.com. Staff writer Terri Hardy contributed to this report.