Massive protest roils downtown

20 arrested as 2,000 demonstrate against international ag conference

By Dorothy Korber, Terri Hardy and Elizabeth Hume -- Bee Staff Writers

Published Monday, June 23, 2003

A spectacle -- part Mardi Gras, part nightmare -- rolled through downtown Sacramento on Sunday as nearly 2,000 protesters and an army of riot-gear-clad police hit the streets.

The chaotic scene was a precursor to an even larger rally and march beginning at 10 a.m. today at the state Capitol. Organizers have taken out a march permit for 8,000 people. Their target: an international agriculture conference, hosted by the U.S. government, that starts today at the Sacramento Convention Center.

Despite the massive disruption downtown Sunday, police arrested just 36 demonstrators, including 14 who disobeyed orders to disperse near the IMAX theater, where conference participants saw a screening of a 3-D movie on the international space station.

Earlier in the day, milling activists upended trash bins, tore down chain-link fences and briefly charged officers with the city's own street barricades -- sending a police car into rapid reverse to evade the protesters. A cadre of activists also took over the site of the former Mandella Community Garden in midtown.

"Hundreds of us are gathered here to say 'No' to the corporate takeover of the food system," said Leda Dederich, an organizer of the protest, which she said drew more than 130 groups. "We are here to promote and defend sustainable agriculture and to protest the dangerous practice of genetically engineered food."

The catalyst for the massive protest is the international Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, hosted by the United States to showcase farm technology and scientific know-how.

Its aim, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to ease famine and hunger around the world. Delegations from more than 100 nations are expected to participate in the three-day conference. The invitation-only event will bring together representatives from governments, academia and the private sector.

Protesters contend the meeting is not about ending hunger, but rather is a stage for the United States to push its agenda on other countries, an agenda that promotes big-business interests and technology, specifically the genetic engineering of crops.

The conference comes as the United States is pushing the World Trade Organization to force Europe to accept genetically modified food.

The local protest began at 2 p.m. in Capitol Park, as people filled the east end of the park, then moved to the streets and around downtown before winding down around 8 p.m. Law enforcement declined to give an official estimate of the size of the crowd; reporters estimated it at nearly 2,000.

The first arrest came at 4:30 p.m., when a woman stepped into the street, blocking a CHP motorcycle officer. When he asked her to move, she refused, forcing him to lay down his cycle. The woman, 19-year-old Marissa Lopez of Rio Linda, then spit at two officers, according to police.

Incongruous images of whimsy and force were the order of the day. Merry vegetarians danced along, dressed as ears of corn and butterflies. Beside them strode young anarchists, masked and clad in black, who taunted police and shouted obscenities. A female wearing fairy wings darted through the crowd on a bike, striped stockings flashing. An elderly man using a walker pushed gamely along with the rest.

A raucous marching band, the Bay Area's Brass Liberation Orchestra, added a jazzy New Orleans note as protesters swirled through the streets around the Convention Center.

Early in the protest, organizers divided the throng into four quadrants -- nicknamed Fire, Water, Air and Earth -- and kept them on the move, generally ahead of the police.

Everywhere -- lined up in front of the Convention Center and manning street barricades -- helmeted city police and CHP officers stood sober-faced and ready, batons in hand. Even their horses wore plastic visors. Helicopters buzzed overhead, while sirens added to the cacophony.

Overall, law enforcement made its statement with sheer numbers, rather than with mass arrests.

Several people, who said they were legal observers for the protest organizers, videotaped the officers and took notes of several exchanges between activists and law enforcement. Meanwhile, a Police Department cameraman made his own video, deftly sidestepping protesters who tried to block his lens with bandanas.

Not every activity Sunday involved protest. Across town, in Land Park, an organic food festival drew several hundred families with children. One booth promoting a vegetarian diet quickly sold out of T-shirts reading "If it has a face, don't eat it."

Keirsten Mihos of Sacramento brought her nearly 1-year-old daughter, Olivia.

"I'm a member of the (Sacramento Natural Foods) Co-op and I'm trying to inform myself about the USDA conference, and I thought this was a family-friendly way to do it," Mihos said, feeding her daughter bits of organic string cheese.

The long day started at 6 a.m. for Sacramento Police Chief Albert Najera, who spent much of Sunday monitoring the protests from a command center. Joining him were top brass from the city Fire Department, the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, the CHP, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

They kept up with the flow of events by watching two large video screens that streamed images fed from traffic cameras and police helicopters.

Mindful of the destructive chaos that took place during demonstrations at a 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, law enforcement prepared for the worst: The CHP had more than 500 officers on duty Sunday, joined by hundreds of city police officers.

The police walk a fine line handling political protests, Najera said. "We have to balance public safety with protecting people's rights to free speech," he said.

While some marchers were in a buoyant mood, others jeered at police, trying to provoke a response. "We're encouraging our officers not to debate with them. It doesn't serve any purpose. But we always tell them to be friendly and respectful," Najera said.

Whatever happens during the conference, the experience -- including the six months of planning for it -- has matured and strengthened his staff, the chief said. Sunday's demonstrators arrived from across the West and included peace activists, union members and organic farmers.

Among the most distinctive were restaurant workers from some of the Bay Area's most exclusive restaurants, including Chez Panisse, Millennium and ACME Chophouse. They wore traditional garb, high white chef's caps and starched tunics. One even carried a giant whisk.

"We're here to expose the lies of big agricultural business," said Cal Peterneu, a chef at Berkeley's Chez Panisse. "Speaking through food can be convincing."

A tense moment came in midafternoon when the throng marched down J Street past the Convention Center. Some merchants stood on the sidewalk, arms crossed, frowning as the marchers passed. Directly across the street at the Capital Café, an employee opened the door of the shuttered shop and nervously surveyed the scene.

"I just came to check things out," said the man, who did not want to give his name. One young protester came by and assured him, "You're going to be OK."

One worker from the Sheraton Grand Hotel ran down the street and pleaded to police to let him through the lines. Eventually officers adjusted their perimeters to allow hotel guests and workers to move in and out.

Responding to the escalating tension, the Sheriff's Department added more jail staff to its remote booking facility.

"They're just testing us out. We think (the demonstrators) are trying to get a reaction, to see how things work, where the backups come from, where the jail facility is," said Assistant Sheriff Michael Smith. "Unless they do something bad, there's really no reason to arrest them."

As the day wore on, some protesters moved to the site of the former Mandella Community Garden. Saying it was time to take back the garden, activists removed sections of the fence encircling the park.

After three decades, the city last year told gardeners there to pack up their tools and leave. The Sacramento City Council has approved a plan for a 118-unit housing development on the part of the garden. It was padlocked late last year when toxic chemicals were found in the soil.

Twelve people sitting in a circle around an apricot tree locked themselves together with galvanized steel pipe. Dozens of others went to work, planting lavender and cactus, mulching with hay and spreading manure.

Three men, all masked, destroyed the no-trespassing sign on the gate. A woman told them, "Don't get arrested yet; we need you for tomorrow."

Late Sunday, police and firefighters moved in and started sawing the pipe. The protesters were arrested and are expected to be charged with trespassing, police officials said.

Earlier Sunday evening, demonstrators and conference participants crossed paths for the first time outside the IMAX theater.

As 20 dignitaries filed into the theater, a Humboldt County activist who called himself "Snap Shoe" used a megaphone to talk to officers on horseback guarding the entrance.

"Put down your badges, your nightsticks, your guns and join the revolution," he said. "Get off your horses and join the people. It is your food, too.

About the Writer The Bee's Dorothy Korber can be reached at (916) 321-1061 or Bee staff writers Mareva Brown, Mike Bush, Henry Gomez, Cameron Jahn, Edie Lau and J.D. Sparks contributed to this report.