Protest loud, mostly peaceful

Officers, out in full force, make just nine arrests

By Dorothy Korber, Mareva Brown and Terri Hardy -- Bee Staff Writers

Published Tuesday, June 24, 2003

With squadrons of heavily armed police officers as their primary audience, noisy and ebullient protesters marched through downtown Sacramento Monday, chanting against genetically modified food and denouncing an international agriculture conference at the Convention Center.

But, after weeks of worry that Sacramento's protest might dissolve into a riot such as Seattle had in 1999, downtown breathed a collective sigh of relief Monday.

Businesses stayed open. Buses kept running. Vandalism was slight.

By evening, just nine arrestees had been booked during a day of protest that drew more than a thousand passionate activists to the capital.

Two of the arrests were for indecent exposure, occurring when a topless woman and a naked man -- smeared with mud and seeds -- romped through the downtown streets as representatives of Mother Earth.

Police credited their restraint -- and the massive show of force, totaling 1,000 officers -- for the day's relative quiet. The protest's organizers, in turn, credited their membership's commitment to nonviolence and denounced the show of force as chilling and unnecessary.

There were moments of tension Monday, triggered when self-styled anarchists among the demonstrators faced off with police in Capitol Park after the 1.5-mile march. During one confrontation, D.O. "Spike" Helmick, commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, was splashed on the arm with a caustic liquid.

But, overall, both the morning rally on the Capitol steps and the afternoon march were loud, colorful and peaceful.

The protest came in response to the three-day international Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, hosted by the U.S. government, that began Monday. Leda Dederich, one of the protest organizers, called their efforts successful.

"One of our goals was to educate the public about what's at stake around industrialized farming practices and genetically engineered food," she said. "I feel like we've made a breakthrough here, showing people that there are alternatives that do not risk public health, harm the environment or threaten the livelihood of small farmers around the globe."

She characterized the demonstrations Sunday and Monday as "totally peaceful." On Sunday, three dozen protesters were arrested during impromptu marches downtown and a sit-in at the former site of the Mandella Community Garden.

Dederich objected to the vast numbers of peace officers -- from Sacramento city police, the California Highway Patrol and the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department -- who filled the streets both days.

"I think, basically from the beginning, there's been a concerted strategy to be intimidating," Dederich said.

That was the intention, said Sacramento Police Chief Albert Najera.

"The mission today was to keep the march to the prescribed route and to have an overwhelming show of force," Najera said Monday evening.

He praised his officers for their restraint in the face of taunting and civil disobedience.

"We told them: Focus on your mission -- and your mission is not to punish people for being protesters," he said.

"Your mission is to see that the agricultural conference runs without interference," he said.

The march Monday was both earnest and surreal.

It began with people dressed as corn plants flattening a 30-foot-tall, inflated ear of "genetically engineered" corn.

When the monster cob shuddered to the ground, the triumphant crop led the parade. Uncle Sam joined the throng, marching with dancing tomatoes, mutant fish and a pea pod with a human eye.

Moments before the parade began, undercover officers confiscated light bulbs filled with paint and either ammonia or sulfuric acid, as well as ball bearings and slingshots.

The march was led by Bill Camp, executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council.

Marchers stopped several times on L Street, considered the most sensitive part of the parade route because it is nearest the Convention Center. Each time, Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas and Camp conferred quietly and then Camp got the crowd moving again.

When the protest ended, Camp surveyed the crowd.

"I'm leaving," he said. "There are all those guys with black shirts over there."

Those black shirts belonged to 75 anarchists, who clustered around 10th Street after the march ended at the Capitol's west steps.

Suddenly, they broke from the crowd, heading up N Street toward 11th Street.

There, they faced off against rows of police. Protesters waved flags and signs.

One shirtless young man stood atop a concrete barrier waving a wilting sunflower. In the street, police on bicycles and motorcycles and in foot battalions faced them, waiting.

After a tense 20 minutes, the group dissipated, but the anarchists clustered together again, locking arms on the southwest lawn of the Capitol. As officers surrounded them, other protesters encircled the officers and started closing in.

One officer uncapped a Taser gun, sending sparks flying, to keep the crowd from advancing further.

From the back of the gathering, a black-clothed young man ran up and tossed a bottle of liquid, which splashed Helmick. Paramedics looked at Helmick's arm, which he said stung, but he stayed on the scene.

Thirty minutes later, officers detained a group of a dozen anarchists sitting on the lawn. The officers, about 16 strong, managed to arrest three, but almost instantly found themselves surrounded by other demonstrators, chanting and screaming: "Let them go! Let them go!"

More officers surrounded the entire group by forming a semicircle around the crowd. But another crowd formed behind that second line of officers. Minor scuffles broke out, and most of the detainees managed to slip free.

Two or three, protected from view by a knot of their cohorts, shed their black clothing and put on lighter attire.

Eventually, the entire group of anarchists, now down to about 25, walked past officers and out of the park.

By the end of the day, police were tamping down small outbursts of protest still erupting near the Convention Center, herding the irate activists toward the protest headquarters at C and 12th streets.

Regional Transit closed down light-rail operations downtown from about 6 to 6:30 p.m. when an estimated 150 protesters gathered on the tracks at 12th and K streets.

Overall, city officials said, they are happy with the way both police and activists have behaved during the demonstrations.

Deputy City Manager Richard Ramirez called the event a "real success," saying ministers attending the conference made it to Monday's program without problems and protesters had the opportunity to express their views.

Mayor Heather Fargo said she had not attended the conference or the protests but had received regular reports on happenings. "From what I can tell, things have been going relatively well," she said.

"The numbers of protesters are less than we thought -- we were ready for more. Most of them have been pretty well behaved ... and I'm pleased how police have responded."

Ramirez and Fargo said it was too early to estimate costs to the city.

The conference continues today and Wednesday. Some delegates are expected to join activists on a tour of local organic farms, but no mass protests are planned.

Monday, sitting in the shade of a towering Capitol Park tree, Sarah Linvill nursed her 10-month-old son, Roan, and explained what drew her to the chaotic scene.

"I'm concerned about Roan's future and his choices," she said, stroking her baby's head. "I find it ironic that our grocery store only has one shelf labeled 'health food.'

"Shouldn't all food be healthy?"

About the Writer The Bee's Dorothy Korber can be reached at (916) 321-1061 or Staff writers Tony Bizjak, Mike Bush, Steve Gibson, Elizabeth Hume and Lesli Maxwell contributed to this report.