Biodev 2000: Protesting Genetic Engineering

The plywood that covered up storefronts along Boylston Street in Boston last Sunday wasn't necessary. Neither, it turns out, were many of the well-publicized police preparations for Biodevastation 2000. After last year's protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, though, police are on notice. This kind of activism could elicit over-the-top defense measures by police for years to come.When the news first broke that the annual conference of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) would be met with a rally, protest, and "counter-conference," the comparisons to Seattle began immediately. In some ways, they were inevitable and appropriate: many of the Biodevastation organizers also organized against the WTO in Seattle. "Direct action," the mischievous and creative form of protest that was everywhere in Seattle, was also a rallying cry of the organizations heading up Biodevastation, which included Northeast Resistance Against Genetic Engineering and the People's Earth Network. And some activists came prepared for civil disobedience.But as Biodevastation organizers geared up for the event, some found that the mainstream media -- which many protesters charged were little more than flacks for the biotechnology industry --didn't want to talk about the event in terms of anything but the clashes in Seattle. Reporters repeatedly asked about the potential for vandalism (which was perpetrated by a minority of protesters in Seattle), and for skirmishes with police. "In all the interviews I've done over the last few days, everyone has just asked about the violence," said Heather Albert-Knopp of Vermont's Institute for Social Ecology on Friday morning as people streamed into Northeastern University for the opening day of the counter-conference.The media weren't the only ones whipping up hype. The Boston Police Department did its bit too. No doubt Police Commissioner Paul Evans didn't want to go the way of Norm Stamper, the Seattle police chief who resigned in the wake of the WTO tumult. But by making public their consultations with Seattle police, and by warning Back Bay merchants about possible window smashing, the police department made the Seattle comparisons the story. Police never expected to see the same number of protesters in Boston as had descended upon Seattle, and protesters never said that they would try to shut down the BIO 2000 conference, but the Seattle genie, once out of the bottle, was out to stay.Which is not to say that all comparisons to Seattle were unwarranted: there is an important and clear link between Biodevastation and the WTO protests. But it has nothing to do with smashing store windows and rioting in the streets. Rather, it has to do with globalization and corporate power.In Boston the debate was framed around biotechnology; in Seattle it hung on trade issues. But the message in both cities was the same: corporations have too much power over our economy, our environment, and, ultimately, our health."It has to do with the growing understanding that the power of global corporations is completely out of control," says Brian Tokar, a Biodevastation organizer who is an instructor at the Institute for Social Ecology and the author of Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash (South End Press). "It has to be stopped, and the only way that it can be stopped is by thousands gathering in the streets and organizing in their communities." Activists, believing the mainstream press couldn't be trusted to get the story right, left nothing to chance. They set up an independent media center, based on a model used in Seattle, for the duration of Biodevastation. Called the Boston Independent Media Center, it posted photos, stories, and audio clips on its Web site throughout the week of protests.Much of the material on the Web site addressed an issue at the core of Biodevastation -- the idea that corporations are using biotechnology for their own benefit, at the expense of the environment and in violation of the rights of indigenous peoples. Concerns about corporate control of global trade were mentioned almost as often in Boston as they were in Seattle. (Indeed, some activists seemed to be involved in many causes -- when people were applauding for Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva on Friday night, for example, someone yelled out for a ban on genetically modified food, then added: "Free Mumia!")Seattle itself was mentioned frequently at the counter-conference. Ralph Nader, speaking on Saturday, flat-out called Biodevastation an extension of the WTO protests."I think there is a great amount of overlap [between Biodevastation and the WTO protest]," agrees Tamara Herman, one of many activists who came to Boston from Montreal, and who was also in Seattle. "It comes down to corporate control.... Globalization is all about the distribution of power. The reason that citizens like me are so uptight is that we see this corporate agenda as being an infringement upon democracy." That overlap will extend to Washington, DC, in mid April: many Biodevastation attendees plan to be there to protest the joint meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.Seattle was remarkable, among other things, for its unusual alliances, with environmental activists marching next to blue-collar union workers. The same dynamic was visible at Biodevastation, where scientists rubbed shoulders with anarchist youth, hippies, farmers, and everyone in between. During the counter-conference at Northeastern, I watched a young man in camouflage pants and a Black Flag sweatshirt walk by as 73-year-old John Kinsman, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who is vice-president of the National Family Farm Coalition, told me that farmers are "finding a loss of integrity" in their foods. "[Biotechnology] is a means for corporate transnationals to take control of our food and our food-producing lives," he said.Rain was a possibility on Sunday, but the weather turned out to be gorgeous. The vibe was festive in the hours before the rally and parade, which eventually drew more than 2500 people -- and no violence. "Does anyone want to hold a really great banner?" a woman wearing a huge pair of butterfly wings asked of no one in particular as she fluttered through the hundreds gathered early in the square.The police presence was heavy, but organizers, as they said repeatedly, didn't want mischief. In an alley near the Ritz-Carlton, where the puppets and costumes were being readied, a couple of protesters waved happily to what was either a news or a police helicopter in the sky above.The puppets and costumes were impressive and varied -- shiny metallic monsters, big mutant heads, butterflies. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN CRAZY FARMING TAKES OVER, read a painted piece of cardboard on the floor of the room where the protest's worker bees were getting ready. "They're little mobile lights, very exciting," said one woman as she attached light-bulb eyes to a huge tomato (or maybe strawberry) puppet with teeth.The rally picked up steam after 1 p.m., but things went sour for a moment when the bizarre Church of Euthanasia showed up with banners covered in messages such as EAT A QUEER FETUS FOR JESUS, prompting a shouting match with protesters who wanted them gone. "All right, guys, the good vibes are down there," a young man with dreadlocks said, pointing toward the stage as the speeches begin. "These people are into provocation," said one man angrily. "They probably work for the fucking FBI."That kind of suspicion was all over the place at Biodevastation. Activists planning the week's direct actions were convinced that the phones weren't safe, that they needed to maintain a "security culture." There was talk of e-mail tampering, and activists were reluctant to discuss their plans over the phone or in certain buildings. Some of this struck me as extreme, but some of it was probably justified. Were the activists needlessly paranoid, or was I was hopelessly naive?As colorful as Biodevastation was -- the puppets, the street theater, the big carrot prop right out of Woody Allen's Sleeper -- the best moment wasn't camera-ready at all.It came at the counter-conference on Saturday night, the same night that Ralph Nader spoke to an audience of several hundred at Northeastern University's Cabot Gymnasium. One person who couldn't be there was Martin Shaw. Shaw is a member of Genetix Snowball, a British anti-genetic-engineering group that has, as a form of protest, uprooted genetically engineered crops in the United Kingdom. At the time, Shaw had been detained for weeks in Vermont for overstaying his visa; he's since been deported back to England. But he still managed to be heard. He called from prison, his small voice coming out of a cell phone that was held up to a microphone. Shaw urged protesters in the suddenly quiet auditorium to "seize the week" and "believe in your significance," sometimes speaking through an intermediary when the sound was bad. Moments later, a band called Seize the Day took the stage.By Tuesday afternoon, Biodevastation organizers were already calling their event a success -- and citing it as evidence that what started in Seattle is not going to go away. Biodevastation drew big numbers, far bigger than any of the three previous grassroots gatherings against genetic engineering (in Seattle, India, and Missouri, all during the past two years). Those crowds prove that the issue is taking hold in America. Organizers succeeded in forcing the biotechnology industry to address their concerns -- the BIO 2000 conference Web site has posted an official response to the protesters, and on Sunday the industry called a press conference to defend genetically engineered foods.But the industry's response fails to grasp what much of the protest was really about. In the Web-site message, for instance, BIO president Carl Feldbaum points out that biotechnology could potentially help people with ailments such as cancer, which he suffered from. This is no doubt true, and so is Feldbaum's contention that genetic modification of food holds the promise of more-nutritious crops. But protesters' concerns go well beyond the science of, say, the human-genome project and the benefits it will yield. Their concerns have more to do with the notion that corporations can patent human genes. "The fact that the body of the research material is handed over to the market is scary," said demonstrator David Murphy, standing with about 30 other protesters Tuesday night at the JFK Library and Museum, outside a reception for CEOs attending the BIO 2000 conference. "If it were civil society rather than industry that was creating the ground rules on how this scientific information is applied, we would be in a much better place."Protesters are also concerned that scientists simply don't know what the long-term ecological and health effects of some biotech applications will be. But in the end, much of Biodevastation was about the same corporate power that the WTO protests were about, even if Boston proved to be nothing like Seattle in the way that police had feared. And it's another sign of what's to come at other meetings between institutions that help corporations control the global economy. Call it a signal that future meetings -- such as the Washington, DC, meetings in April -- will be met with a lot of people, a lot of protest, and, perhaps, a lot of mischief.Ben Geman can be reached at

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