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Report from San Diego--an organizer's overview

by Brian Tokar Tuesday, Jun. 26, 2001 at 10:24 PM
c/o Institute for Social Ecology, 1118 Maple HIll Rd., Plainfield, VT 05667

It was a difficult road to this past weekend's events in San Diego, coping with police disinformation and media complicity on an astounding scale. But it was a glorious day Sunday when well over 1000 marched on the convention center. Today's story: over 75 incidents of police harassment.

They said it couldn't be done. That we'd never be able to assemble hundreds of people for a peaceful demonstration against the biotechnology industry in San Diego. San Diego is an anomaly in today's United States. It's one of the few large cities whose economy is still overwhelmingly dependent on the military. Drive around for a couple of days and you'll see more submarine bases, naval warfare training bases, battleship construction facilities and missile defense testing installations than you'd ever imagine.

The police are thoroughly militarized too. Any time they bust a teenage kid for drugs,or break up a noisy frat party, it turns into a full scale military operation replete with armor, helicopters, the works.

The local news media tends to follows in lockstep, repeating whatever lies and distortions the officials care to spin out. The city government is corrupt to the core, people say--even the school department--and it never gets so much as a line of print or a few minutes on the evening news. And there's lots of evening news: six local TV channels in English and two in Spanish, more than enough to keep an understaffed activist media office running ragged for weeks.

The disinformation machine was in high gear in San Diego for over a month before this year's Biodevastation/Biojustice 2001 protests even began. Every night the cops were on TV saying it was going to be "like Seattle," claiming we were expecting up to 8000 protestors, telling shopkeepers to board up their windows. They said biotechnology was the future of San Diego's economy. They poured on the Seattle footage: "Violent protestors!" the announcer proclaimed, as they spewed out film showing nonviolent people in rain ponchos being gassed and shot at. It was American propaganda at it's most insidious.

We did spend more than 3 weeks being interviewed repeatedly about the dangers of genetic engineering: how corporations are patenting genes, driving up the cost of medicines and contaminating our food with unsafe, untested GE products. We explained that our intentions are educational and nonviolent, and that the millions spent by the Boston police for last year's biotech protests was an utter waste of taxpayers' money. They gave us lots and lots of reporter time. We learned that this does not necessarily translate into air time.

The "Beyond Biodevastation" teach-in began on a high note. By dinnertime last Friday, more than 400 people were in attendance, enough to nearly fill the large meeting hall at San Diego's First Unitarian Universalist Church. We listened to Percy Schmeiser from Saskatchewan and a panel of Midwestern US farmers talk about how the biotech industry is threatening the survival of family farms, and a cutting edge panel on biopiracy, patents and globalization with Vandana Shiva, Andrew Kimbrell (Center for Food Safety), Chaia Heller (Inst. for Social Ecology), Vicky Corpuz (from the Philippines) and Beth Burrows (Edmonds Institute). There were panels on biotech's irresponsible science, human genetic engineering, biological weapons, and organics and other alternatives. Finally, the full implications of genetic engineering for the earth and our future were in the forefront of the day's agenda.

Saturday was more difficult. Local activists had secured what sounded like a spectacular outdoor venue: the Starlight Bowl in the middle of historic Balboa Park. We had 2 amazing bands lined up--including L.A.'s stupendous Brasil Brazil--along with over a dozen of our best speakers, including an international panel of activists from the U.K., Colombia, Canada, South Africa and all over the U.S. An ideal scenario, except for the weather: it was the hottest day of the year so far, and the Bowl turned into one giant solar cooker even before our 10 AM starting time. At least two hundred additional people registered for the teach-in, but few could stand more than a few minutes in the heat and made the wise decision to head for the shade, whether that meant the few shady corners of the Bowl, behind the wall where numerous groups were tabling, or other areas of the park.

From backstage it looked empty, but who could blame people passionate about food and health issues for taking necessary measures to protect their health? Still, the day's program was unsurpassed, and it was preserved on video and audio tape by Lily Films, TUC Radio, and the San Diego IMC. Hopefully many more people will get to see and hear our program through those outlets than could stand to be out there in Saturday's blistering sun. Evening sessions at San Diego City College were much better attended, most notably a scathing report on biopiracy in Mexico by UNAM economist Andres Barreda.

Sunday was a whole different story, a thoroughly ecstatic day, featuring a rally in Balboa Park, a permitted march to the San Diego convention center, and a rousing closing rally right in front of the convention center, as biotech delegates were arriving for the opening of their annual convention. Everyone was there--AP estimated between 1000 and 1200 marchers--from local Raza Rights activists, families with children, the San Diego Greens, various socialist groups, union members, environmental justice activists, a multiracial drumming group, and hundreds who'd arrived on buses and planes from throughout California and across the country. Radical puppeteers from L.A. brought their 7-headed hydra, with heads depicting the leading biotech culprits: Monsanto, Novartis, Syngenta, Aventis, Du Pont, Dow and Cargill. There were giant balloons, butterflies, giant ears of corn, "Monsatan" with dollar signs in his eyes, and a whole contingent of George Bush clones dressed in white. It was exactly the colorful, lively display of opposition to the biotech threat to our future that we'd been planning since February.

Despite three weeks of media repeating endlessly that it was going to be a dangerous and threatening scene, hundreds of San Diegans hit the streets and many more were lining the streets to watch, even though the police were diverting traffic more than 2 blocks on either side of us. Monday morning we learned that some of our friends were out in the bay in a rowboat all Sunday afternoon, cruising the other side of the convention center and the neighboring parks, dressed as pirates, with huge signs saying things like "Mutiny against mad science," and "Our bodies are not biotech booty." It was a glorious, high energy day; this morning's paper even got a little more of our message right.

Today, Monday, it's back to business as usual, and the business of the San Diego police this week seems to be harassing activists. The Biojustice Legal Team reports at least 75 incidents of people being detained for things like jaywalking and having clear plastic license plate covers. A long-time Asian American activist from northern California was surrounded by cops in a parking lot. Two women artists from Maine were followed into a dark corner of an underground parking garage and surrounded and harangued for over two hours by no less than 14 uniformed officers. The harassment continued long after legal observers arrived on the scene.

Meanwhile, the good folks at the Biotechnology Industry Organization are saturating the airwaves here in San Diego. They've even got kids calling local talk shows (from who knows where) to tell us how they've been cured. Of course, there's nothing more heart-warming than such spontaneous expressions of gratitude. These people are shameless. Some things never change.

*** BREAKING NEWS: BIO has announced the dates for next year's biotech convention: June 9-12th IN TORONTO. CANADIAN ACTIVISTS ARE EXCITED ABOUT HOSTING BIODEVASTATION 2002, THE SIXTH SUCH GRASSROOTS GATHERING, TENTATIVELY BEGINNING ON FRIDAY, JUNE 7TH. SEE YOU THERE!

-------------------------------------------------

Brian Tokar is the editor of the new collection, Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering (Zed Books), which features the writing of many of the speakers at the past several years' Biodevastation teach-ins (www.zedbooks.demon.co.uk). He teaches at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont (www.social-ecology.org).

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correction to web addresses Brian Tokar Tuesday, Jun. 26, 2001 at 11:18 PM
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