Police, outnumbering biotech protesters, criticized for tactics
By Seth Hettena
Associated Press Writer
SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Police feared the worst: riots, arson, mayhem.
But turnout at the protests surrounding the annual biotech industry convention in San Diego this week are well below organizers' and officers' expectations. Demonstrators, who have mounted theatrical and largely peaceful protests, number in the hundreds, rather than the thousands that police have anticipated.
They have been met by a sea of blue uniforms, with officers making minor arrests on charges such as carrying picket signs attached to sticks that don't meet city codes.
According to the National Lawyers Guild, which has volunteers monitoring and videotaping the demonstrations, people have been detained by police for infractions such as jaywalking, and others have had their bags and cars searched.
Police officials admit they are using any infraction they can to get potential troublemakers off the streets and keep them off until the convention and the 15,000 delegates in attendance leave town.
"If it kept some people home from protesting, then we don't have a problem with that," police spokesman David Cohen said. "If they believe in their cause, they should have come on down, anyway."
At a rally Sunday, the presence of officers -- on horseback, on motorcycle, in riot gear, in squad cars, in helicopters and marching in street clothes among the protesters -- rivaled the fewer than 1,000 demonstrators.
The number of protesters had dwindled to about 50 Monday afternoon -- even less at times, said Officer Jim Johnson, a police spokesman who was keeping an eye on the protest area via video cameras.
Cohen said police are maintaining a large, visible presence to deter any trouble.
"It's way over the top," said Jeanne Merrill of the international environmental group Greenpeace. "There's a sense of being watched all the time."
Officers in riot gear, some clutching batons, marched alongside protesters Sunday, keeping a close eye on the dozen ninja-costumed anarchists resembling those who have been blamed for mayhem at other protests. A burning American flag was the closest thing to mayhem Sunday.
Mika Spencer, an attorney and member of the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said police had infringed on the First Amendment rights of the protesters.
"It's so grossly out of proportion to what was going on or what was likely to go on that it's gone beyond protecting property," Spencer said. She said she was not able to say what action, if any, the guild would take.
A total of 12 people had been arrested as of Monday afternoon, Johnson said. The only felony arrests involved two teen-agers taken into custody Sunday for carrying concealed weapons that police characterized as daggers.
Jonathan Swanson, 21, and Emily Weaver, 26, were being held Monday on charges of carrying a picket sign with a stick not within legal limits. City regulations for demonstrations forbid lumber holding up picket signs that is more than a quarter-inch in thickness and two inches in width.
"People came here to open up a democratic forum to be able to voice their concerns about the biotech industry," said Amelia Horton, a biotech protest who works with a group tracking police abuses. "The police were here to protect and serve the corporations, and not the people."
Police say they are determined to avoid a repeat of the violent clashes that marred the 1999 World Trade Organization gathering in Seattle, which led to more than 600 arrests and caused .5 million in downtown property damage.
Spencer said police tried to discourage protesters from showing up by waging a public relations campaign warning that demonstrations could turn chaotic and violent. She said she personally knows 15-20 people who stayed home, fearing things could take a bad turn.
"Everywhere you heard any stories," she said, "it was accompanied by, 'police are training for riots'."