Hundreds Protest Biotech Convention

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Seeking redress of a variety of genetic grievances, hundreds of anti-biotechnology protesters staged a loud, colorful and peaceful demonstration Sunday amid a large show of strength by police.

"It's time to not allow corporations to control our lives in this way," said Chaia Heller, an organizer with the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont.

With police lining the route, protesters marched from Balboa Park through downtown streets to Harbor Boulevard in front of the waterfront convention center, where a four-day biotechnology industry convention began Sunday.

"The whole downtown has been militarized," complained Han Shan, spokesman for the Ruckus Society, one of several groups that have banded together to hold a counter-convention called Biodevastation 2001.

Eight people were arrested, including two for carrying knives as concealed weapons. Two protesters were arrested Saturday for allegedly scrawling graffiti on a police car.

Police were determined to prevent a repeat of the violence and destruction of property seen outside global trade conventions in Seattle and Quebec. The tab for the police response to the convention has been set at $2.5 million, mostly for overtime for the hundreds of officers involved.

The turnout--estimated at 500 to 1,000--was far below what organizers had predicted. Still, organizers called the event a success at getting out their message about the dangers of food developed by gene-splicing and other bioengineering.

"With all the talk in the press about police anticipating violence, that might have kept some people away," said Greenpeace spokeswoman Jeanne Merrill. "But this march shows we're not about violence, we're about starting a dialogue about the dangers of bioengineering."

Hours after the protest, Gov. Gray Davis delivered the opening address to the BIO2001 convention, expected to draw 12,000 to 15,000 people from the $22-billion-a-year industry.

San Diego residents reacted with amusement to the march and the police.

"This is mellow. I was in Washington in the '60s--this is kindergarten," said Warren Mack of San Diego, as the march went by.

Passing a corridor of fast-food restaurants, protesters chanted, "Leave your whoppers, don't be scared of the coppers!"

Startled, one woman corralled four children into a Del Taco restaurant, telling them, "Get in, get in."

Concrete barriers and wire fencing kept the protesters away from the convention center. Protesters responded by hoisting a banner, "Biotech Perverts Get Out Of Our Genes."

One biotech executive waded into the youthful crowd and engaged a Greenpeace protester in an ad hoc debate about the merits of bioengineered salmon eggs.

"I have no trouble talking about real issues, but these protesters use science selectively, to scare people, not inform them," said Elliot Entis, head of Aqua Bounty Farms Inc. of Waltham, Mass., a company that is producing a super salmon-egg for salmon fisheries.

With drums, colorful costumes--including ears of corn, "mutant tomatoes" and mad scientists--and banners, the march was a cross between a '60s-style street protest and a mummers' parade.

Some protesters wore masks of President Bush. As police watched, protesters ripped up and danced on an American flag.

Police filmed every step made by a group of self-styled anarchists dressed in black, their faces hidden behind bandannas. Some of the members responded with rude finger gestures aimed at the police camera operator.

"We're from everywhere," said one protester from behind a black bandanna. Another said they would be peaceful unless "provoked."

Under the city's get-tough policy, anyone arrested was taken to jail. Police have said there will be no cite-and-release for protesters who break laws.

Police provided extra protection for businesses thought to be potential targets for vandalism: banks, fast-food restaurants, a grocery store and the Horton Plaza shopping center.

In some spots, officers were shoulder to shoulder, in others, motorcycle to motorcycle.

From a rooftop vantage spot, officers ensured that Starbucks was not damaged. As the marchers crossed Broadway, a police dog barked furiously.

One protester carried a sign, "Biotech Must Be A Crime. Look At All The Policemen Around."

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