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Sacramento Bracing for Protests

Mass marches against genetically modified foods are expected at agricultural conference.

June 19, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Facing the prospect of mass protests, this city is girding for an international agriculture conference next week that could draw up to 8,000 foes of genetically modified foods.

Demonstrators said they intend to launch a series of nonviolent protests starting Sunday, when participants will begin arriving for the first Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology.

The three-day gathering, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is expected to draw more than 1,000 delegates from 100 countries to share ways of boosting farm productivity and curbing hunger in developing nations.

Opponents of gene-modified food say the conference is an attempt by the Bush administration to impose unproven technology on developing countries to foster business for the U.S. agricultural industry, which developed crops that resist pests and withstand herbicides.

They also contend that insufficient research has been conducted into health risks and environmental damage that could be caused by genetically engineered crops.

Proponents say that these technologies have been rigorously field-tested and that no one has ever fallen ill after eating genetically modified food. And biotrech foods can help ease world hunger, they say.

While protests at similar conferences in recent years failed to generate much hubbub, law enforcement officials worry that the Sacramento event could draw a far bigger uninvited crowd, coming just months after protests over the Iraq war clogged the streets of San Francisco.

Anti-war groups, in fact, have joined with longtime biotech foes to plan Sacramento protests. Flanked by comrades dressed in bug outfits, organizers made clear Wednesday at a news conference here that their aim is to disrupt the meeting through civil disobedience.

Patrick Reinsborough, a Bay Area anti-war protester representing the Mobilization for Food Sovereignty, Democracy and Justice, said he and other demonstrators intend to "literally put our bodies on the line."

"The police may make this look like a war zone, but we hope they'll be relatively mellow," Reinsborough said, adding that "hundreds of millions of people will have their eyes on Sacramento."

Law enforcement authorities say they intend to allow demonstrations to proceed without interference unless violence breaks out, property is damaged or thoroughfares are blocked.

Officials from the Sacramento Police Department, California Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies met this week with protest leaders and traded assurances with them that the demonstrations will remain peaceful, even if arrests begin to mount.

But authorities remain on guard against the possibility that small factions could produce the sort of destructive rampage that erupted during the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle.

"There's a very small segment, the anarchists," said Dwight O. "Spike" Helmick, Highway Patrol commissioner. "If they show up and do damage to buildings, we're not going to condone it. Aside from that, we're going to bend over backward to let these folks make their point."

The coming conference has already begun to alter life in the blocks straddling the Sacramento Convention Center and the state Capitol, where a demonstration and march also are set for Monday.

City crews spent much of the week welding storm drains and metal grates around street trees. At a telephone switching center across from the convention center, workers spent Wednesday boarding up part of the entrance.

Office building managers alerted tenants that doors will be locked and other security precautions taken during the conference, which will run from Monday through Wednesday. Two streets flanking the convention center will be closed to traffic, and curbside parking will be prohibited on several other blocks. At one skyscraper directly across from the convention center, office workers were told they would be issued special parking placards to get in.

Sacramento police have traveled to Seattle to talk tactics as well as to St. Louis and San Diego, which hosted agricultural or biotech conferences targeted by protesters. .

Time off for police has been canceled, officers have been told they might need to work longer shifts and plainclothes detectives have been ordered into uniform. Helmick said the CHP has called in 400 to 550 extra officers to boost protection around the Capitol, where a permit for Monday's demonstration estimates as many as 8,000 participants.

Last week, more than 200 Sacramento police officers practiced riot tactics, such as using pepper spray to disperse crowds. Sgt. Justin Risley, a police spokesman, said such techniques will be a last resort. "We want this thing to go down without any use of force," he said.

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