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10 Protesters Arrested as Agriculture Meeting Winds Down in Sacramento

June 25, 2003|Eric Bailey and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Protesters and police continued their urban dance of nonviolent civil disobedience and subsequent arrests for a third straight day Tuesday as an international agriculture conference that became a flash point for foes of genetically modified crops wound down.

After two days of bigger marches, a smaller group of about 100 protesters remained Tuesday to parade around the leafy blocks fanning out from the California Capitol.

At each turn, the mostly youthful demonstrators, banging drums and chanting slogans, met unyielding lines of riot police. About 10 arrests were made throughout the day.

Meanwhile, delegates from 120 nations continued to meet behind a wall of security at the Sacramento Convention Center, where the first Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology is set to wrap up this morning.

The conference is billed by organizers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an attempt to generate momentum to fight global hunger with scientific advancements.

The meeting came as President Bush this week continued to pressure European governments to drop a boycott against genetically engineered foods, which he said could ease famine in Africa.

Caroline Lucas, a European Union member of Parliament, said the Bush challenge is viewed "with great hostility" and represents an "aggressive attempt" to control what Europeans eat.

Critics of the conference say it is nothing more than a Bush administration trade show intended to help agribusiness giants spread genetically modified crops throughout the developing world.

After a relatively calm day Monday, when many office workers in Sacramento remained home, the city was abuzz Tuesday as protesters hit the streets midmorning.

The most heated standoff with police came about 10:30 a.m., as about 50 demonstrators massed across from the convention center. A dozen sat down on busy J Street, stopping traffic and were promptly warned by police to disperse.

When they refused, officers in riot gear circled the protesters and began making arrests. In the resulting showdown, five people were arrested. Several protesters criticized police for not giving them an escape route, and one woman who wasn't apprehended said an officer used a Taser gun on her.

"It was not a pleasant experience," said Star Hawk, 52, a San Francisco writer. She showed a welt on her left underarm that she said was the result of the electric charge of the Taser.

"I don't understand why the nonviolent protest around this issue is so threatening that they have to use such force," Hawk said.

Sacramento police countered that the department, which was expecting as many as 10,000 protesters during the three-day meeting, believed it was best to be well prepared to avoid the sort of melee that occurred in Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting.

"It's not like these people are sitting back and we're coming in with no provocation," said Capt. Sam Somers of the Sacramento Police Department. "We're responding to the acts they commit. They're the instigators."

But some bystanders were left shaking their heads.

Downtown businessman Dustin Corracon, 60, watched as the protesters jostled with police. "This is unbelievable. There are four cops with guns for every one protester," he said. "I grew up in the '60s when there were real demonstrations. I find their overreaction amazing."

Others raised fiscal concerns over a conference that almost certainly won't have brought in enough revenue to pay the costs of days of around-the-clock policing and months of preparation.

"There's no way, no matter how the Chamber of Commerce spins it, this paid for itself in terms of increased revenues," said Bob David, a hospital trade association executive. "If the city gets stuck with the bill, I'm not happy. It should be the responsibility of the federal government."

As the day wore on, the protesters marched through city streets, stopping traffic as they passed the Capitol, City Hall and the county jail, where they yelled to cohorts they believed were behind bars there.

They then headed back to the abandoned Mexican restaurant that has housed their command center, marching a mile north of downtown flanked by police on horses, bicycles and foot. A few protesters began to moo as the procession wound up the street.

Since the protests began Sunday, city police had arrested 75 people, mostly for failure to disperse, Somer said. Three were arraigned Tuesday on misdemeanor charges, released and assigned a court date. One woman's court appearance was delayed until Thursday, when she will be arraigned on a felony charge.

Meanwhile, 15 miles away at UC Davis, about 25 protesters entered a biology research building, where two men suspended themselves by rope in an open stairwell. A third locked himself to a railing.

Hanging in midair and locked together at their necks, the two men shouted, "Corporate greed is destroying our trees!" Within hours, all three were cut loose and arrested.

Neelima Sinha, a professor of plant biology, spoke angrily with some of the protesters. No genetic research on trees is conducted in the building, Sinha said, adding, "They are a very misguided and misinformed group of protesters."

*

Times staff writer Kathleen Flynn also contributed to this report.

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