PHILADELPHIA - To coordinate with the summer solstice, Tuesday was scheduled to be the biggest day of peaceful activity for protesters at BIO 2005, but things soured here by early afternoon following the death of a police officer.
The 52-year-old Philadelphia police officer who attempted to assist in a scuffle with protesters, collapsed, and was pronounced dead at Hahnemann University Hospital of an apparent cardiac arrest.
The officer was Paris Williams, a 19-year veteran with the force, BIO said.
In years past, the BIO conference and protesters have existed in a state of live and let live - we'll do our thing and you do yours - but now that attitude might have changed.
"We are saddened about this," said Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "We are angered about this." Commenting on reports that the officer was kicked after collapsing, Greenwood called it a "horribly misguided act" committed by "a violent thug."
He went on to say that biotechnology is considered by most in the world to be a positive influence on human health and business, but there is a small but vocal element that opposes it, which has made itself a smaller sideshow to the annual event. He added that many of them are "professional protesters" and said that "you could probably put 15 different conventions in here on different subjects" and attract the same lot.
The main group behind those protests is BioDemocracy 2005 - basically the same group behind protests at BIO 2004 in San Francisco but now operating under a different name. Their counter-conference runs for five days, involves red, blue and green color-coordinated protest marches, and is specifically aimed at providing an opposing viewpoint to BIO.
The group's presence has been felt throughout the conference, but a segment began Tuesday by demonstrating outside the GlaxoSmithKline plc U.S. outpost at One Franklin Plaza. In the summer of 2003, GSK stopped distributing its products to Canadian pharmacies that sold into the U.S. That affected U.S. seniors disproportionately, as they have been known to turn to Canada - either via the Internet or by crossing the border - as a source for cheaper drugs.
By 10 a.m., men and women of all ages had clogged the sidewalk outside the GSK area, holding signs and talking into microphones. As the crowd peacefully rallied, Philly's boys in blue stood to the side, keeping an eye on proceedings. The GSK building happens to be situated directly next to a BIO-sponsored hotel, and some morning registrants viewed the scene on their ride to the center. A young woman in a red shirt and black mask that conjured up Zorro stood and stared at the bus, her teeth in a grimace and her thumb out, defiantly pointed downward.
Safely on the other side of the glass, a bus rider watched and said, "You know they yelled at me and spit on me last year?"
"I'm glad that's not the door we needed to go through to get on the bus," said another.
From there, the group moved - signs held high, masks on, drums beating - to LOVE Park, also called JFK Plaza, situated diagonally across from City Hall. The plan was to rally there for about an hour, then march to the Convention Center in a show of strength. The location provided for a meshing of interests, as a group of skateboarders joined with BioDemocracy briefly to protest no-skateboarding laws instilled for LOVE Park in 2002, before they departed, zipping between cars during the lunchtime rush as a police chopper hovered above.
Biotech Protesters Have Three Broad Beefs
Standing on the edge of the park under a high-noon sun, Hart Feuer, media representative for BioDemocracy 2005, said that they have been protesting against BIO and certain aspects of biotechnology since 1998, back when the group initially was called BioDevastation. It changed its name to Reclaiming the Commons in 2004, he said, but changed it again this year.
"We aren't anti-biotech, but the corporatization' of it," he told BioWorld Today. "We aren't protesting biotechnology. We're protesting BIO. They have a multimillion-dollar media machine and their methods are questionable. That's what we are pushing against."
BioDemocracy 2005 has a working budget of $10,000 to $15,000 for its five days of events, and $400 specifically delegated for media purposes. That pales in comparison to BIO 2005, of course, so protesting is the only way the protesters feel they can voice their three main grievances, which are aligned by color.
Blue represents concerns over health getting pushed aside for corporate bottom lines, green stands for concerns over unlabeled genetically modified food, and red is aligned with concerns over bioweapons.
The group also sponsored a "teach-in and conference" Monday evening, which included a workshop titled "Biotechnology and the Corruption of Science," held at the Ethical Society Building at Rittenhouse Square. By the front entrance that night, youths lounged on the stairs and occasionally asked passers-by for money, but inside speakers aired their complaints about biotech's direction. Among those speakers was Randy Zauhar, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and the director of the graduate bioinformatics program at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, who spoke about scientific research ethics. Zauhar also was a presenter at a poster session at BIO 2005 on Monday, but Feuer said after Zauhar's participation, he wasn't allowed back at the convention center.
"BIO took away his [conference badge] and banned him from the conference," Feuer said. "I think that's ironic that they pulled his card, given what he's talking about."
Lisa Dry, director of communications at BIO, confirmed that Zauhar was involved in a poster presentation at BIO 2005, but was not able to confirm that his badge was revoked or his registration canceled.
The death of the officer tainted the afternoon, although most inside the exhibit hall were unaware anything had occurred. The rise of extremist activity has caught the biotech sector's attention and has been raised in importance by the FBI, so it's important for groups such as BioDemocracy to distance themselves from the fringe element, Feuer said.
At JFK Plaza, sweat beginning to dot his forehead, Feuer motioned with his hand to the contingent converged around the LOVE statue. "It's very positive and it's very fun," he said. When asked about extremists, he admitted that there are "sympathizers" to the extremist point of view in his group, but said BioDemocracy has no "contact with those types of people."
That might be true, but an officer died, and a family has lost its father. Greenwood got it right when he said, "There can be no excuse for violent actions during what are billed as peaceful demonstrations and the expression of First Amendment rights."
Washington Editor Aaron Lorenzo contributed to this article.