SAN FRANCISCO - For attendees in hotels close to the BIO 2004 convention, upon awakening Tuesday it was clear that something was different, as morning traffic sounds were mixed with the chatter of helicopters criss-crossing the skies over the Moscone Center.
Local news reported traffic snarls as police and protestors staked out territory around the center. A group of about 45 protestors on bicycles circled surrounding blocks. On Fifth Street, city buses unloaded police officer after police officer, who then fell into formation and marched toward the center. At the corner of Mission and Fourth streets, protesters and police stared at each other, the police refusing passage through barricades as a young woman tried to climb and hang off a crosswalk light. Down by the North and South buildings, demonstrators sat together, devices linking their arms. Twenty-five protestors were arrested.
All before 8 a.m.
Pre-conference protester propaganda had promised "a demonstration unlike any the world has ever seen." The idea was to shut down BIO 2004.
In that regard, the effort failed. Although over the course of the day it was estimated that between 500 and 1,000 protesters were on the street, the conference went on as scheduled. Authorities had been preparing for months and were in full force.
"The police presence was unbelievable," said one attendee.
Sunglasses, combat boots, riot helmets - they meant business and lined the streets, guiding registrants through barricades and keeping demonstrators localized.
Commenting on one protester faction sporting black clothes and red kerchiefs tied over their faces, one officer called them "some sort of anarchists" and said they "usually like to try to jump over the barricades and fight the police." He shrugged.
Although the shutdown didn't occur, the group did make it uncomfortable for some attendees, who were forced to file past them, conference bags in hand, badges around necks, listening to jeers and demands that "biotech go home."
Protesters shouted all sorts of things, some directly related to biotech, some not. But the group behind the movement is Reclaim the Commons - it is organized, media-savvy and sports a focused message.
Having "gotten lucky," as one member put it, the group rented a high-ceilinged, open industrial space as its headquarters a few blocks from the Moscone Center. Inside, activists of all ages moved about. Individuals passed out watermelon. Demonstrators in full costume sat on the floor in small circles and rested, sharing food. In the corner of a room designated as a clinic to treat injured protesters and complete with herbal medicines, member Brian Tokar sat down to explain the group's desires.
Commons, he explained, are the basic aspects of life that used to be excluded from corporate ownership - land, water, air, soil, etc. The problem with biotechnology, he said, is that today "basic cellular structures of life are being incorporated into the commercial sphere." If that direction continues, he said, we'll be living "in a world where everything is privatized and corporations control every aspect of our lives."
"That's a pretty horrific view of life," he told BioWorld Today.
But to attendees walking to the conference, protesting against an industry that fights HIV, cancer and cardiovascular disease seems inane. However, it's not the science that had demonstrators linked together, disrupting rushhour traffic, Tokar said.
"Only about 8 [percent] to 10 percent [of BIO 2004 attendees] are scientists," Tokar said. "The rest are corporate people, lawyers and investor relations people. The corporate people have hijacked the way science is done." He'd like to see decisions on research priorities given back to the scientist and taken out of corporate and lawyer hands.
Tokar is not the 22-year-old firestorm screaming chants often seen in television coverage of protests. He has a master's degree in biophysics from Harvard University, teaches at the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield, Vt., and has edited two books on biotechnology - "Redesigning Life," published in 2001, and "Gene Traders," being published now. He said science needs to "get back to basics," which means looking at the causes of disease.
"The same companies that are pushing biotech are the same ones responsible for the worst chemical hazards of the past 50 years," he said, adding that those companies now profit on the cancer they gave to the population in the first place.
Another complaint from protesters is genetically modified food. It's not GM crops needed by the world to feed its hungry, he said, because biotech has not "demonstrated any significant increase in yield in the past 20 years." Where yield has increased has been through improvements in "very traditional crop methods, such as education about pest cycles and crop rotation," he said.
With so much money behind the sector now, it takes protests just to get attention, he said.
"We've seen how the biotech industry has worked to keep this out of the media," he said. "Everything we do is part of what we need to do to get the truth out."
When asked about the effectiveness of Tuesday's protest, he said, "I think there was some good dialogue today between [attendees and demonstrators]."
It definitely was the talk of the conference, as registrants walked from building to building amid the sound of protester drums. But inside Moscone, it was business as usual. The official count of registrants had increased to 16,393, and in the exhibit hall, it remained flesh-pressing and business cards. Few people seemed unsettled by those outside.
"It was nothing," said Chris Gade, vice chair, division of communications at Mayo Clinic, talking about his morning trip to the center.
"I didn't even see any protesters," said a booth attendee, although he admitted he came in from the opposite direction of the main demonstration and arrived after 9 a.m.
Those outside the center missed out on all the marketing giveaways going at the conference, but Tokar still was able to gauge one of Genentech Inc.'s marketing pieces.
Attendees at Tuesday's breakfast were given a packaged black square with Genentech's logo on it, the contents unclear. At the headquarters of Reclaim the Commons, Tokar took the square into one of the bathrooms. The floor was wet and a few people waited to use the stalls. Standing over a sink, he placed the black object under a stream of water - an offhand guess was that the square would unfold into a double helix.
The square slowly loosened and became what it is supposed to be - a black T-shirt. He read the print: Genentech. Changing the course of medicine. He held the shirt out, tag visible.
"I don't have my glasses on, what does it say?" he asked.
Fruit of the Loom.
"It's not even biotech," he said.
The conference continues through today.