Activists Offer Alternatives to Biotech Conference
Published on Monday, June 7, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Elements of a Better World: Organic Chocolate, Massage
Activists Offer Alternatives to Biotech Conference
by Vanessa Hua, Chronicle Staff Writer

In the heart of San Francisco's shopping mecca on Sunday afternoon, activists gave away their vision of a better world: free massage, body painting, organic chocolates, plants and other gifts.

About 500 people thronged the "really really free market" in Union Square -- part carnival, part swap meet, part be-in -- that espoused the principal of a "gift economy," or things given away without the expectation of return.

That philosophy, activists said, stands in contrast to the "free market" -- economic systems that operate according to the principle of supply and demand -- that puts profit ahead of the environment, human rights and other values.

The market in Union Square was part of a weeklong series of rallies, teach-ins, forums and street theater to protest the four-day BIO 2004international convention, which began Sunday. The annual biotechnology conference is expected to attract more than 17,000 executives, analysts, researchers, job seekers and government officials to Moscone Center.

The conference is also drawing a hodgepodge of activists, including people against the war in Iraq, and others rallying for racial justice and the environment under an umbrella organization called Reclaim the Commons. Activists define "the commons" as "everything needed to support healthy life on Earth."

Shellie Smith gave away vegan cookies (made of pistachios, coconuts, dates and rosewater), plums from her backyard, and poems written on joss paper, used by traditional Chinese who burn it for the dead.

"It's a small way to embody a different set of values, about giving and receiving," said Smith, 36, an Oakland artist and masseuse.

Clothing made from natural fibers, sandals and big backpacks seemed the preferred style of attendees who ranged from punk teenagers to middle-aged hippies in T-shirts with political slogans. Incense wafted in the air along with the live reggae music on a sunny day.

Participants were instructed to bring "creative alternatives to greed" to the "conspicuous consumption center of San Francisco" -- Union Square, which is ringed by high-end retailers.

Organizers discouraged announcements, money, barter and trade -- and encouraged massage, performers, musicians and psychic readers.

More practically, the market was also billed as a free flea market and a chance for spring cleaning. It also provided insight into the lives of the activists.

Up for grabs: a used DKNY T-shirt, an old Gap rugby shirt and beat-up J. Crew jeans, signs that even the activists against corporate American cannot always escape wearing those brands.

Books given away included "5 Secrets to Self-Love," "Feng Shui Demystified," and "Talking Dollars & Making Sense."

"It's about sharing, and enjoying what we have instead of over- consumption," said Josh Fattal, a 22-year-old student at UC Berkeley, who brought clothes to give away, along with a piece of scrap metal. The metal "looks like art to me. I figure someone can use it," he said.

A young woman scooped up the metal object and carried it around the fair, showing it off to friends who exclaimed at its coolness.

The band Sandfly played reggae, while young and old hippies twirled and danced with carefree pleasure.

"The white guy is trying to rap, and loads of hippies are trying to dance, " said Charles Woods, 19, on vacation from England with his friend Nick Kemp. Both were laughing madly at the performances, but Woods added that he liked the art.

Other sideshows included a play involving dying butterflies, a giant farmer puppet with hands bound up in dollar bills, and an evil businessman squirting poison from a bottle; a small procession of pro-Palestinian activists; and people dressed as killer tomatoes.

Patricia Young, 73, giggled and danced while carrying a Macy's shopping bag. "The music makes people happy," said the visitor from England.

The event is "something about organics, right? I'm not sure if it makes all that much of a difference," Young said. "They didn't have organic food in the 1930s and '40s, after all."

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