Published on Monday, March 20, 2000 in the Boston Globe
Boston Braces For Bio2000 & BioDevastation2000 Starting This Weekend
by Jamal E. Watson and Raphael Lewis
Next to the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center on Boylston Street stands a 5-ton bronze statue called ''Quest Eternal,'' a depiction of humanity's noble pursuit of knowledge.
To the thousands of scientists who will gather at the Hynes next weekend for Bio2000, a major conference on biotechnology, ''Quest Eternal'' may seem a fitting metaphor for their life's work.
But to another segment of American society, the research being conducted by those attending the conference, which will focus on topics such as genetically engineered food and gene therapy, is nothing short of monstrous.
Judging by the feverish preparations conducted by the Boston Police Department in recent weeks, city officials are concerned that those strong emotions could erupt into violence.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino said the city is girding for the possibility that thousands of demonstrators may converge on the streets outside the Hynes and at other locations in the city to protest the conference, which will run through March 30.
''The police department has been training for several weeks,'' Menino said. ''We're ready and we're being vigilant, but we're not too concerned.''
City officials have been closely following plans for a protest rally and march to be staged Sunday in Copley Square. Authorities do not want to see clashes similar to those between protesters and police in Seattle, whose streets were turned into chaotic, impassable battle zones during a World Trade Organization conference last December.
''I've talked to the mayor of Seattle a couple of times, so we're aware and alert about what went on there,'' Menino said.
Seattle's leaders were criticized for failing to protect local merchants and maintain order at the conference, during which several businesses were damaged and looted.
Local protest organizers planning to demonstrate outside the Hynes, where 7,000 delegates will be in attendance, say Boston has nothing to fear.
They say their agenda consists of little more than a peaceful rally and a counter-conference at Northeastern University called ''BioDevastation 2000.''
''There has been no call to shut this convention down,'' said Mark Pelletier, president of the Boston Center for Nonviolent Change. ''We're just trying to educate the public and apply some ethics to the biotech industry.''
City Councilor Maura A. Hennigan (Jamaica Plain), who sponsored a recent resolution that called on the federal government to label bio-engineered foods, has spoken in support of the protesters, and has criticized city officials for ''overreacting.''
''If the city readies for violence, it's like ringing a dinner bell and saying `Come one, come all,''' said Hennigan, whose resolution also proclaimed Sunday as ''You Are What You Eat Day.'' ''The police may have raised the ante on this. I understand that they have to prepare, but it should be done in a much more quiet, inconspicuous way.''
Hennigan said that the protesters she is acquainted with have no intention of creating trouble, and that many plan to bring their children to events.
Judging by what occurred in Seattle, however, officials fear that sanctioned, non-violent protests could easily be infiltrated by groups with other objectives. Boston police officials say their intelligence indicates that some fringe groups may attempt to provoke violence at Bio2000.
''At this point there is no reason to be alarmed,'' said Sergeant Margot Hill, a Boston police spokeswoman. ''But we're going to monitor the situation and make sure that what the organizers are saying publicly about this being a nonviolent rally actually turns out to be that.''
Last week, Pelletier received a permit from City Hall to stage a rally of roughly 1,000 people. The permit calls for portions of Boylston Street to be closed on Sunday to allow protesters to march to the convention center.
The marchers will protest the ''effects of genetic engineering on our health, the environment, farms, and society,'' Pelletier said. He said the biotech industry has been irresponsible in its treatment of genetic engineering and corporate globalization.
News of the planned demonstration has done little to deter companies that had registered to attend the conference.
''I think that any time there is a threat of protest we should be concerned, but there's a lot of great reasons why we should be there,'' said Lara VandeWalle, who will set up a booth encouraging biotech firms to move to Rockville, Md. ''It's important that I attend this convention, because it's the one time that you get a chance to meet with the decision-makers.''
Similarly, businesses in the shadow of the convention center appear content with promises of protection from city officials.
''I don't know if they're downplaying the danger to be politically correct, but the police assured us they would be in full force and there won't be a problem,'' said Becky Caloggero, general manager of Whiskey's Smokehouse, a restaurant across Boylston Street from the Hynes.
William Black, maintenance manager of 855 Boylston St., an 11-story office building in front of the convention center, said a pair of police officers dropped by recently to make sure that the building's roof would be inaccessible to protesters.
''They were concerned about people throwing things,'' Black said. ''They didn't make a big deal of it or anything.''
Police officials have declined to say how many police officers will be deployed during the convention. Rally organizers have expressed concerns that an oversized police presence could give observers the mistaken impression that their cause is a violent one.
''The police will do what the police will do,'' Pelletier said. ''How they prepare is their business. If they have an excessive force, it's the taxpayers' dollars.''
This month, two Seattle police officers who were deployed during the WTO protests spent five days in Boston meeting with police to share cautionary tales. Hill said the lessons they shared - about strategies used by police and protesters - reflected a new era of not-so-civil disobedience.
Pelletier said his organization has nothing to do with what happened in Seattle, and that they are using the rally's official Web site to urge participants to refrain from violence, as well as from using alcohol and drugs.
''We encourage that you participate in nonviolent actions that do not endanger the viability of the rally or the health and safety of the public,'' the Web site states.
But Pelletier said he could not guarantee that everyone attending the rally would practice restraint.
''If there is an incident, we hope that the police will not overreact,'' he said, adding that he hopes officers would treat any outbursts as isolated. ''I don't expect that there will be any violence, certainly no more than any large gathering at a Red Sox game or `Disney on Ice.'''
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.