BOSTON - When 20,000 delegates, including scores of dignitaries, descend on Boston for an international biotechnology conference starting Sunday, they will be met by dozens if not hundreds of protesters and by police bracing for what could be the biggest demonstrations in the city since the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Police and protest organizers said they expect the demonstrations to be peaceful, but authorities are monitoring Internet chatter on websites frequented by anarchists and radical environmentalists from across the country, and are preparing for significant disruptions and violence.
Just in case, police have set up a block-long protest zone with room for hundreds of people across the street from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston, which is hosting the conference, the world's largest annual gathering of corporate executives, scientists, and politicians involved in biotechnology.
During the four-day conference, State Police will provide security for a dozen or so governors who are expected to attend, and the State Department will coordinate with local officials to safeguard Queen Noor of Jordan, who is scheduled to give the keynote speech on Tuesday.
Jeffrey Joseph, a vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which is sponsoring the conference, said organizers are concerned that Boston's large concentration of universities and biotech companies will lead to more aggressive protests than at recent conferences. There were limited demonstrations in Chicago last year and in Philadelphia in 2005, though a police officer died after a heart attack during a scuffle with protesters there. The group met uneventfully in Boston in 2000.
"We have been paying particular attention to Boston . . . because Boston has a unique confluence of a highly engaged academic community . . . and it is one of the top biotech centers in the world," Joseph said yesterday.
The activists, who plan a press conference tomorrow on their plans, have their own schedule of protests covering such issues as animal rights and the Boston University biological research laboratory currently under construction in the South End, where scientists will work with some of the world's most deadly viruses and bacteria. The activists also plan panel discussions on international farming , and on the topic of medicine and human rights.
Erin Ryan Fitzgerald, an organizer with the local environmental group BioJustice 2007, said that local activists have set up a meeting place for out-of-town activists in Chinatown.
"They can exchange literature or throw out ideas to other groups and organize from there," Ryan said. "We care about our city and we don't want anybody getting hurt or getting put in danger."
Fitzgerald said that her group does not plan to protest at the convention, but other groups are likely to do so.
"It'll probably be similar to years past with the BIO -- convergence, marches, mass demonstrations," she said in a telephone interview yesterday. "It's all pretty much peaceful, but people are pretty outraged."
James Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, said that his security officers and Boston police attended the Chicago conference last year to hone security plans and have been planning for the convention since then.
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He said officials are optimistic that protests will be peaceful, since there have been no major protests at recent biotech conventions. Rooney said his worst fear is a repeat of the violent demonstrations in Seattle for the 1999 World Trade Organization conference that led to the arrests of more than 600 people. A small minority among the 40,000 protesters lit fires in the streets and broke store windows.
Boston Police Superintendent Robert Dunford said that besides a march approved for Sunday afternoon to weave through Dudley Square in Roxbury, past the controversial Boston University biolab on Albany Street, and into the South End, police are also aware of an animal rights group seeking a permit for a demonstration outside the World Trade Center in South Boston on Tuesday night.
Citing operational security, Dunford would not say how many additional officers will be on duty. He said officers will not wear riot gear, but will be a visible presence on horses, bicycles, and motorcycles. He said that while there will be a major deployment of police and emergency medical workers, it will not be as extensive as during the Democratic National Convention, when officers patrolled with machine guns. Police do not plan to close any streets for the duration of the conference, he said, though there may be some temporary closures for the Sunday march.
"Anyone who wants to peacefully demonstrate is welcome," he said in a telephone interview yesterday. "We will not tolerate property damage. We will not tolerate violence."
The department's main concern, he said, is violent protestors hijacking peaceful marches to wreak havoc.
"BioJustice, some of the animal rights groups -- they're legitimate groups. They peacefully demonstrate," he said. "There may be some people who take advantage of that."
Joseph said that his organization is covering the bulk of security costs inside the convention center, but the Boston Police Department is paying for security outside the building.
Department officials would not say how much they expect to spend. The department is talking to state officials about sharing security costs, but no agreement has been reached, Dunford said. Charles McDonald, spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety, declined comment yesterday.
Dunford said groups hosting conventioneers at private parties around town have agreed to hire police details for extra security.
Unlike Massachusetts, which has not provided any financial support to the conference organizers, Illinois officials spent $1 million to bring the conference to Chicago, Joseph said.
Dorothy Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said that the security costs show why the city needs a meals tax. Chicago has a 2.5 percent local tax and New York a 4.125 percent tax, she said, higher than the 1 percent tax Menino hopes to attach to meals.
"The people coming to the city to enjoy our city should help pay for the public safety and upkeep of our city," she said.
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