St. Louis is home to the giant agribusiness company, Monsanto, perhaps the most recognized name in the biotech industry.
Far from being hostile to the biotech industry, the city and state governments ofMissouri seem eager to support it in every way possible through official government-industry collaborations. By supporting biotech, they believe it can help bring money into the state and into St. Louis. The city’s mayor, the governor, and Missouri Senator Kit Bond all support plans to make Missouri a hub of biotech money and activity as the “BioBelt” state.
The World Agricultural Forum is a part of that campaign. It was founded in 1997 as an annual St. Louis conference as “the only neutral, inclusive, forum that allows for the comprehensive discussion of…global agricultural policy.” World officials and members of corporations and nonprofit groups are invited to the lavish event, held this year at Union Station in downtown St. Louis. In reality, while members of groups with opposing viewpoints may be included, the WAF receives its primary funding from Cargill and other agribusiness giants. Its Board of Directors includes executives from Monsanto, Edward Jones, Anheuser-Busch, and the Emerson Electric Company.
Instead of bringing together a diverse group of people to formulate solutions to world hunger, the WAF, according to many farmers, scientists, and biotech critics, is merely a public relations vehicle for the interests of big agribusiness companies.
In response to such pro-business meetings, activists have organized an alternative conference, known as “Biodevastation,” in order to discuss the implications of the use of agricultural biotechnology on a global scale. During the seven years of its existence, the conference, has been held in the same city as the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), during its annual meetings held within the US and Canada. Biodevastation features panels and workshops led by some of the leading critics of the biotech industry. It has generally drawn between 100 and 150 participants, usually culminating in a protest outside BIO’s meeting, with the number of demonstrators ranging from a few hundred to upwards of 2,500.
Despite a history of small, peaceful protests, St. Louis police told the press in the weeks before this year’s WAF that they were preparing for “violent” protests, possibly “another Seattle,” a reaction that could only be described as alarmist.Needless to say, there were many differences between the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and the demonstration planned for the WAF. In the United States, no biotech issue has ever drawn anywhere near the numbers that the anti-corporateglobalization movement has. Furthermore, the WAF protest was much less publicized; the organizers never intended that demonstration to be a national, much less international protest. It’s not clear why neither a professional security firm, nor a metropolitan police department, were able to understand these differences.
As part of their preparation, the police were shown videos of an officer on fire in Seattle and of protestors attacking police dogs and horses. Seattle officers who were on duty during the WTO protest also briefed St. Louis police in person. On St. Louis Coptalk, an online discussion forum for St. Louis-area officers, several users expressed wishes to do bodily harm to demonstrators. The department commissioned aerial photographs of Union Station and the surrounding area to map out possible protest scenes. They coordinated their plans with Allied Intelligence, the firm hired by the WAF to handle security during their conference. They also began planning preemptive raids on the Bolozone, a cooperatively owned house, and the Community Arts and Media Project (CAMP) building, both connected with the organizers of Biodevastation. The first target was Bolozone. Since it was bought out of condemnation in 1998, members of the collective had been working to bring it up to code. That weekend, the Bolozone was housing about thirteen out-of-towners, members of the Flying Rutabaga Cycle Circus, who were touring the country performing a play about genetically engineered foods. At about 10:30am on the morning of Friday, May 16th, two days before the opening of the WAF, police appeared in front of Bolozone with several paddy wagons and a board-up crew. They based their raid on the pretext that Bolozone’s building permits had expired and the building was condemned. The members of the collective, however, had not been notified by the city. Police arrested fifteen people and shut down the house. Several days later, when those arrested were allowed to return briefly to Bolozone to gather their belongings, they discovered that many items within the house had been very obviously damaged or destroyed, while others were missing. Allegedly, certain items had been deposited in the toilet, a camera and video camera had been smashed, a photo defaced with a drawn-on mustache, sleeping bags and bike tires were slashed, and clothes had been drenched in urine.
Not long after the police had raided Bolozone, they arrived at the Community Arts and Media Project (CAMP), whose building was in the midst of being renovated as a multi-use community center, with offices for several nonprofit organizations and a couple of apartments. The Gateway Green Alliance, the local organizer of Biodevastation and the WAF protest, is located at CAMP.According to resident Art Friedrich, members of CAMP were told they had to consent to a search or the building would be condemned. They confiscated “two cell phone bills,multiple journals, assorted paperwork that I was not allowed to inspect, and a CD-ROM drive.”
Nearby, police stopped a van of activists en route to the conference and told occupants they were violating the seat belt law. They were all arrested, while the driver, organizer Sarah Bantz, was charged with drug possession for what later turned out to be vitamins. The vehicle was impounded for the weekend. In perhaps the oddest situation, police stopped nine cyclists outside Tower Grove Park and arrested them for “bicycling without a license,” in violation of a law that had been taken off the books two years ago. They were later charged instead with “impeding the flow of traffic.”
The level of fear that the St. Louis street police displayed towards the protestors was illustrated by an interview in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article with a policeman who participated in the Bolozone raid. He explained that the police force had been conditioned to think of the activists coming to protest the WAF as “terrorists.”He feared for his life as he neared the Bolozone. To his surprise, he was greeted by women painting flowers on signs in the backyard. “I know bad people when I see them. These weren’t them…I think the street cops got used,” he said.
Nevertheless, on the afternoon of May 16th, the Police Department repeated its allegation that the anti-WAF activists had violent intentions. At a press conference, Chief of Police Joe Mokwa displayed whips, torches, butane, roofing nails, batons, a bag of rocks and a slingshot found at Bolozone and said ominously that “we can certainly draw conclusions and expectations after we found these items.”
However, the May 18th protest of the WAF was peaceful and small,without incident, exactly the opposite of what the police had anticipated. The organizers of the protest contend that their plan had always been for a peaceful and legal weekend. They maintain that the police cannot justify their actions, which they say violated the rights of the activists. According to the organizers, the police did little to protect the populace, but rather trampled on peoples’ rights and certainly portrayed a negative image of St. Louis to those who had gathered there for a completely legal event. The activists are now awaiting the results of a probe by the Police Department’s Division of Interior Affairs, which is seeking to determine whether their officers participated in property damage. Police Chief Mokwa has stressed that any officers who participated in such destruction will be “disciplined.” However, according to Mokwa, their findings are not likely to be made public. A report on the probe was due June 20, but, as of August 1st, has not yet been completed.
The Eastern Missouri American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) intends to file a civil rights lawsuit against the City of St. Louis pertaining to the police department’s targeting of activists in the days before May 18th. The events have also renewed calls for an independent citizen review board of the Police Department.
The ACLU will file its case after hearings for those accused have been completed. The activists, meanwhile, are hoping that they are given the redress they feel they deserve. To them, it was a little shocking to find out that the Police Department had labeled them as “terrorists” and treated them so unjustly.
There is now an Indymedia site devoted specifically to the issue of biotechnology/genetic engineering, mainly with postings that are published on other Indymedia websites, as well as direct coverage of special events.
Sehvilla Mann is a home schooled high school student, activist, and Urbana native. She became interested in biotech food issues after attending a protest at Monsanto’s headquarters in August 2000. Since then, through her involvementin WEFT 90.1 FM and the UC-IMC, she has written numerous pieces about the social and environmental implications of the use of agricultural biotechnology and increased corporate control of the food supply. On May 16th, she was in St. Louis to attend Biodevastation 7.