Protesting the bio-whatever

A week of biotech protests ends, not with a bang but with battery failure
By MARGARET DORIS  |  May 18, 2007
WHAT ARE YOU DANCING FOR? Eighteen dancers showed to prostest the BIO 2007 convention. But they were as fuzzy as their boas on a lot of details.

There was trouble on Back Bay’s Ipswich Street.

Across the street from Jillian’s gaming emporium, where the BIO 2007 attendees gathered for their trade convention’s closing party, a dance protest against biotech was in full swing. Eighteen dancers, and about as many uniformed police officers, occupied the sidewalk. The protesters, decked out in feather boas, hazmat suits, and gas masks, gyrated. They held aloft blood-red lettered signs warning EBOLA KILLS. “You try to scream but terror takes the sound before you make it,” cried Michael Jackson from a boom box. “You start to freeze as horror looks you right between the eyes. You’re paralyzed.”

On the opposite sidewalk, a couple of conferees shook their heads pityingly. “Don’t they know if there’s Ebola, a gas mask isn’t going to help them?” one asked.

The protestors were a little fuzzy on a lot of details, not just the difference between blood-borne and air-borne viruses. They weren’t really sure what the convention was about — although they “knew” it had something to do with biotech weapons. They believed — despite the in-the-flesh appearance of Governor Deval Patrick and the videotaped address by Senator Ted Kennedy — that thousands of conference attendees had landed in Boston uninvited.

The dissenters had no literature and no contact information, although one of them did have a Web address scrawled on her arm. Still, they held the beat. A bearded guy with tats and a bullhorn dared those at the conference to come across the street and dance.

They’re out to get you, there’s demons closing in on every side/They will possess you unless you. . .”

And then the boom box died.

So ended the week of biotech protests, not with a bang but with a battery failure. The lack of sustainable energy was noticeable throughout the week, as protests and anti-BIO workshops failed to attract more than a handful of participants.

By last Thursday, BIO 2007’s record 22,366 attendees had mostly moved on, their free BIO shoulder bags stuffed with white-chocolate lab mice and foam cloned-sheep stress balls. Only a handful had heard Michael Jackson on the streets, but nearly all had had the opportunity to hear Michael J. Fox call for increased funding for drug development at an industry-sponsored luncheon.

But in addition to the sad protests, BioJustice, the group dedicated to countering the BIO 2007 effort, sponsored a couple of events with high-profile speakers, including an international farmers’ forum with Anna Lappé of the Small Planet Institute and Ignacio Chapela, a controversial activist opposed to genetically modified organisms who was initially denied tenure at Berkeley. A panel discussion on biotechnology, medicine, and human rights also featured Judy Norsigian of Our Bodies Ourselves fame, lawyer and bioethicist George Annas; John Abramson, author of Overdosed America; and Sandy Eaton, chair of Mass-Care, the Massachusetts campaign for single-payer health care. There were plenty of empty folding chairs that could have easily accommodated both the absent participants and the absent police.

BioJustice media liaison Erin Ryan Fitzgerald admitted, “I really haven’t cracked the code” and figured out why people fail to turn out for certain events. “A lot of people missed some really great events right in their own backyard,” she added ruefully.

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