DULZURA — Past the cardboard sign that reads “Ruckus,” at the end of a dirt road high in the Jamul mountains, protesters are training this week to take to the streets of San Diego during an upcoming biotech industry convention.
The industry insists it is pioneering new technologies that benefit humanity by fighting disease and other health risks, increasing crop yields and eliminating pests.
Opponents, however, are convinced that biotech companies are introducing potentially harmful, genetically engineered products into homes and farms, placing profits above people.
In the past, the Ruckus Society has trained activists who have disrupted global trade meetings and political conventions. Now it’s preparing for the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, or BIO, to be held June 24-27 in San Diego.
San Diego police are anticipating that thousands of protesters will hit the streets next month.
“We’re planning for the worst-case scenario: That is, thousands of demonstrators, some of whom plan on being violent or destructive,” Assistant Chief of Police John Welter said. “We will not tolerate violations of the law, and we will arrest and prosecute. But if they come here to demonstrate lawfully and peacefully, we want to work with them.”
Han Shan, a spokesman for the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society, said he did not know how many people would protest in San Diego. But he hoped the turnout would surpass the turnout at the 2000 BIO convention in Boston, where police counted 2,500 demonstrators.
The Ruckus Society believes violence is not the way to build support for its cause and distanced itself from the anarchists linked to chaos at the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and other cities, according to Shan.
“You want to talk about those folks, you should find some because you’re in the wrong place,” he said. “I’m not out there making enemies. I’m out there to change the debate.”
More than 12,000 industry leaders and executives are expected to attend what BIO expects will be its biggest convention ever. The conventions have drawn large but peaceful demonstrations in other cities over the past three years.
About 90 percent of the researchers and executives who plan to attend the San Diego convention are working on cures for cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions, according to BIO officials.
But people training at the Ruckus Society’s BioJustice Action Camp east of San Diego believe profit-centered biotech firms are also unleashing genetically modified “frankenfoods” and other potentially devastating technologies on the unwitting public.
“We think there is another agenda,” said 31-year-old Simon Harris of Berkeley, who attended the camp. “And that is control.”
At past BIO conventions, activists have called for an end to the sale of genetically engineered products and tougher regulation of the industry.
They have also singled out the practices of individual companies.
Harris said his goal at the upcoming protests will be to “bring some sunshine on the biotech industry and make them more accountable for what they’ve been doing.”
The 150 people attending the camp on the grounds of the Madre Grande Monastery explored the basics of nonviolent protest: forming blockades, climbing buildings to hang banners, political theater and tips on how best to deal with tear gas fumes.
Actor Woody Harrelson, a veteran of California protests, was expected to drop by the camp by Saturday.
San Diego police aren’t disclosing details of their plan involving the convention, but Welter said enforcement costs could reach $1 million.
“We have to make sure we don’t overreact or underreact,” he said.
“If you overreact, you look like you’re limiting freedom of speech. If you underreact, people say ’where were the cops?”’ BIO officials said they were prepared for the protests, which have had little impact on past meetings, according to Carl Feldbaum, the organization’s president.
“The introduction of a technology into a raucous democracy is going to create controversies, and that’s something we have to expect.”
“I wish some of the demonstrators would talk to their parents about what kind of diseases and conditions the biotech industry has already addressed,” he said.
On the Net:
Ruckus Society, www.ruckus.org
Alternate “Biodevastation” convention, www.biodev.org