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The Mass Arrest: Part II of Protesting Bio 2004

On the evening of June 8th, 128 activists were encircled and arrested at Market & 5th in San Francisco
We'd spent the morning protesting the BIO 2004 convention at the Moscone Center. The UN Plaza was where the evening event was to begin; it been billed as "Reclaim the Streets -- Mutant Street Party."

A website announcement for the event read: "A free renegade street party will unwelcome the Biotech Conference to San Francisco, and toast the death of the G8 meeting in Georgia."

The party would be a form of street theater; it struck me as a somewhat zany but nevertheless creative way to express our protest. Humor could be an effective way of getting our message out.

I arrived a little after 5 p.m. As I approached, I could hear music playing. A couple hundred people were already there, and more kept arriving. Most were young, and a good many, perhaps the greater part, were dressed in black, indicating that they were anarchists -- the "Black Bloc." Several carried anarchist black and red flags, and, as is their custom, a good many wore bandanas over their faces.

One masked anarchist had brought his dog, who was also masked, wearing a kerchief over its face, holes cut for its eyes. The poor animal didn't look at all happy about it, but nevertheless patiently went along with it, perhaps somehow intuiting that this was one of the requirements of being an anarchist canine.

Other people were dressed in various mutant costumes, which was the theme of this evening. Some wore ET masks, others fish or vegetable costumes. One woman carried an inflated plastic lizard with a long, Pinocchio-like nose. Presumably it was a reference to the lying reptiles of the Bush crowd.

A good many of us, like myself, were just in our usual street clothes.

Music was playing, and some people were dancing. A group near me was practicing acrobatics; they took turns doing somersaults on the grass. Others were writing slogans with thick pieces of chalk. "Reagan is dead! Yeah!" a woman was writing on a post. Most slogans were about biotech and reclaiming the commons.

I was standing near a group who were discussing the seed patenting strategies of the biotech corporations. The companies were trying to drive traditional seeds that had existed for thousands of years out of existence, leaving only their patented seeds. Thus, by destroying an important part of our biological heritage, they would stand to gain monopoly control over the seed market.

"It's privatization gone wild," said one, a young woman carrying a sign with the drawing of a corncob on it.

"And when practitioners of such things hold a convention, our tax dollars are spent on guarding them with massive numbers of police," said another. "When we go there to speak out, we risk arrest."

By 6 p.m., some 400 of us had gathered, and we set out along Market Street in the direction of the financial district. At our midst was the portable sound system which was playing loudly. We walked on the sidewalk at first, but there were so many of us that we soon we spilled over into the street. Some of the motorists, despite the inconvenience, honked and waved the peace sign to us.

As we strode along, some marchers paused to chalk slogans on the sidewalks, then ran to catch up with the rest of us.

A few blocks after having set out, we turned north up Mason Street. But we hadn't gone far before people up ahead began shouting, "Go back! Go back!"

As we retreated, I glanced back and glimpsed a phalanx of riot police. "They apparently want us to stay on Market Street," someone near me remarked. It seemed ironic; to think that the police were pushing us back onto one of the busiest streets in the city, where we were obviously going to interfere with major traffic.

So we continued our march down Market Street, still in the direction of the financial district, but we'd only gone another block when our contingent again came to a stop. In a march like this it's often difficult to see what's going on in front; it turned out there was another row of riot police up ahead, just across the intersection of 5th Street.

Over the heads of people in front I could see the triangular shape of the Flood Building, and I knew that just below it would be the Powell Street BART station -- where I and some others had started out in the morning.

Our first instinct was to turn up 5th Street, but apparently there were police blocking that way too, forcing us to a stop. Many of us moved onto the sidewalks to the right and left. Others stayed put in the middle of Market. I wasn't sure which way to go -- even if I had been able to -- the police could arrest us as easily on the sidewalk as in the street. If they arrested us in the middle of the street, they'd disrupt and tie up traffic for hours. Would they really want to close down Market Street? Probably not, I figured. I felt safer in the middle of the street, and that's were I stayed.

Perhaps a lot of the protesters saw it as I did. About a third of us, perhaps more than a hundred, remained in the middle of Market. I glanced at my watch; it was 6:20 p.m. Rush hour traffic was not moving. Meanwhile, the police silently closed in around us.

The fellow with his dog was standing near me. The dog's bandana had fallen to the street. I picked it up and returned it to the owner. "I hope the dog will be okay," I heard someone say.

Then I saw Liz, a person I'd worked together with on previous projects. We gave each other a hug. "So now we're going to be arrested together," she said with a whimsical grin. It looked as if she was right. I'd been afraid of something like this in the morning, but it hadn't happened then. So it had seemed to me that it wasn't going to happen. But it apparently was.

Once before, I'd been caught in a mass arrest. That had been on the evening of March 21, 2003 on Franklin Street, here in San Francisco. Over 200 of us had been mass arrested on that occasion, and, at the time, it had been an incredible shock to discover that our First Amendment rights could be ignored so casually. We were swept up off the street and hauled off to jail, just as in a police state. But during the 14 months that have passed since that event, I've seen and heard enough to convince me that our country is indeed rapidly developing into a police state.

We were completely surrounded; rows of riot police cut us off from the rest of our group on the sidewalks both to the right and left of us. "Let us go!" we began chanting.

"Let us go!" "Let us go!" "Let us go!"

And the rest of our demonstration, still packing the sidewalks on both sides of us, chanted, "Let them go!" "Let them go!"

But the police didn't let us go. They still hadn't said anything, but by now it was clear that they intended to arrest us. We stopped chanting and looked around; we looked at the police and we looked at each other. 'What do we do now?' I wondered.

"Turn up the music!" someone shouted.

Our portable sound system, which had been playing music all the while, went up to full volume, and people began dancing. Then 6 or 7 of our number began dancing in a circle, in the space between the row of police and us.

Our original intention had been to throw a street party. Why not have it here? Right here in the middle of Market Street, while police held up the rush hour traffic.

Both sidewalks were crowded with a sea of faces -- the rest of our demonstration -- and it seemed as if half of them had cameras or camcorders. I hoped they were getting some good shots of the dancers. If only the TV channels would shoot and broadcast that scene. I looked around, but didn't see anyone that looked like a TV cameraperson; someone said a TV crew had been at the UN Plaza to film the beginning of our activities.

I saw a legal observer in a green cap. It was Carey of the National Lawyers Guild; she and Sam, another legal observer from the Guild, were here to give us legal support. They took our names down. Later, when they finished the list, they told me we numbered 131.

Estimating the size of a demonstration is usually guesswork at best, and estimates often vary wildly. It's only on rare occasions such as this one that we ever have an exact count. Of course we have no such count for the numbers on the sidewalks to either side of us, they appeared to be roughly equal in size to us. So, multiplying 131 by 3, I estimate the total size of our demonstration to have been around 400 people.

I have no idea how many police were surrounding us, other than to say that there were a lot of them.

After half an hour, at 6:50 p.m., the police commander approached us and told our legal observers that our contingent was under arrest. I assumed the commander would be a lieutenant or perhaps a captain; I was a bit surprised to see it was Deputy Chief Greg Suhr. It appeared that the SFPD was taking this matter quite seriously.

Deputy Chief Suhr said we'd be cited and released. The charges were "jaywalking" and "disobeying a police officer's order."

So what order had we disobeyed? I hadn't heard any, and apparently nobody else had either. According to the police, they'd told us 5 times to get off the street, and had made a tape-recording of their order. Be that as it may, the police had not made it audible to us. This was the first I heard the police say anything to us.

People were now chanting, "Ain't no power like the power of the people and the power of the people don't stop!" From time to time chants would break out.

After a while I became aware of not hearing our music any more. It turned out that the police had taken our sound system away from us. They returned it later, at the end of the evening.

I had my notebook out, and at 7:09 p.m. I wrote, "Wind is a bit chilly, has been chilly all evening. Sun still shining. It's been a nice sunny day."

Minutes later, something came flying over my head and a guy near me caught it. It was a bagel. It was followed by a lot more. The people on the sidewalk to the right of us were tossing us food and bottles of water. It was a shower of food, including bagels, boxes of raisins and bags of chopped walnuts. We passed these around, sharing them.

It was "Food Not Bombs" who brought us this lunch. They attend so many demonstrations like this one, sometimes risking their safety to serve food at the moment it's most welcome. At the Port of Oakland last year some of their members were injured by "less-lethal" weapons. This evening occasion they'd also brought a hot meal, but the police hadn't let them cross the line to serve it to us. So they did the next best thing, and tossed us bagels and other items.

A couple minutes later, the police ordered the people on the sidewalk to stop tossing us food.

Someone near me remarked, "Yeah, those are the rules in any zoo. Don't feed the caged animals."

Suddenly the police were dragging a fellow across the BART stairway wall and slammed him on the asphalt. We booed and yelled "Shame!" "Shame!" "Shame!"

The man had been among the people on the right sidewalk. I'm not sure why the police attacked him. They had just barely taken him away under arrest, when suddenly they charged into the people standing where the food had been coming from.

"Police brutality!" we in the middle of the street yelled. "Shame!" "Shame!" "Shame!"

I looked on in horror as I saw this, but at the same time I was glad that I was here in the middle of the street. Even though I was under arrest, I was safer here. Had I been standing there, I could've been clubbed or trampled, or at least knocked down. It wasn't clear why the police had attacked those people, and I couldn't tell how many, if any, were arrested or injured.

The sidewalk was cleared. Our people were driven into the middle of 5th Street. The next thing I saw was the police were dragging a man down the sidewalk in front of us. But instead of a protester, their victim was a homeless person! He looked like a poor fellow who had no idea of what was going on.

"Let him go!" we chanted. "Let him go!" "Let him go!"

It was bad enough that the police attacked peaceful protesters, but it seemed to totally exceed even the most liberal bounds of gratuitous violence when they hassled the poor homeless man. We booed the police, yelled demands that they let him go.

I heard later that the police did let the homeless fellow go, but I can't imagine why they grabbed him in the first place. There seemed to be no way they could've mistaken him for a protester.

The people who'd been driven from the sidewalk were now in the middle of 5th street, shutting it down of course. I could see them in the distance; they were dancing in a circle, and chanting,

"Please don't beat us -- we have no fajitas!"
"Please don't beat us -- we have no fajitas!"

The slogan referred to an incident that had happened a couple years ago. One night three off duty SF police officers were leaving a party, apparently quite inebriated, and they saw a guy who was leaving a restaurant with a bag of fajitas. The three drunk policemen beat the guy up and stole his fajitas. One of the cops was the son of a high-ranking SF police official and the incident was at first covered up. The eventual result was that a whole bunch of top level SFPD brass were brought before a grand jury. Among the indicted officials was Greg Suhr, the commander in charge of this evening's mass arrest. Most were eventually cleared, but the chief was forced to resign.

Hence the source of the slogan, "Please don't beat us -- we have no fajitas!"

Meanwhile, people over here in my contingent were singing "Solidarity Forever." We sang it to the tune of "John Brown's Body."

Things seemed to quiet down a bit. It was now 8 p.m.; we'd been corralled here for an hour and a half.

"Reagan's dead!" someone shouted, and the rest of us took up the chant. "Reagan's dead!" "Reagan's dead!"

That was followed intermittently by more chants.

"Cops are wasting taxpayers dough,
when they could just let us go!"

"Your tax dollars!" "Your tax dollars!"

I jotted these things down in my notebook, writing as quickly as I could. Then I heard someone shout out something followed by a burst of laughter. At first I didn't hear what it was. People kept laughing as they repeated: "Sorry about your penises, those are only big batons!"

Surrounding us was our audience of riot police. It was the inverse of the captive audience situation. We were the captives, but they had to listen. Some of our people gave the police lectures on eating organic foods.

Not all of this seemed to be falling on deaf ears. I saw people talking with an officer in front of us. They gave him one of our leaflets about biotech and reclaiming the commons. He read part of it, and an interesting discussion ensued, though I could only hear bits of it. Another officer was also reading our leaflet.

Although some of the police were violent and abused their authority, that was not true of all of them. As the evening wore on, they seemed to appear less like robots, and more like human beings, perhaps not too different from us. There were several conversations between our people and them. I often hear it said, "The police are not the real enemy," and though it may seem a bit ironic, this day's experience left me more inclined to agree with that. Police are people too. Of course that doesn't mean that we approve of what they're doing. They shouldn't have been arresting us. But that was the fault of higher-ups who made the decision.

It was 9 p.m. About half of us were still there, and Market Street had now been shutdown for 2 ½ hours. The sky wasn't quite dark, but the sun had long since disappeared behind the tall buildings. The evening wasn't too warm, and I'd put on an extra sweater I'd brought along. Someone began chanting, "People united! -- Are getting cold and tired!" There was a ripple of laughter, then the rest of us took up the chant:

"People united! -- Are getting cold and tired!
People united! -- Wanna go home!"

The chant continued for a minute or so, then ended with another ripple of laughter, and people resumed conversations with those around them. The air buzzed with the constant hum of dozens of people all talking in a small crowded place. The temperature had gone down, but morale remained high. Actually, we were slightly amused over the fact that the police had seen fit to shut this busy street down during rush hour just to give out a hundred jaywalking citations. We'd be released this same night, we'd been told. "Why do they even bother to do this?" we kept wondering.

"It's a control issue," someone said. "Police have an obsession with keeping everything under their control."

"Control? Call this control?" said another. "We would've marched up and down the streets for an hour or so, causing some minor inconvenience. So the police move in and shut down one of the busiest streets in the city for the rest of the evening. They've turned a very minor thing into a major disruption."

"We could never have done anything like this on our own -- not without the police."

This event seemed to be a classic example of a relatively small tactical unit successfully using the opponent's overwhelmingly superior strength against him.

All this time the police had to stand in lines around us. They must've been getting cold, tired and hungry too. At one point, they distributed candy bars among themselves. As they ate the candy, we seized upon the opportunity to give them lectures in proper nutrition. "Eat organic!" "Eat organic!" we admonished them.

Poor police, having to put up with all this! What we were doing to them was perhaps worse than what they were doing to us.

Deputy Chief Suhr was talking with Carey and Sam, our legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild. Remembering that about 7 legal observers had been arrested last year at the Port of Oakland, I'd asked Carey if they were also under arrest; no, they weren't. They'd been allowed to cross police lines to enter this encirclement to give us legal aid. Although 131 people were caught in this encirclement, several were allowed to leave. Among those had been several uninvolved pedestrians who just happened to be there at the time. The police also let the fellow with the dog leave. I heard later that actual number of arrests for the evening was 128.

The sidewalk to the right of us was cordoned off with yellow tape. Nobody had been allowed there after the police had driven our people out. However, people on the left sidewalk were still with us, though their ranks were thinning. Maybe a third of them still remained, watching, photographing, and expressing moral support.

A woman on the sidewalk waved a black & red anarchist flag back and forth as she and those around her chanted, "¡Viva! ¡Viva! ¡Anarquista!"

Anarchists in the circle quickly responded with the same. They fired it off rapidly, it had excellent rhythm, and the rest of us in the circle joined the anarchists in their exchange.

"¡Viva! - ¡Viva! - ¡Anarquista!" those on the sidewalk would yell out, waving their flag.

"¡Viva! - ¡Viva! - ¡Anarquista!" we in the circle fired back. Back and forth it went for several minutes:

"¡Viva! - ¡Viva! - ¡Anarquista!"

"¡Viva! - ¡Viva! - ¡Anarquista!"

It was 9:20 p.m. and we'd been there for a full three hours now. Perhaps 40 of us were still there, not yet having been hauled off to the Bryant Street jail. On Market Street in front of us, about 5 MUNI trolleys were backed up. I wondered why there weren't more. Perhaps the MUNI dispatchers had stopped sending them out after the police blocked off the streets. Other than the trolleys, the street was fairly empty. Rush hour had been over for some time.

At 9:40 p.m. I saw the first TV camera crew; it had taken them only 3 ½ hours to get here. The closing down of one of the busiest streets in San Francisco in the mass arrest of 128 activists apparently wasn't a top-of-the-hour news item.

A dozen of us were still there at 10:19 p.m. when the police finally opened up the left lane and let the MUNI trolleys roll through -- after a wait of exactly four hours.

The last half dozen of us gave each other and our legal team a group hug. I was among the last to be hauled off to Bryant Street jail around 10:30 p.m.

The previous time I was caught in a mass arrest like this, the year before on Franklin Street, I'd given the police my name, rank and serial number along with my former branch of service, the USMC -- according to rules of the Geneva Convention. I thought of doing that this time as well, but considering way POWs are treated these days by our government, that didn't seem like such a good idea any more. So this time I just gave the police my name and address.

There were 3 of us in the paddy wagon. One was a street medic who'd also been at the Franklin Street mass arrest, but he'd managed to avoid getting nabbed that time. "Every other time till now I've managed to get away, just in time," he said.

After holding us for a couple hours at Bryant Street, they let us go. On the street outside the jail we were met by another legal team from the National Lawyers Guild who had us fill out forms so they could represent us in court. There was also a hot meal from "Food Not Bombs." The BART trains had shut down for the evening, and so those of us who lived outside of San Francisco went to spend the night at the "Reclaim the Commons" convergence center on Howard Street.

About forty of our group decided to do a jailhouse solidarity thing. That is, they refused to give their names, and were held for a couple of days before being released, charges dropped.


Protesting BIO 2004 -- Part I

June 8 Reclaim the Streets charges dropped!

Report from one of the people who participated in the jailhouse solidarity

Arrested Developments: An account in the SF Bay Guardian

A similar experience from last year -- An account of the Mass Arrests on Franklin Street in San Francisco on March 21, 2003

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