[Note. The May 2003 Biodevastation 7 Gathering was the first international conference critical of genetic engineering which zoomed in on connections between environmental racism and the biotechnology industry. It was scheduled to occur immediately before the World Agricultural Forum (WAF), which brings people from all over the world to Monsanto's home town of St. Louis to hear praises of genetic engineering. On May 16, the first day of Biodevastation, 27 people who were to participate in it were arrested at four St. Louis locations. The Green Party of St. Louis, which hosted Biodev 7, later held a forum on "Police Repression in a Police State." The following is based on the author's presentation at the forum.]
On the opening day of the Biodevastation Gathering, nine members of the Flying Rutabaga Bicycle Circus were arrested for the fictitious crime of “riding a bicycle without a license.” About the same time, a building inspector nailed a “condemned” sign on a St. Louis home just before police pushed through the door, announced to inhabitants that they did not need a search warrant, and arrested those who had been planning to take part in weekend protests on the charge of “inhabiting a condemned building.” Two hours later police raided the Community Arts and Media Project (CAMP) building, which houses the St. Louis Independent Media Center, Green Party of St. Louis and several other groups, taking more to jail. Sarah Bantz, organizer for Missouri Resistance Against Genetic Engineering (MoRAGE), which was coordinating the demonstration planned at the WAF, was pulled over while driving to give a talk at Biodev 7; her Vitamin A was seized as possible illegal drugs; and she was taken to a St. Louis jail for not wearing a seatbelt.
Biodevastation 7 nevertheless began on time at Forest Park Community College. For three days, speakers from Africa, Asia, Latin America, London, Canada and the US decried the immense concentration of power in Monsanto, that corporation’s use of genetically engineered (GE) crops to destroy family farmers, attacks by industry on Black and Hispanic farmers and farm workers, the racist attempt to impose GE crops on Africa, and the suicidal expansion of bioweapons labs across the US.
It is important to address the broader questions of the May 16 repression:
What was different about this particular repression? What does it tell us about the new wave of attacks on civil liberties? What should we do about it?
Police abuse is as old as police forces. Ever since they formed, unions have known which side of the class line the supposedly “neutral” police is on. State violence has continued non-stop from slavery through the 21st century, when police continue to beat and murder Black youth without worrying about reprisals.
Events in St. Louis seem to perpetuate a pattern began when those who came to Philadelphia to demonstrate at the 2000 Republican convention were raided before events started. As in St. Louis, large puppets, which were to be part of the expression of free speech, were seized or destroyed.
What was new with the St. Louis repression was that it was the first use of post-9/11 hysteria to attempt to prevent discussion of a particular corporate policy: the connection between environmental racism and genetic engineering.
On the morning of May 16, the only daily St. Louis paper, the Post-Dispatch, carried a front page story, “Focus on the Future of Agriculture.” It had an article describing the corporate view of the WAF on one side and another article reporting on Biodevastation on the other. The biotechnology industry, which is accustomed to the US press treating its perspective as the only legitimate one, must have been less than thrilled that its detractors received equal billing in Monsanto’s back yard.
This could have weighed heavily on the minds of Allied Intelligence, the private police agency hired by WAF to protect its interests. The St. Louis Police Department admitted that it collaborated with Allied Intelligence and took seriously the warning that hoards of anti-GE terrorists could be pouring into the city to destroy the downtown area. The St. Louis Police then spread rumors to government agencies, businesses and the press. During the week before Biodevastation 7, the police-generated panic resulted in the US Post Office as well as several downtown businesses boarding up their windows and doors to protect them from an anticipated 50,000 rampaging anarchists.
When the police raids came during the opening of Biodevastation 7, coverage in the corporate press did a sharp turn. Questions on the dangers of genetic engineering vanished from the minds of reporters. They were only interested in one topic: potential demonstrator violence.
Police Chief Mokwa egged on the frenzy. He held a press conference to display the “weapons” seized during the raids: rocks, roofing nails, torches and Molotov cocktails.
By the next day, it became apparent that the rocks were paperweights; the roofing nails were to repair the leaky roof; and the torches were flaming batons of the Bicycle Circus. When the St. Louis Independent Media Center website posted an eyewitness report of a cop putting toilet paper or a rag in a beer bottle, all press reports of “Molotov cocktails” disappeared – as if they had never been mentioned. The “weapons” charges were the first charges dropped against those arrested.
Within a couple of days the mania had died down. The Post-Dispatch was even mildly critical of what it called “pre-emptive” arrests. But the press never returned to a discussion of how genetic engineering threatens human health, pollutes the environment, and prepares for agro-business domination of Africa. What remained was a debate of whether the police had “overreacted.”
Of course, throughout the events, the only potential violence discussed was that of demonstrators. As an organizer, I was interviewed 12 to 15 times before and during the Gathering. When asked about potential violence, I never hesitated to point out that “There is a real threat of lawlessness when the WAF is controlled by Monsanto, a company that lawlessly trespasses on the land of farmers like Percy Schmeiser, criminally steals samples of crops and violently drops pesticide bombs on their fields to test if their crops are Roundup-resistant.”
Invariably, the reporter would tell me that that was not what she or he meant. They wanted to know if there was a threat of violence during the demonstration set for May 18. Invariably, I would respond “Yes, there is a real threat of violence. When public safety is put in the hands of a police chief who has condoned the police murder of over a dozen Black youth in recent years, the city should be concerned.”
The St. Louis press was not interested in discussion of the violence of corporations or their state. Their agenda was to interview one side predicting that demonstrators would be violent and “balance” it with a few seconds of an organizer denying the charge. Participation in such a dialogue would help the press take the focus away from Monsanto and WAF.
Use of mass fear to shut out debate is reminiscent of the McCarthyism of the 1950s that helped close discussion of the labor agenda which had been pushed with increasing vehemence during the 1930s and World War II. It is like the shifting alliances of George Orwell’s 1984, with the only constant being people’s increased compliance through fear of the enemy, an eternal side effect of war.
The Bush Administration has cynically used the horror of 9/11 to usher in a period of what can be called “permanent hysteria” – an unending search for an enemy so terrible as to justify the abrogation of civil liberties. It soon generated a need for a War on Afghanistan, oblivious to the fact that no Afghan had even been suggested as a perpetrator of 9/11. It generated one “PATRIOT” Act and then another.
The summer 2002 “War on Mosquitoes” seemed to be part of the same “permanent hysteria.” The news mania began when about 10 people had died (fewer than annual deaths from snake bites or falling coconuts). It continued with a daily body count in a country not exactly known for concern with the medical condition of its citizens. Spraying by helicopter, a technique which guarantees that the most miniscule quantity actually reaches mosquitoes, confirmed that the entire summer shenanigans were to perpetuate a Rambo atmosphere as a substitute for any semblance of a public health campaign.
Next came the need to search and hunt for elusive weapons of mass destruction and the War on Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s support by US administrations was forgotten as thoroughly as Molotov cocktails in the homes of Biodevastation organizers.
Somewhere in the sequence came the daily terror alerts from Washington. The TV announcer tells us what color day it is according to some top secret process of calculating the likelihood of a terrorist attack. The whole thing seems based on Bush’s fantasy of the day. If George W. sees red, it’s a red terror alert day; if George W. imagines yellow, it’s a yellow terror alert; if George W. hallucinates orange…and so on.
“Permanent hysteria” is not designed to eliminate any enemy. The War on Afghanistan never nabbed Osama; the War on Mosquitoes left trillions to bomb the next year; Saddam is all but forgotten after the War on Iraq; and, the Color Alert Days have no apparent goal other than government-induced neuroticism.
The goal of the hysteria is to perpetuate the hysteria. It is fear orchestrated to feed on itself. It is to produce a terrified public that will be so blinded that it will not see corporations pulling government strings to rake in billions.
The Bush administration drummed up “weapons of mass destruction” to plunder Iraq’s oil. The St. Louis Police Department projected violent demonstrations to eliminate a public debate on biotechnology. St. Louis police showed that mass fear can be generated locally for short-term needs as readily as it can be maneuvered at a national level.
When faced with the state’s use of permanent hysteria, progressives need to go beyond saying, “The government is overreacting and using unnecessary force.” It is necessary to say why that force is being used in the first place, what goals it serves and why debate is being shut off. It is necessary to identify the intentional panic for what it is. This is just as true if the fear is being generated by a Republican president conducting a War for Oil or a Democratic Party administration in St. Louis approving a Suppression for Biotechnology.
Progressives must seek out those who experience similar victimization. Those victims are natural allies. Ever since 9/11, progressives have made a special effort to include people of Middle Eastern descent as organizers and speakers. Most organizers make an ongoing effort to gain support from labor. Despite continual jingoistic regressions of the AFL-CIO, rank and file unionists are well aware of the anti-labor campaigns of the US government.
Extending solidarity through joint work of those who share the experience of government repression is at least as important for local coalitions. When she introduced the Environmental Racism panel at Biodevastation 7, Jamala Rogers of the Organization for Black Struggle commented that “You are seeing what Black people in St. Louis experience on a daily basis.” Many area environmentalists now have a much deeper understanding of the need for a Civilian Oversight Board for the police that predominantly Black organizations have been advocating for years.
We must not allow repression to sidetrack us from the work we are doing. Rather than losing sight of our goals to fight the repression, we must develop a deeper commitment from understanding the connection between what we are working for and why the state seeks to destroy that work. Those who came to Biodevastation 7, read about it, or heard one of the dozen radio interviews with its speakers learned why Monsanto wanted to shut it out of public view. They learned how genetic engineering is a new form of environmental racism that threatens the health of low income people and is being used to gain control of agriculture in Africa. They learned how it is helping to drive farmers off the land across the globe. They learned that genetic engineering provides the scientific basis for the new generation of bioweapons that the US is developing in dozens of labs throughout the country. Most important, they learned that the many victims of this technology can unite to strengthen the coalition emerging to resist its imposition on the world.
Don Fitz was a member of both the local and international Planning Committees for Biodevastation 7 and has been on the National Committee of the Greens/Green Party USA.