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A smattering of protesters marched yesterday against the biotechnology lab being built in the South End.
A smattering of protesters marched yesterday against the biotechnology lab being built in the South End. (Globe Staff Photo / John Bohn)

Biotech protest draws modest turnout

Marchers say lab will pose hazards

About 150 people paraded through mostly empty streets in Roxbury and the South End yesterday in an attempt to rally opposition to a high-security research laboratory now under construction at Boston University Medical Center. However, the protest fell far short of the mass demonstrations that some had predicted.

The "Environmental Justice Parade" had been billed as the biggest public event of a broader protest against a national biotechnology conference in Boston this week, and police had been bracing for what they said could be the city's largest demonstrations in three years.

But the peaceful march, led by a ragtime band and a Vermont-based theater group, drew only a fraction of the 1,500 protesters police have anticipated for the four-day conference. There were no arrests by the dozens of officers escorting the protesters.

Leaders of BioJustice 2007, as the protest against biotechnology is called, said they were not disappointed with the modest turnout against the biological laboratory, where researchers will work with highly infectious diseases to develop defenses against bioterrorism. They contended police had exaggerated expectations of a big protest.

"We're not playing a numbers game. We are trying to get as clear a message out to the public as we possibly can," said Brian Tokar of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology, one of the BioJustice organizers. He said the biotechnology officials meeting at the convention center "are seizing control of our food, our seeds, and our health and they need to be stopped."

"It represents a very serious hazard to our future, and the biolab issue is one that really brings all the pieces together," Tokar said.

For weeks, Web-based activists have been urging supporters to come to Boston to counter the BIO International Convention, a biotechnology conference expected to draw about 25,000 people. Biotechnology may be better known to the public for developing new treatments for disease, but critics say it has a dark side, such as the genetic manipulation of foods, the cloning of human embryos, and the potential for creating dangerous new biological weapons. BioJustice organizers had planned nine protest events around the conference, with yesterday's parade expected to be the biggest.

Police are monitoring Internet chatter for the possibility that anarchists and radical environmentalists not associated with BioJustice 2007 could be planning significant disruptions this week. Police have set up a block long protest zone at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston, though there were no protesters in sight there yesterday afternoon.

Yesterday's parade, which began on Dudley Commons in Roxbury, brought together a wide assortment of organizations, including Boston-area anti war groups, environmental activists, and Bread & Puppet , a Vermont-based theater group that often joins in protests. The signs carried a cacophony of messages against corporate greed and genetically modified products; the sign of a 7- foot-tall multi-eyed puppet read, "Property of Genzyme."

Marchers said they were united in opposing construction of the biolab in an urban neighborhood populated largely by low-income people of color.

"Right now I want to stop the biolab," declared Bobbi Keegan of South Boston Residents for Peace.

However, the protest drew only a scattering of residents to the streets as it meandered to Blackstone Park in the South End, and many of them were lured outside by the loud music, enormous puppets, and protesters dressed as corporate executives. For blocks at a time, especially in industrial areas, no spectators lined the sidewalks to see the gyrating dancers, the man on stilts wearing monarch butterfly wings, the huge blue-headed mutant and other colorful symbols protesting biotechnology.

"I don't even know what they're doing," said Rafael Pena as he watched from the door of a high-rise apartment building a few blocks from where the biolab is under construction. Adonis Smith of Dorchester was nonplussed when a protester handed him a leaflet against the biolab. "It's a sideshow," said Smith, who said he opposes the biolab. Powerful people "are going to do whatever they're going to do regardless" of the protest.

Howie Rotman , a 34-year Boston University Medical Center employee who has organized protests against the biolab, said he was disappointed with the low turnout of people living closest to the facility.

"I wish there would be more people because they are the people at risk," said Rotman. He said a medical waste fire in March in an existing Boston University lab shows the dangers of the new lab, which would be authorized to experiment with deadly pathogens such as the bubonic plague and the Ebola virus.

Klare Allen , of the grass-roots organization SafetyNet, which has long opposed the lab, said she is still hopeful, citing resolutions against the lab passed by Cambridge and Somerville. The Boston City Council is considering similar action. In addition, the state's Supreme Judicial Court has scheduled a hearing for September to listen to arguments against the lab.

"The structure may be here, but the stuff is not inside and the people have the power to stop it," said Allen through a megaphone as she stood in front of the skeletal frame of the research laboratory on Albany Street.

BioJustice's Tokar estimated that the protest crowd reached 250 people in Blackstone Park, but he said the numbers don't tell the whole story.

He said many people register their objections to the excesses of biotechnology through online groups or through actions such as buying organic vegetables and getting medical treatment from alternative sources . He said yesterday's event was "about what we were expecting."

And Danny McNamara , a member of Bread & Puppet, said the problem of low protest turnouts goes far beyond Boston.

"Protests are harder and harder to find," he said.

Scott Allen can be reached at