Seeds of discontent
A global convergence in six random acts of sense and violence
From an array of vantage points, virtually all of us witnessed the transformation of downtown Sacramento this week: international dignitaries, young anarchists, armed riot squads and endless media navigating the streets in a choreography of strategy and surveillance, confrontation and consternation.
Whether you personally saw two women dressed as butterflies being rushed by riot police or just learned to ignore the constant drone of helicopters circling above Sacramento these last five days, the whole thing was kind of hard to miss.
But much of the drama—both comic and tragic—was occurring offstage, beyond the gaze of video cameras and headline writers. Following are six disparate yet interrelated scenes that, taken together, offer some insight into the opposing world views that converged on Sacramento this past week.
I: Weapons of mass germination
First, they came for the seed balls.
On Friday afternoon, Erik Ohlsen was excited about the prospects for some guerilla gardening. Ohlsen, a Sonoma County activist, came to Sacramento with thousands of others to denounce the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, the promotion of genetically engineered crops and the globalization of corporate agriculture.
But rather than just talk about sustainable farming and organic food, Ohlsen and others—as part of a loose coalition calling themselves the Green Bloc—were taking action.
They celebrated their arrival in Sacramento by planting the bare patches of dirt around their protest headquarters—a former Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood of Alkali Flat at 12th and C streets—with carob trees, tomatoes and butterfly bushes. As volunteers helped with the planting, Ohlsen explained “sheet mulching” and other planting techniques that can be used to grow food without pesticides and to restore contaminated urban soils.
The Green Bloc borrowed its name in part from the Black Bloc, the very young, very confrontational groups of black-clad anarchists that became notorious during the anti-World Trade Organization uprising in Seattle four years ago.
But in his floppy straw hat and open-toed sandals, Ohlsen hardly presented the image of the sinister troublemaker that so frightened Sacramento merchants and police.
“We’re using nonviolent tactics, and our message is that we can create the world we want,” Ohlsen explained.
That’s where the seed balls came in. On Friday afternoon, Ohlsen and a half dozen others squatted over a mound of reddish brown clay. With their hands, they mixed the clay with water and a host of seeds: eggplant, turnip, mustard and sunflower—heirloom varieties coveted by gardeners in this era of mass commercialization.
As such, the seed balls were symbolic of everything activists like Ohlsen promote in place of corporate biotechnology: They were low-tech and small-scale and teeming with the genetic diversity nature provides.
By the time the activists’ work was done, they had 200 golf-ball-sized packets of goodness, ready to drop in empty lots and bare spots around the city.
“One of the things we wanted to do was to leave a positive footprint here,” Ohlsen explained. And one can imagine what they might have left behind, months after the protesters left—renegade sunflower blooms popping up spontaneously around town, eggplants sprouting in traffic medians to be freely grazed by passersby.
But it was not to be. At 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, four unmarked police cars arrived at the convergence center at 12th and C streets.
According to Leda Dederich, an organizer with the Sacramento Mobilization for Food Sovereignty, Democracy and Justice, the officers asked if they could enter the building and look around but were denied entry because they had no search warrant. The police then proceeded to a parking lot behind the building, to a work area where activists had been constructing banners, signs and puppets. The seed balls were stored there, as well, in cardboard boxes.
According to Dederich, the police first seized a box of nails and then decided against it, returning the nails and taking the seed balls instead.
Sacramento Police Department spokesman Sgt. Justin Risley said the seed balls were confiscated because they might be used as projectiles during the upcoming protests.
“They were really hard as a rock. They obviously could have done substantial damage to people or to property,” Risley explained.
Later that evening, the police department staged a demonstration for TV cameras, in which officers took the confiscated seed balls and fired them with Wrist Rocket slingshots at pieces of foam board. Not surprisingly, the dirt balls destroyed the foam board easily.
Risley said police did not find any slingshots at the convergence center but that even “human-propelled” seed balls could do a lot of damage.
When Ohlsen heard about the televised destruction of innocent foam, he rolled his eyes and shook his head. “I guess that’s how they would use them,” he added.
In some ways, the seed balls are emblematic of the entire Sacramento event, said Ohlsen.
“It seems pretty ironic. They arrested our seed balls in order to protect biotechnology,” Ohlsen said. “Our intent was to nonviolently plant them. It is biotechnology that is doing violence to the world.” —C.G.
II: Saturday at the spokescouncil
“How long have you been here?” Skip Spitzer asked the reporter, frowning in mid-handshake. “Since the beginning?”
Spitzer rolled his eyes. “Look, this was a planning session for a direct action,” he said. “We don’t throw people out, but you should have realized this was not a media-friendly environment.”
Actually, folks at Saturday night’s “spokescouncil” meeting to strategize the following day’s campaign of police confrontations and roving roadblocks were generally friendly. And though Spitzer, a Santa Cruz activist who led much of the three-hour meeting, wasn’t happy to find a reporter in the crowd, he had to figure SN&R wasn’t as problematic as the undercover police who were surely in attendance.
After all, there were a hundred people crammed into the Service Employees International Union Local 250 hall at F and 20th streets. In theory, each “affinity” group—clusters of five to 20 like-minded people, many of whom had arrived in town that afternoon—would send a representative to the spokescouncil, but most groups showed up in full-force. Seated in a mass of concentric circles, the assembled activists took part in tactical discussions after a lengthy period in which each representative introduced his or her group: “We’re the Pollinators, and there are 15 to 20 of us from the Bay Area looking forward to doing some guerilla gardening.”
Although the majority were from California or the Pacific Northwest, there were also groups who had trekked from the Midwest. Some spoke of their special offerings or needs; the Pink Skeletons had brought “lots of pink stuff and lots of skeletons,” and the Crescent Pirates said they could use an extra bullhorn. One woman said her group had extra inhalers if there was anyone who might be asthmatic or particularly sensitive to pepper spray. A mohawked woman smiled cryptically as she announced that her group had brought along lots of “equipment” that folks could ask her about after the meeting.
Starhawk, a veteran Bay Area activist who’d done mock riot teaching for newcomers earlier in the day—everything from dealing with a “rogue cop” to how protesters could discourage horses from stepping on them—introduced her pagan cluster.
They would be based in the earth quadrant—appropriate given their affinity for drums and their desire to conduct a “mud people action” in which the “creatures of the Earth arise.” Spitzer explained the plan using a large, scrawled map with lines representing 14th Street and J Street. Because Sunday’s action would not be legal—a permit had been issued for Capitol Park for Monday only—affiliate groups would break out into quadrants—earth, air, fire and water, as they moved clockwise from the northwest. Groups would communicate by cell phones, coordinating tactics and constantly moving to keep from being rounded up en masse. Police liaisons and a legal collective also were on hand for the meeting, as was a media coordinator who would guide confused media to appropriate photo ops. (“You’ll want to head down to the community garden,” he tipped a Fox reporter the next day, as one of the more heated confrontations wound down in Midtown.)
Organized as it all was, there were still concerns to be worked out. Water needed more people; it seemed like everyone wanted to be in the fire quadrant. Concerns about the ratio of police to likely protesters drew a motion to reformulate the goals of the action if more people didn’t arrive by morning. “I’m not shying from confrontations with police where I think we can win,” said the activist making the motion. With each protester getting his or her own cop, would protesters really have the strength to “welcome, disrupt and transform” the downtown area? “I have the strength,” boasted the mohawked woman who’d spoken of special equipment earlier.
The argument evolved into a discussion of “media messaging”: “We never called this a shutdown.” “We could turn the concept into a joyful celebration.” “The conference is already such a failure that we don’t have to engage in street tactics.” Those all turned out to be minority views.
In the midst of the meeting, a young woman with a small voice stood up to speak. “If you just want to be creative and don’t want to be arrested, is there an area where people can go where there won’t be blockades?”
“That would be well outside the downtown area,” answered an organizer, recommending a city-sanctioned organic-food celebration in Land Park. “That’s the place to go if you want to be in a total chill zone.” —B.F.
III: When Black Blocs converge
The protesters who came out for Sunday’s unauthorized protests came from all walks of life: They were young, old, middle-aged, hippies, farmers and artists. But off to the edge of Capitol Park, a serious-looking contingent of young men and women dressed in black and with bandannas covering their faces were resting up for the day’s action. Young, strong and sober anarchists, they were willing to fight for their beliefs even if that meant getting injured or incarcerated. Protesters and law-enforcement agencies know such protesters as the Black Bloc.
The Black Bloc first made its presence known during the WTO protest in Seattle in 1999, but the protesters have been around longer than that. They surfaced in Genoa last year. They cover their faces—not to intimidate, but to protect their identity. When on the run, they shed their black shirts and masks and blend into the crowd.
“All the great historical figures in our time had trouble with the law,” said one young Sacramento anarchist. “Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, even George Washington. The thing is, there’s a right, and there’s a wrong, and there’s your beliefs, and sometimes right and wrong doesn’t always line up with the law. The thing is, how far are you willing to go? Are you a weekend warrior, or are you committed to your beliefs? When it comes down to it, what side of the line are you on?”
The suffocating police attendance didn’t faze him a bit. “[The police] have been training for months, but so have we,” he said. “I mean we’re not stupid. We have gas masks and everything. We’re prepared.”
Revered and despised by other protesters, the men and women in black stuck out as much as the police loitering in their Robocop riot gear across the street. The anarchists wore heavy boots and carried signs made out of half-inch plywood that were barely disguised shields. Working independently in cells of four to 20 people, they would taunt the police, challenging them to make a move. Or, they’d break off from the march and create havoc, turning over dumpsters, spray-painting graffiti or busting windows for opportunists to loot. Property damage is one form of their strategic direct action.
But the law-enforcement agencies involved in providing security for the ministerial conference had their own version of the Black Bloc.
There was no such thing as the thin blue line in Sacramento. The line was thick and color-coded with the various law-enforcement agencies that participated in event security. Officers were stationed downtown, two to a block. A presence designed to be overwhelming and intimidating, every police officer available in the Sacramento metropolitan area was on duty. Dozens of riot officers were decked out in the latest police innovations, with kneepads, shinguards, elbow pads, leather gloves and lightweight flak jackets. Jackboots and German-style helmets added a psychological element to their uniforms.
Special squads of police officers were equipped with rifles for firing rubber bullets in case the protesters got out of control. The ammunition belts across the officers’ chests were filled with two dozen bullets resembling shotgun shells. Other officers had paintball guns that fired pepper balls. When they felt threatened, officers pulled pink plastic Taser guns, which shoot a wired dart that shocks anyone unfortunate enough to be tagged. The Taser makes an ominous electric clicking sound similar to the warning clatter of a rattlesnake.
The police leapfrogged the marchers to the next intersections, redirecting traffic, but the protesters often went the opposite direction, usually against traffic on one-way streets. Black Bloc squads spray-painted anarchist symbols on buses, walls and pavement but didn’t otherwise provoke the police.
After a couple of hours of chanting, cheering and dancing on the streets, the protesters had had enough. The police did little to cause conflict, even when Black Bloc squadrons knocked over trash bins and barricades. Eventually, bicycle cops used their bikes as a moving barricade—picking up their bikes by the frame and slamming the tires on the pavement, while lunging forward.
The stragglers were herded off J Street in front of Sacramento Memorial Auditorium with an overwhelming show of force. A few arrests were made, but at that point, police appeared to outnumber protesters by a ratio of 5-to-1.
Monday’s legal protest began differently: A stage was set up for speeches, musicians and skits. The march itself was a short one. Sidewalks were lined with police, and helicopters flew overhead. Within moments, it ended back at the Capitol. As people lingered around, resting and waiting to meet friends, the police informed the crowd to disperse. Infuriated, many sat down and locked arms, as a chant of “Whose park? Our park!” rose up from the crowd.
Law enforcement acted swiftly and inexplicably, as dozens of California Highway Patrol’s motorcycle police, patrol cars and bike cops surrounded the southwest corner of the Capitol. The riot squads showed up and formed a line on the sidewalk before they charged seated protesters. This infuriated the milling protesters, who rushed to their aid, surrounding the police. The riot-gear-clad officers eventually retreated, and the protesters were allowed to stay.
Approaching a group of 30 black-clad masked protesters and asking for permission to speak with them, SN&R was politely denied.
“It’s a professional risk,” said a masked man. “Actually, we would prefer it if you weren’t around at all.” —D.K.
IV: Back to the garden
SN&R met Erik Ohlsen again on Sunday evening, as he and other Green Bloc members joined local activists at the Ron Mandella Community Garden. Ohlsen was one of 10 protesters who locked themselves around a tree to object to the closure of the garden to make way for new condominiums.
The 10 were arrested after the Capitol Area Development Authority, the city agency that owns the lots, asked police to clear them out. Saws were used to cut the galvanized steel pipe connecting the protesters’ arms. Written in green marker on the pipe was the unofficial rallying cry of the five-day rolling protest: “Free the Seed Balls.”
The 1400 block of Q Street, which separates the former garden from a soon-to-be-developed barren lot, was cordoned off and eerily illuminated as midnight approached and protesters finally emerged from the garden to have their mug shots taken. Handcuffed and surrounded by monolithic machinery, some smiled and swayed their heads, as Starhawk played a hand-held drum and protesters softly sang, “Like a phoenix, we will rise up.”
As Ohlsen and his compatriots were carted off, Seattle activist Dave Decost talked about the meaning behind this particular action. “The purpose was to occupy the garden until it returns to public space,” he said, explaining how the activists had planted burlap sacks containing sawdust and mushroom spores to leach the lead out of the two contaminated garden patches that were the final excuse for closing the garden. What would become of those beneficial spores?
“I can hope that they’re allowing the soil to be regenerated,” answered Decost. “But since it seems that the police are acting in the interest of the biotechnology corporations and since it seems that they’re afraid of our organic seeds, they’re probably afraid of oyster mushrooms, as well.” —B.F., C.G.
V: Ann Veneman encounters alien food object
Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman looked perplexed.
“What is this?” she asked, staring at a single serving of Mainstay 3600. The yellowish rectangle looked forlorn sitting alone on its plain paper plate, but Howard Wallace was ready with the words to bring his product to life. A food evangelist with the folksy demeanor of a borscht belt comedian, the decidedly bald Wallace joked about it being the “miracle food” that helped him grow hair.
Veneman smiled weakly as Wallace continued his shtick.
“I love this,” he told her. “Are you related to my mother-in-law?” After another joke about his company’s packaged water being good with Chivas Regal, Wallace settled down to a more earnest pitch for Mainstay’s ready-to-eat, vacuum-packed food product which lasts five years without refrigeration.
“Who was she?” Wallace then asked in a lowered voice.
To everyone but Wallace, Veneman was, of course, the star of the show. It was she who dodged questions about the smaller-than-anticipated number of ministers in attendance during the afternoon press conference. It was she who welcomed the assembled ministers to the “SureBeam Corp. Grand Opening Ceremony” at the Sacramento Convention Center’s exhibition hall. And it was she who entered and exited Wallace’s exhibit space with perfunctory politeness.
“She’s our secretary of agriculture?!” he repeated, realizing his faux pas. “You’ve got to get her back here so I can apologize. Tell her an old man won’t get any sleep if she doesn’t come back.”
But Veneman was already making the rounds, greeting dozens of exhibitors, from Clear Channel to John Deere to the University of California, Davis. Though the evening’s sponsor, SureBeam (“Good Food. Made Better.”), had sprung for banquet tables piled high with fruits and vegetables, a number of the assembled dignitaries were drawn instead to the samples being given away at the crowded California Certified Organic Farmers booth.
Wallace, meanwhile, continued to woo potential clients.
“It’s tasty—tastes like cake,” mused Romanian Secretary of State Ioan Jelev after sampling a morsel of Mainstay 3600, whose industrial foil packaging suggests the dehydrated consumables marketed to survivalists and astronaut aficionados. “Does it have anything to do with space technology?”
Wallace passed over the Romanian minister’s question and went on to explain how ministers who liked the product could go to a table right across the room and sign up to receive it as part of a food-assistance program. When a wary journalist asked about GMOs before trying a sample, Wallace dismissed the concern with a wave of his hand. “Nah, don’t worry about that stuff,” he said. “Just taste it.” (It does taste like cake, only really dry. Ingredients include vitamin-enriched flour, shortening, sugar, artificial flavors and gamma and delta tocopherols as natural antioxidants.)
Wallace said he’s sold products like Mainstay 3600 for 20 years, but he indicated that, during the last five years, his company gradually has been making the transition from emergency rations to humanitarian staples. “I want to do something to give back,” said Wallace.
Moments later, Wallace moved on to a female dignitary whose badge he checked to ensure no further faux pas. “You ministers are getting prettier all the time,” he said, smiling broadly. —B.F.
VI: Be the media!
There was no shortage of professional journalists milling about during the five days of protests against the USDA’s ministerial conference. From the Fox News reporters “embedded” with the police to the hordes of print journalists, looking old and unhip while scrabbling after whatever contingent of protesters seemed most likely to start something, you can be sure that the hungry pack of reporters explored every angle they could think of and documented every street tussle in dramatic detail.
And yet, you also can be sure that when the dust had settled, the batons had been sheathed and the Tasers had been plugged back into their chargers, many folks went back home scratching their heads and wondering how the media got it so wrong.
Luckily, there were hundreds of citizen reporters in the streets, as well, without fancy press credentials or the nagging worry that their paychecks were riding on getting the story.
Many of these folks were loosely affiliated with the Independent Media Center, commonly called Indymedia Center or IMC, a do-it-yourself media movement that has become a fixture of mass protests since Seattle.
In Sacramento, volunteers from Portland, Ore., set up a temporary Indymedia headquarters for independent reporters to counter the corporate media with their own unvarnished versions of events.
During the protests, scores of people with notebooks, cell phones, digital mini cameras and makeshift press badges roamed the streets recording everything they saw. The Indymedia newsroom, housed at protest headquarters on 12th and C streets, featured 10 computer terminals where reporters could write stories and then upload them, along with sound or digital images to the Indymedia Web site.
For those who couldn’t make it to a computer, a flier recruiting reporters offered a phone number and promised that anyone who called the Indymedia newsroom would be greeted by “Indymedia worker bees, ready to get your story out to the world before you even get back from the action. The corporate media will be full of lies, but we (the people!) can get the truth out.”
As promised, by Monday morning, the Indymedia Web site for the event (www.biotechimc.org) was full of blow-by-blow accounts of run-ins with the police, balanced with more meditative notes from various speeches, teach-ins and workshops around the city. Dozens of photos from the front lines, and streaming audio of “Resistance Radio” rounded out the Web site, providing what may have been the most comprehensive content and up-to-the-minute reporting anywhere of the scene from the streets.
Indymedia served a similar function when it started in Seattle during the anti-WTO protests in 1999. But after the protests subsided, it became a permanent presence in that city and since has spread to more than a hundred cities worldwide. The content varies—and almost always comes from a left-of-center perspective—but in places like Portland, which has the most active Indymedia Center in North America today, there is a great deal of local coverage mixed in with the national and international news.
“Our mantra is ‘be the media,’” said Ellen, a 40-something social worker from Portland who asked that her last name not be used. She explained that Indymedia embodied the same principles of direct democracy and anti-corporatism that activists brought to Seattle, to other global-trade summits and now to Sacramento.
Professional reporters and editors no doubt will wring their hands over the fact that much of the news on the Indymedia Web sites is penned by authors using pseudonyms, as well as the fact that there are no gatekeepers to weed out inaccurate information—let alone the obvious leftward slant of much of the writing.
Other “IMCistas” like Daniel Youngberg say not to worry: The free flowing, democratic nature of Indymedia is self-correcting. “There are as many editors and fact checkers as there are readers,” Youngberg explained. If false information is posted, somebody else usually comes along and corrects it. And readers are smart enough to handle any spin that comes their way.
“It’s empowering people to get up off the couch and get on the ball,” Ellen explained, adding that Indymedia’s goal is to get people to participate in news gathering and reporting rather than simply sitting back and absorbing whatever is broadcast into their living rooms.
What the Indymedia lacks in polish and objectivity it makes up for in raucous, no-holds-barred reporting on the ground, as it happens. And of course, it’s completely do-it-yourself.
“It’s showing people how anarchist principles can be put into practice. I would say this is the most successful experiment in anarchism going today,” said Youngberg.
The experiment may put down roots in Sacramento soon. Several local activists are busy trying to set up a permanent Indymedia Center in Sacramento right now. (See the Sacramento site at http://lists.indymedia.org/mailman/listinfo/imc-sac.)
Only time will tell if the Sacramento center is as feisty as the Portland outfit, which is ready to take on anybody, including the so-called alternative press. Earlier this year, the Portland center got into a bitter dispute with a Willamette Week reporter about that paper’s coverage of local anti-war protests.
Before returning to the Indymedia nerve center, Youngberg questioned SN&R’s own commercial entanglements.
Youngberg: “Does your paper have those ads in the back?”
SN&R: “Yes, there are ads”
Youngberg: “Those sex ads?”
SN&R: “Um, yeah.”
Youngberg: “Well, I won’t read your paper then. But good luck.” —C.G.