Police snipers are poised on the hotel rooftops. Officers in riot gear line the street to the convention center. More than 100 animal rights demonstrators, carrying placards picturing tormented monkeys, crowd the convention center entrance. The "grim reaper," clothed in black robes and wearing a sign that says "Death to all Animal Torturers," holds up skeletal hands to stop people at the door. As attendees make their way through the gauntlet, protesters rush up behind them, scream obscenities, spit, push, shove, call the women whores. The police move in, making arrests . . .
Sound like the kind of opening day you want at your conference? Actually, things went well. No one was hurt. And that's in no small part due to the preparation done by Michael Sondag, executive director, American Association for Animal Laboratory Science (AALAS), Cordova, Tenn., when he found out that his 1997 national meeting, November 16 to 20 in Anaheim, Calif., was on the animal rights activists' hit list.
Just six weeks before the meeting, Sondag got a tip from Americans for Medical Progress (AMP), an organization in Alexandria, Va., that monitors animal liberation groups' Web sites as part of its mission to further public understanding about the use of animals in medical research. (See box, "Protecting Your Meeting," for more information about the organization.) AMP had discovered that the AALAS meeting was targeted for a major demonstration. Sondag and his staff immediately took action. "We felt a responsibility to our attendees," he says, "to do what we could to prepare them, to make sure they didn't get hurt."
Sondag developed a three-pronged plan: forge an extensive security network, educate the attendees, and develop a media strategy.
Preemptive Strike Sondag informed the local FBI, police, and security personnel at the convention center and hotels about the threats. Arriving in Anaheim on Thursday (the meeting began on Monday), Sondag's team convened a meeting with everybody who would be working security. "We thought we would have six or seven people," he recalls. "We had about 40. All the security people from the Anaheim hotels, the police, FBI, assistant DA for the city--people were involved all the way up to the mayor's office." AALAS also hired its own extra security. The security team developed a coordinated effort to protect attendees not only at the convention center, but at the hotels, and as they walked from the hotels to the center.
Several weeks before the meeting, Sondag sent a letter to AALAS's 48 branch presidents, explaining the situation, and asking the presidents to pass the word to members. With the letter, Sondag sent a safety tips sheet, advising attendees to (among other precautions):
* Lower your visibility by removing your name tag when outside the convention center.
* Travel in groups.
* Remain calm and cool if demonstrators try to provoke a confrontation with you.
* Never make physical contact of any kind with a demonstrator, to avoid the risk of a lawsuit.
The branch presidents did a good job, Sondag says, because attendees arrived aware of the potential problems. Flyers with the safety tips were also available at the registration desk, and the strategies were reinforced by speakers at the opening session and the general membership meeting.
Through the Gauntlet By four a.m. the opening day of the conference, animal rights activists were casing the convention center. By midmorning, about 140 protesters were on the scene.
So were the police. About 200 officers converged at the center. Sondag thinks the protesters were quite surprised when they saw all the police. "[The police] position was zero tolerance," says Sondag. "They said that if they tolerated the demonstration in this instance, it set the stage for other protests."
Nevertheless, "Monday was really tense," Sondag relates. And the ironic thing, he says, is that "90 percent of what [the protesters said] had nothing to do with animal rights. They said filthy stuff, made remarks about people's anatomy."
Maybe that's because some of them weren't animal rights activists at all. When police made arrests, an AALAS member overheard one protester say, "Hey, man, this ain't worth the five dollars I'm getting." Tipped off, Sondag checked the local papers and, sure enough, found ads recruiting people to demonstrate for pay.
The protection strategy worked. "No one was hurt," says Sondag. "No one was hit with paint or blood." But of course the demonstration was distressing. "Some of our members were shaken by it," Sondag says. "Some of them were upset at having obscenities hollered at them."
Bogus Badges and Other Dangers The potential dangers didn't end with the demonstration. Several activists replicated badges and tried to crash the meeting. But sharp-eyed security people caught them and prevented them from entering the convention center. With that level of vigilance needed, it's crucial to work with the security people ahead of time, Sondag says.
"Be specific with them. If someone does not have the right badge, they do not get in. Period. You take a chance of upsetting a member or two, but your other 2,998 attendees will be grateful for what you did." Loading docks must be guarded as well, Sondag says. "We upset some vendors because we were so strict. But we had to be."
Off-site meetings, affiliate meetings, and vendor parties all pose potential security problems. Inform event organizers of the potential risks, says Sondag, and advise them to hire extra security and coordinate with the venue's security force.
Communication with the main meeting organizer is essential. "We need to know where affiliate meetings, receptions, etc., are going to be held, and how people are getting there," Sondag says. He recommends providing security with the names of all those attending special events.
Sound-bite Strategies In the past, media attendance at AALAS meetings had been slim, Sondag notes. Another irony--this time they came in droves. The AALAS conference was covered by newspapers, radio, and television. First, Sondag's team decided on its media approach. "We were not going to debate [the activists]," he says. "That's not fruitful. It would just be a shouting match."
Instead, they set up a quiet media room in the convention center, designated five people as official AALAS spokespeople, and gave them beepers. The AMP prepared a detailed media interviews tip sheet. The advice covered specific points:
* Never portray animal rights activists in derogatory terms such as "kooks" or "terrorists." Remember that there are hundreds of thousands of well-meaning people who have contributed funds to some of these groups.
* Don't repeat a negative (e.g., "We are not torturing animals.")
* Forget science. Most Americans have the equivalent of an eighth-grade science education. Speak plainly.
From that experience, Sondag and his team learned a lot about dealing with the media. One suggestion he offers planners: Make sure there is always one spokesperson available in the convention center. "That's where the media come," he says. "You can't have five spokespeople all at the hotel across the street. [Journalists] don't want to wait. They want an interview now."
Sondag can't praise Anaheim enough for providing a high-powered, coordinated security effort. "The [security people] stayed with us the entire meeting," he says gratefully. "This was the model for how to handle this type of situation." Sondag made sure to express his appreciation. He sent 12 dozen cookies to the Anaheim Police Department's break rooms, and thank-you plaques to the mayor and chief of police. He encouraged members to write thank-you letters to Anaheim's mayor and chief of police. And the local AALAS branch invited officers to their Christmas party and awarded them a plaque in gratitude.
Attendees also expressed their appreciation to AALAS staff. "We are still getting e-mail and letters and calls thanking us for responding in the manner we did," Sondag says.
But there are a few members who thought AALAS should get out there and debate the activists. That's a point of view Sondag certainly understands. "I really think [the activists] picked the wrong group when they hit us," he says. "Our people are the ones who care for the animals in research facilities."
No Debate Nevertheless, he says, it is pointless to debate the activists. "The bottom line is, you're never going to win that battle. All it's going to do is turn into a confrontation with pushing and shoving and someone will get hurt, or sued, or end up in jail." A demonstration at the annual meeting, stresses Sondag, "is not the place to be confrontational."*
The first step in averting problems with demonstrators is to find out if you've been targeted. How? "Surf the 'net, that is the easiest way," says Mishka McCowan, public affairs manager with Americans for Medical Progress in Alexandria, Va.
The AMP found out animal rights activists were planning a major demonstration at the annual meeting of American Association for Animal Laboratory Science held in Anaheim, Calif., by checking the Web page of an Anaheim animal rights group. AMP is an organization dedicated to helping the public understand the need for animal research in medicine. As part of that effort, AMP staff keep tabs on animal rights groups' activities by surfing the Internet. "There are plenty of animal rights sites out there," McCowan says, adding that a group headquartered in your meeting destination is the group most likely to organize a demonstration.
Here are some more safety strategies:
* Take threats seriously, even those that seem to be innocuous.
* Inform the local police, FBI, and convention center and hotel security people well ahead of time, so they can develop a coordinated security plan.
* Consider hiring extra security people.
* Get advice. Talk to other conference organizers who have dealt with demonstrators. AMP staff is happy to help, McCowan says, either before a meeting, or sometimes on site, as AMP members attend many. For example, Jacqui Calnan, AMP director of public affairs, attended the AALAS meeting in Anaheim, and acted as a backup media spokesperson. (See AMP contact information below.)
* Develop a media relations plan and safety strategies for your staff. "Use common sense," McCowan says. "Don't antagonize people. Don't get lured into confrontations. Protesters want to engage you in this argument that you really can't win." When dealing with press, McCowan adds, "Be positive. And tell the truth--that's the biggest thing."
* Distribute a safety tips sheet to attendees, and reinforce safety strategies during the opening session. Attendees should "go through a mental checklist" before leaving the hotel or convention center, McCowan advises. "If they know demonstrators are outside, they should think to themselves, 'Am I wearing credentials? Is there anything that makes me stand out?'" There's nothing that unusual about the security steps attendees and staff should take, McCowan points out. "[The measures] are basically nothing more than you would take if you were working late and headed out of your building into a dark parking lot."