BY LIZA KATZ
On a snowy evening in March 2002, Klare Allen, the community organizer who would become the driving force behind the anti-biolab movement in Boston, was working overtime at Alternatives for Community and Environment in the city's Roxbury neighborhood.
"Around 6:30, this white dude called me," recounts Allen, who had founded the Roxbury organization Safety Net two years earlier to fight unwanted housing developments and gentrification. "He said, 'I think Safety Net should come to this meeting tonight. It's very important. I think Safety Net should come.' And he hung up." Allen never found out who the anonymous caller was.
"I didn't think anything about it," she says. "When we heard, we just went." When Allen and a few coworkers arrived, the meeting had already started. Several Boston University administrators and Boston city workers were discussing BU's plans to build a biolab in the Roxbury/South End area. The Safety Net members were the only residents of the housing communities on Melnea Cass Boulevard and Tremont Street, which abut the biolab site, among those at the meeting. Puzzled, they asked for an explanation. Mark Klempner, the BU Medical Campus associate provost for research and the biolab's director, assured them that there was no reason to be concerned. After all, there were already 4,000 labs in the city of Boston, practically invisible to the layperson.
But it soon became clear that this was not just another biolab. "A month later, another white dude calls me," Allen retells. "He said, 'There's a meeting at BU. The meeting's already started but I think Safety Net should come.' I said OK, cool." Allen called a few neighbors and headed over to the BU campus. The meeting was held in a lecture hall, where about a hundred people were already seated. The five Safety Net members sat in the back.
"We didn't know what they were talking about," says Allen. "Then all of a sudden we heard Anthrax, Roxbury/South End, then we heard Ebola, Roxbury/South End, Bubonic Plague, Roxbury/South End." At first, it didn't register that this was not a lab like those already scattered throughout Boston but a biosafety level 4 (BSL4) lab that would handle deadly diseases. "We looked at each other and said, 'Are these people talking about bringing this to our community? No...Wait, I think they are.'"
One of the Safety Net members asked Klempner if this was indeed the case. When he affirmed, she asked, "Don't you think you need to tell the community?" Klempner replied that he would be open to the idea--that is, "If you can get some competent residents to meet with us."
"Then he turned his back," Allen remembers. "You know how you shoo a fly? He shooed his hand like that to us."
"Me and the residents went downstairs and held hands. We started crying," she says. "It's embarrassing to be talked to that way." But perhaps this was the impetus that led them to pursue the almost decade-long fight against the opening of the BSL4, from which similar movements have sprung up around the country. "We said, 'We're going to show this son of a bitch just how incompetent we are,'" Allen says.
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Safety Net began raising awareness by taking to the streets, handing out flyers and leaflets. In 2002 and 2003, Safety Net was everywhere--at public forums, on sidewalks, and at bus stops and train stations. The public's initial response was one of apathy and disbelief. "People were rude," Allen recollects. "A biolab and the Plague seem like such a far fetched idea. People just say, whatever, man, and move on.&rdq