The Battle After Seattle

Reason's man in Washington, DC works the IMF/World Bank protests.


WASHINGTON, DC, APRIL 16—It was a day of heroic protest and focused advocacy on the streets of the nation's capital. The International Monetary Fund delegates made it into their big meetings, which went off as scheduled. But that didn't stop other bold acts.

As early as 6:45 AM I witnessed brave protesters blockade a cab at the corner of 19th and K Streets. A bewildered driver sat helpless as college kids stood at his bumper and chanted, "Whose streets? Our streets," a slogan that would be heard throughout the day. The hack's frustrated fare got out and walked. "It's just a mess," said Officer Jackson of International Security Service, who stood watching nearby. "I don't know why they want to block that intersection."

"Strip Clothes, Not Mines"
Later in the morning, a group of anarchists marched in lockstep, taking subversive action by spray painting, "This is just beginning" and "Anarchy is the Answer," on a sidewalk. At one point, a group of anarchists cooperated to drag a large dumpster into the street, turn it over, and light its contents on fire. Minutes later, a hippie was pouring his bottled water on the smoldering trash, displaying a division of labor common among protesters.

The anarchists appear to be an unseemly mix of street kids without access to showers or laundry machines and college students, who want more of an edge than the hippie lifestyle allows. Most of the anarchists I approached refused interviews, but one was willing to talk. "Anarchy will mean small communal organizations and direct democracy," the nameless fellow told me through his black bandanna. When I asked if we might not be freer under today's more impersonal regime, he said no. "Direct democracy means you have the right to say no. Being able to say no, that is what freedom is about."

While much of the early action was at barricade sites bolstered by newspaper boxes, garbage cans, and other portable but heavy detritus, there were free floating radicals who were quite entertaining. One group had a cardboard Trojan Horse, on which World Bank and IMF were inscribed. There were the obligatory 15-foot puppets of President Clinton and two other aged men, who presumably represent the heads of the IMF and World Bank. A group of four women paraded topless, brazenly displaying such slogans as "All the IMF got was my shirt," "Free Mumia," and "Strip Clothes, Not Mines." Their strutting down I street garnered considerable attention—the one wearing the "Strip Clothes" slogan had enormous breasts.

The protest, billed as an alliance of labor and leftists, was really two events. The unofficial protest that started early in the morning with the intention of shutting down the meetings, and a sanctioned and fully permitted event on the Ellipse between the White House and Washington Monument. Zaftig film maker Michael Moore emceed this event, which featured a steady stream of ranting leftists, and was followed by a legal and uneventful march.

Those taking part in the direct action were neither likely to be in a labor union or even know anyone who is, unless the dining hall workers at their colleges are organized. (There were some older activists, but I'm pretty sure they aren't union members, since that'd mean having a job. Perhaps the labor activists were holed up with Al Gore in his office.)

I wanted to get a sense of what so riled these folks up about the IMF and World Bank, two organizations for which I myself have no strong affection (what exactly do bureaucrats know about growing economies?). Elana Berkowitz, a junior majoring in political science and modern culture and media at Brown University, said students at her school wanted to show that they cared enough to force a change in the corporate bureaucracies that run the IMF and World Bank. She was the spokesperson for the Providence, Rhode Island, contingent, which was barricading 18th Street at I Street. She wants debt forgiveness and feels that workers in Haiti should be paid at least 65 cents an hour.

"All we do is sit around."
The protesters were attempting to barricade a 50-block area, which I covered on bicycle. As I made my rounds, checking in at the various checkpoints, I noticed that the ranks of protesters were getting thinner, even as those who were marching around making jolly were swelling. It's boring to sit in one place for four hours, especially if there's women marching around topless. As early as 8:00 AM people were complaining that their "lines" were thin and in need of support. I ran into a bunch of the anti-corporate, anti-capitalist protesters at Burger King, where I picked up breakfast. The line was so long at a K Street coffee shop that folks gave up and left.

"I'm hungry," said a protester, stationed on 17th Street just below the Old Executive Office Building. "All we do is sit around," said another, who was wearing a T-shirt proclaiming "People Power, Not Flower Power."

The networks and wire services have focused on a skirmish on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the cops reportedly fired pepper spray at and even clubbed a few protesters who were allegedly stealing from a construction site. This is understandable, since it is the closest thing to traditional news the day generated for correspondents, like myself, who were looking for some blood. But don't let this coverage characterize the broader protest as either violent or productive for the protesters. The skirmish didn't last long. And, as of 4:00 PM, the media center still had no confirmed arrests, although a television report says a protester found with two Molotov cocktails was arrested.

Thus the protesters failed to achieve either of the days' two goals: blocking the meetings and generating mass arrests, always an implicit goal of such demonstrations. "I can't believe there haven't been any arrests," Darwin Fishman, an old friend from California and frequent protester told me when I ran into him mid-morning. "Wait until tomorrow."

Its not that the week's protests haven't generated arrests. They've just occurred at times that were inconvenient for the main events: today and tomorrow's protests.

Activists have been complaining all week about police harassment. The cops have been stopping cars and asking for identification. They have used motorcycles to chase obnoxious bicyclists around. "We shut them motherfuckers down," a cop told his buddy as they banged fists after a puppet show and bicycle rally in DuPont Circle on Friday night.

The cops raided the central organizing warehouse, known as the "convergence space," and confiscated, along with medicine and personal effects, the plumbing apparatus known as "sleeping dragons" that protesters use to chain and lock themselves together. last night, police arrested more than 600 protesters for marching without a permit. The protest media center claims between 100 and 400 are still sitting in DC's jail.

The protesters didn't count on the professionalism of DC's police force. DC's various cops are used to keeping track of wackos, as I told a reporter from the New Haven Advocate, who was complaining about police surveillance. While they didn't want to unnecessarily arrest anyone, they didn't shirk from cuffing the protesters either, as last night's arrest makes clear. They kept the protesters at bay, while others snuck in the delegates. The cops were still on the barricades this afternoon, keeping protesters out, long after the protesters, who were supposedly going to keep anyone from going in or coming out, had gotten tired and left to march about with the topless women.

But marching wasn't without conflict. On 21st Street protesters had to pass a strip of student housing for George Washington University. "Go home hippies," taunted Tony Watkins, a senior finance major who claims to have already landed a job in New York, from his stoop, a Bud Light and Marlboro Light in hand. The marchers were chanting something about animal rights. Said Watkins, "There's no such thing as Animal Rights, you fucking retards."

What was the question?
WASHINGTON, DC, APRIL 17—"I'm here because of that sign, said actor Tim Robbins, to a rain-soaked group of reporters and protesters attending a demonstration two blocks from the World Bank. He pointed to a sign that read, "Wake Up" and continued, "The more I learn, the less I like."

Accompanied by his significant other, actress Susan Sarandon, Robbins walked around in a daze, sporting the smirk that George W. Bush lost recently. This much at least still links him to W, however: His knowledge of international economic institutions (and that of Sarandon), is on a level of Bush's knowledge of foreign leaders.

I managed to make it to the front of the interview pack, but I couldn't get either Robbins or Sarandon to tell me exactly what the World Bank and IMF did wrong. After someone else mentioned interest rates, Robbins compared the World Bank to the loan sharks from the neighborhood in which I gather he grew up. "To me it's like the old neighborhood where they would loan you money for five times the amount of the loan." A woman from Ethiopia kept trying to get Robbins' attention. "Please help, Mr. Tim," she said, finally able to hand the glazed-eyed actor a paper that no doubt detailed her country's many problems.

Meanwhile, Sarandon was collecting her thoughts. The pair was obviously unprepared for an impromptu press conference. I imagine they had aides collecting the thoughts they would present at the "official press conference," as Sarandon put it, after I pressed her on what exactly the World Bank did wrong. But there she was, caught in the rain, and there were questions that needed answering.

"First of all, let's start with accountability," said Sarandon, recalling that accountable government is good government, even on an international scale. "We need to know what's going on," she said, sounding suspiciously like a Republican. She then turned the tables and attacked me, as if I was personally responsible for her ignorance. "You're the press," she said, fingering my yellow credential. "You should know." She then said some things about strings attached to loans, and about environmental and labor problems, before being escorted off.

Lest you get the wrong idea, Day Two of the "Battle After Seattle" wasn't all celebrity interviews. Indeed, I was lonely for quite a spell.

The main entrance to the World Bank, populated by a vibrant barricade community only yesterday, was all but deserted Monday morning at six. The cops, who'd been on duty since 3:30 AM in expectation of protest activity, had let in all the World Bank delegates and were even granting entrance to folks who just worked in the area. That's something they didn't think they'd be able to do if the protesters were present. The anarchists were nowhere to be found. "Perhaps they're home working on their taxes," I told a cop as two George Mason University students approached for a chat.

The students had stayed home yesterday to work on papers, but were on-site at 4 o'clock this morning. They said that only one other person was on hand this morning—a whackjob in a skeleton outfit and horns—who the cops were making fun of. "They were taunting us to jump over the fence so that they could beat us," said Justin Stafford Harris, who's majoring in history. Stafford Harris and his buddy, Patrick McCann, hate the IMF and World Bank for all the right reasons.

"I'm not for the World Bank, but I'm not for any government interference in the economy," explained Stafford Harris. Unlike Sarandon or Robbins, he explained how the IMF and World Bank provide perverse investment incentives and generally screw things up.

Two blocks over, roughly 15 would-be protesters stood in the rain trying to figure out 1) Where the others protesters were (here's a clue: They were sleeping) and 2) What direct action they should take. The choices were to sit in the rain and try to block the intersection, as they had done the day before, or march. Since all the World Bank delegates were safely inside enjoying coffee and breakfast pastries, and the protesters weren't at the intersection through which the delegates enter anyway, Option 1 was obviously foolish. Option 2, however, was only slightly less so, since a march of 15 people is ridiculous, even more so since there were thousands on the streets by this time the day before.

Still the protesters set to wandering around Washington at 6:40 AM and by 8:10 AM they'd accumulated probably 300 comrades, some of whom were anarchists finished with their taxes. That's when the shit hit the fan. A block after the black and red flags showed up, tear gas and pepper spray were in the air, protesters were scrambling, and my nose and eyes were burning.

The march showed up at 18th and I Streets at precisely the moment a bus from the World Bank, escorted by cops, arrived. The anarchists surrounded a cop car, and a cop came out swinging his nightstick, according to two eyewitnesses, who may be lying. One cop thought he threw out a smoke bomb—at least that's the official story. But oops, it turns out to have been tear gas. Other cops shot pepper spray from hand-held canisters that resemble fire extinguishers. The melee escalated, with cops and members of the media outnumbering the protesters. One cop wrestled an anarchist to the ground, a black flag flinging up in the air at the moment of the pin. Another, most likely one of the actual homeless, not a slumming college student, tried to steal Executive Assistant D.C. Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer's radio. Stupid move. Gainer tackled him and made the arrest.

A woman on her way to work handed me an Israeli gas mask, which she said a cop had given her, after I inquired why she was carrying the mask. (She was professionally dressed and the mask didn't accessorize well with her handbag.) The remaining protesters, now outnumbered by media by at least 3 to 1 and cops by another 3 to 1, taunted the cops from the sidewalk on K Street, before retreating to the Ellipse, where it was rumored a celebratory dance of some sort was to take place at 8:30. I followed them as far as Starbucks on the corner of 14th and New York.

"This is what democracy looks like"
The sleepyheads had awakened in time for the Ellipse rendezvous. At 10:20 I'd guess 800 protesters, less than 15 percent of yesterday's troopers, marched by Starbucks, where I was enjoying a coffee, a bagel, and a chat with two CBS cameraman. The protesters were chanting the standards, "Whose streets? Our streets!" and "More World, Less Bank," along with a new one I kind of like, "Al Gore, Corporate Whore." The destination was the police barricade at 20th and Pennsylvania, where they planned to get arrested.

Facing a line of police in riot gear, they initially pussed out, sitting their sorry asses down on the wet pavement, rain pouring on their head, in an attempt to make some sort of statement against world capitalism. "This is what democracy looks like," was the chant of choice, creating an image I don't think Freedom House would put on a brochure.

I figured the cops would let them sit there all day, as the faint of heart, and those with classes to attend, would leave only the terminally idiotic to be arrested later as the sun went down and daily news deadlines were long passed. So I was surprised when, at 11:35, the cops fired pepper spray across the barricade. This stirred things up.

The protesters, who live for precisely such scenes, broadcast Darth Vader's theme song on what was probably a makeshift microradio station, and got ready for the confrontation. The smell of vinegar was in the air (protesters soak the bandannas over their faces in vinegar to neutralize the tear gas or pepper spray), and they were again chanting, "This is what democracy looks like." But things soon quieted and I started interviewing.

"I hate Reason magazine," said a red-eyed, red-haired protester who claimed to be having a bad day on account of being pepper-sprayed. I asked why, and he said he didn't like the facts in some of our articles–or was it that he didn't consider them facts? One fellow, a legal observer, said he didn't feel qualified to tell me what the IMF did. Three friendly freshwomen from American University proved more knowledgeable. They don't like the way the international institutions promote sweatshop labor and give money to corrupt countries.

I got the real story from Josh Miller, a junior from James Madison University who's majoring in economics. He claimed to want more elected politicians to serve on the boards of the IMF and World Bank. He also felt interest rates should be lower. But I think I hit on the genuine reason why he and a couple buddies made the more than two-hour trek from Harrisburg, Virginia. I asked him if attending protests was a good way to get laid. "There are some good looking girls here," he said, holding his Israeli gas mask, the same model I now own. "It's true, that's part of the reason," he said, before telling me he planned to "hit the bars" before leaving town tonight.

Robbins and Sarandon were soon on the scene, and you know how that went. At roughly 1:50 P.M., the protesters negotiated an exit strategy with the police. Those wanting to "risk arrest," a risk with a probability of one, had to sit down on the wet pavement in the pouring rain. Then, one row at a time, they would be allowed to walk through an opening of the barricade, at which point they "might be" arrested and escorted to one of the school buses less than 100 feet away. The tense standoff was finally over. Some 400 protesters took the deal; they were the lucky ones who managed to get out of the rain.