Anarchy on a Roll

Washington's businesses are getting sandwiched between police and IMF protesters


The barricades won't be up for weeks yet in Washington, D.C. No rocks are flying, no cars are burning, and there's nary a whiff of pepper spray in the capital's air. Still, the anti-globalization forces that plan to descend on the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank meetings that will be held here from September 28 through October 4—and the police who hope to control them—have already claimed victims. One of them is Mark Furstenberg.

For the past four years, Furstenberg has operated Bread Line, a popular sandwich shop on Pennsylvania Ave. Bread Line also supplies 30 area restaurants. Unfortunately, Furstenberg's prime location also puts him a stone's throw from the IMF and the World Bank, in the heart of what Washington, D.C., police spokesman Kenny Bryson calls the looming melee's "zero perimeter."

Furstenberg knows that blocked streets mean zero sales at the lunch counter. The bigger question, however, is whether Bread Line's owner and employees will be allowed near their own store. If not, the 30 restaurants that buy bread from Furstenberg will have to take their business elsewhere. "I want to be able to tell people whether they will be able to get their bread or not," an exasperated Furstenberg told me Wednesday. For now, it appears that no one in power can tell him. He had a meeting with his landlord Tuesday to express his concerns, but he is not optimistic. "I think the high likelihood is that no one is going to be able to go to work." Bread Line survived a similar shutdown during last year's IMF protests, which resulted in hundreds of arrests–but no prosecutions.

Furstenberg said he sympathizes with the protestors. He said he had a "very '60s and '70s view" of the positive social potential of such demonstrations. Yet he also spent four years as a personnel director for the Boston police, and is hardly immune to security concerns. But any plan that shuts Bread Line for a week (or more) goes too far, he says. "I am very angry with the police." he said. "The police have a broad responsibility to control the protest and arrest people who break the law. Another is to facilitate the movement of people around the city." Furstenberg said he doubts the temporary interruption will put him out of business, but stresses that "it will put us way back."

Like other Washington businessmen and residents, Furstenberg is caught in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse. After the violent demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, cops vowed never to get caught by surprise again. In Genoa, Italy, security forces set up barricades early and managed to keep this summer's protesters on the outskirts of the city. A discussion at the Independent Media Center's protester-friendly Web site indicates that this lesson was not lost on the anarchists: One protester suggested arriving as early as September 26th, two days before the meetings are set to begin, to secure the area. More savvy participants immediately balked at the indiscretion, noting that the police can read Web postings, too: "With security culture in mind, let's keep brainstorming on possible tactics to their appropriate venues." Protest group Anti-Capitalist Convergence is currently holding meetings to organize strategy and tactics. Those meetings are closed to the media.

Police plans are equally shadowy. Officer Kenny Bryson told me, "This might be the biggest protest we've had in D.C., maybe ever." He could not say what that means as far as barricades are concerned. "That's the kind of thing we're going to see when we get our logistics together," he said. It's the flip side of the same argument: If the police announce when they are going to erect barricades, the protesters will show up ahead of that time and secure the area.

In the meeting with his building manager, Furstenberg said he was told the streets might be blocked prior to September 28. He suggested a compromise plan: "I asked that the police issue credentials to the people who work here, and that they make an effort to train sergeants" to accept the credentials. But could police control limited access? What about fake passes? Could Furstenberg get a delivery truck out? In light of the difficulties, Furstenberg said he doubted police would adopt the proposal. "Unless they get reasonable, they are not going to allow you to go to work."

For now, it looks like Furstenberg and everyone else who works inside the "zero perimeter" (including me; my office is just down the street from Bread Line), will be taking an unscheduled vacation of unknown duration at the end of September.

Mary Rudolph, staff director of government affairs for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, D.C.'s largest business group, said the organization planned to bring police and business owners together at a meeting on September 11. That's just 17 days before the meetings begin, and it seems extremely likely that police and protesters will be angling for position long before that.