News & Politics

Police Use Limited Force as Protesters Perturb IMF Meetings

With the constant buzz of police helicopters overhead, the alternating scents of irritant gas, pepper spray and vinegar, police barricades at intersection after intersection and throngs of protesters expressing themselves in every which way, downtown D.C. was quite a scene on Sunday, April 16. Jason Vest happened to be in all the right places at all the right times and filed this report on the major clashes of the day.
April 17 -- With the constant buzz of police helicopters overhead, the alternating scents of irritant gas, pepper spray and vinegar, police barricades at intersection after intersection and throngs of protesters expressing themselves in every way -- from chants to banners to puppets to spray-painted graffiti and even partial nudity -- normally catatonic-on-Sunday downtown D.C. was anything but on Sunday.

The events of the day were largely peaceful, and some of them could be considered street theater at its best: elaborate and effective floats depicting the World Bank and IMF as a merciless machine or a bloated, roasting pig; protesters marching with giant head puppets making a mockery of world leaders; shirts adorned with the likes of "My country's getting rich off the policies of the IMF and World Bank, and all I get is this lousy T-shirt"; the beat of makeshift drums; strangers sharing food, water, and in some cases, links of chain to hamper their removal from intersections. "It's gratifying to see something like this come together, especially in downtown Washington," a bandanaed protester from New Hampshire said. "I'm proud to be here."

On Saturday about 600 people were arrested here for parading without a permit, according to police. There were 20 protest-related arrests on Sunday out of an estimated 10,000 to 35,000 people who turned out to demonstrate. Although the scene was hardly comparable to last year's riotous Seattle melee, in several cases police and protesters alike dispensed with restraint and rhetoric, instead opting for bottles, blows and batons. At about 10 a.m. Sunday, a large procession of protesters with black-clad anarchists at their vanguard strode up 14th Street NW, bearing -- in addition to placards and puppets -- fencing and other construction material, some apparently taken from a nearby construction site. As the procession neared the intersection of 14th and I streets, dozens of Metropolitan Police Department officers in squad cars and on motorcycles tore down 14th from the opposite direction. As both forces approached each other, each began to surge; upon reaching the southeast corner of 14th and I, some protesters picked up and kicked or hurled two newspaper boxes. Police entered the intersection and for a moment time seemed to stop, but quickly the police continued to aggressively advance in the face of angry rebukes from demonstrators, at least one of whom hurled a small object at the officers. Then, with no apparent provocation, the police turned and retreated to the middle of 14th Street between I and K, and some protesters scurried in hot pursuit. Others merely wandered or tentatively stood, not quite sure what to expect. Seconds later, at least half a dozen police motorcycles entered the fray, officers using their machines to literally herd protesters toward Franklin Square Park. Right behind them were more billy-club wielding officers, hands on either end of their weapons.

Despite the overall restraint they had displayed earlier, here several officers took a distinctly "hit first, ask questions later" approach, checking anyone in their path. Several reporters narrowly escaped contact. Some protesters remained passive and took the blows -- indeed, some came so quickly they had little chance to respond -- while several others (who apparently did not attend the Mobilization for Global Justice nonviolence training sessions) opted for active resistance. Still others took glancing blows while trying to drag fellow protesters to safety. Officers semipushed, semichased demonstrators well into the park, facilitating the destruction of tulip beds in the process. One protester was hit so hard he literally flew over a park bench. A girl with Day-Glo red hair was checked and flew what appeared to be several yards in a matter of seconds by one officer, who ended his onslaught with a baton blow to her face, leaving her stunned and crying on the sidewalk as she wailed, "I wasn't fighting back!"

Then the police fired irritant gas into the crowd. While Police Chief Ramsey said, "smoke dragons," a sort of tear gas light was used; all touched by it showed signs that it hurt like hell. The gas cartridges landed in the street near the northeast corner of the intersection, and the acrid smoke wafted mostly to the east but also to the south. Protesters with gas masks were remarkably quick about getting them on; those with only vinegar-soaked bandanas secured them over their faces but hotfooted it back from the expanding cloud of gas as police -- save a few skirmishing stragglersÑfell back to the middle of 14th St. and formed a static line. One gas-mask clad anarchist stalked the street bearing the black flag; others dragged the uprooted newspaper boxes (Employment Today and Washington Jobs -- perhaps apropos for an anti-world financial institution protest). Protest medics quickly deployed and tended to the baton or gas-afflicted. The anarchists seethed. Then several women in red T-shirts came right up to the police line and began chanting, "To the police, we come in peace. To the banks, we say no thanks." Others began to gently shower the gas-mask visaged police with recently uprooted tulips, most of which were hostilely batted away by officers as their commander walked behind them encouraging them to "stand fast, stand fast." Another young woman in a red T-shirt stood in front of the cops facing other protesters, making the peace sign with both hands. A red-haired young woman actually began presenting each of the officers with tulips, most of which were angrily pushed away with batons. Then Ananda Daas, a 19-year-old man from Humboldt County, Calif., took a small American flag and laid it on the ground, adorning it with tulip pedals. The black flag-carrying crew seemed to hate this, and began to leave. The growing collection of photographers loved it, and by the time they were done shooting Daas' creation, the street had all but cleared.

Protesters and police chief seem to find common ground: Gas sucks

There were other odious incidents like this that took place during the day, but in contrast to Seattle, they hardly constituted -- individually or in aggregate Ñ- a riot. Around noon at 19th and K, for example, a burgeoning throng of protesters gathered around a huge anti-World Bank puppet, directly across from a police barricade. As the hour grew later, the crowd grew larger; three rows of young protesters plunked down about 10 feet from the police line. The more they chanted ("More World, Less Bank," "Depleted Forests, Who Do We Thank? / The World Bank,"), the more additional protesters came. So, too, did the media, with photographers turning their cameras on the protesters with the same relentless interest a scientist brings to examining a specimen through a microscope.

"Film the cops!" came the repeated chant, followed by several variations. Some reporters silently exchanged glances. As the cops were doing little more than stoically standing there while the temperature climbed, turning the cameras on the constabulary seemed a bit of a stretch. But eventually -- to the chanted strains of "Corporate media, we don't need ya," the bulk of TV and still cameras did turn towards the police line. Not long afterwards, the police put on their gas masks, and bottles of vinegar were quickly passed around. Cries of "The whole world is watching" and "Take off the masks" began. Remarkably, within moments, they did. The reason for the sudden change quickly became clear when D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey sauntered out, and -- apparently drawing on Chicago political style -- coolly worked the barricade, talking with reporters and protesters alike. Angry queries about the gas masks and the use of tear gas were met with cool responses. "You don't see no gas mask on me," Ramsey said, later asking, "You think I wanna get gassed?"

"We don't want to deploy gas. We ain't gonna use gas," he said, and went on to tell protesters that as far as he was concerned, they could stay the night in the intersection. While it was his job to get delegates in and out and he wouldn't hesitate to clear necessary intersections, this, he said, was not one of them. "You can protest all you want," he said. "You got my word on that."

Dumpster de-escalation

While the chief was clear on a no-tear gas policy (at least for the 19th and I intersection), he did not say anything about the use of pepper spray, which made one of several appearances of the day a bit later one street over. Around 12:30 p.m., the anarchists under the black flag -- many of whom dressed to look like either subcommandante Marcos or Taliban women -- rallied around a wheel-borne dumpster at 20th and Pennsylvania, and began rolling it east on I Street. Turning the receptacle south on I Street, the crowd moved towards a police barricade not far from the corner of H Street. About three-fourths of the way down, police suddenly let fly streams of pepper spray, sending many scrambling back up the street and causing more than a few to collapse in pain. The anarchist-led throng renewed its advance, however, gradually moving closer, accompanied by a phalanx of media. A squad of police motorcycles rounded the corner behind the barricade, ratcheting up the tension. Once again, Ananda Daas from Humbolt County was on hand, tulip petals tucked in his waistband, but he seemed more than a little cautious about putting his mellow vibe between twitchy cops and strident anarchists. But then, Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance Gainer -- he who on Saturday had speciously held that the presence of culinary pepper at the Mobilization for Global Justice's now-forcibly demobilized headquarters was a potential ingredient for homemade pepper spray -- appeared on the scene, pleading for "de-escalation."

"Lower the gas guns," he ordered his officers, asking "everybody just chill out." After being called "the biggest [expletive deleted] hypocrite I've ever seen" and other sundry epithets, the District's number two police officer engaged protesters in what very well may be the longest discussion ever held on the protocol of Metropolitan Police Department badges. The absence of badges on the shirts or jackets of a few officers drew the ire of the anarchists, who vitriolically characterized the officers as everything from lawbreakers to intelligence agents. Gainer tried to explain that as the day had started out with intermittent rain and was currently sunny, the officers had changed jackets and shirts several times and hadn't always had the time to transfer their badges. The protesters were having none of it. But by early afternoon, most had drifted away -- not just at 18th and I, but elsewhere, too. The meetings of the IMF and the World Bank had not, as the day's organizers intended, been shut down. Nonetheless, numerous delegates were inconvenienced, and all involved in the attempt could feel proud at having helped necessitate the shutdown of 50 downtown blocks. As of Sunday night, protesters were updating their plans, strategizing for another round of direct actions on Monday.
A former associate editor on US News & World Report's business and investigative staffs and former Village Voice writer Jason Vest is a national correspondent for and In These Times. He is also a 2000 Project Censored award-winner.