Published on Sunday, April 2, 2000 in the Washington Post
After Seattle: April 16/17 In DC
Movement's Strong Energy & Appeal Surprise Even The Organizers
by David Montgomery and Arthur Santana
|The last time opponents of global capitalism confronted the ranks of domestic law enforcement--in Seattle, Nov. 30 to Dec. 3--the results were clouds of tear gas, volleys of rubber bullets and the makings of a mass protest movement whose energy and appeal have surprised even some of its organizers.
Round 2 is scheduled for April 16 and 17 in Washington, but protesters will begin arriving from across the country Saturday. Both sides are immersed in preparations. The region is about to take a ringside seat for a turn-of-the-century spectacle: Arcane economic institutions now spark as much outrage in some people as the Vietnam War, civil rights and nuclear weapons did during the storied demonstrations of yore.
The protesters--activists of all ages concerned about an array of issues from the environment to worker rights--are drilling in nonviolence and street blockades. They plan a communal kitchen to feed thousands, medical clinics to care for anyone who is injured and bicycle couriers to ferry food, supplies and intelligence. They are also scouting the streets, making maps and trying to figure out what the police are up to.
Law enforcement agencies also are busy. Some were in Seattle to observe the demonstrations and have been gathering intelligence since. Now, 60 D.C. police officers a day take a course at a Lorton training center to build a force of 1,500 for the demonstrations. They are watching videos of how Seattle police lost control, and practicing scenarios such as how to handle 5,000 protesters trying to block Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Hundreds of officers from local and federal agencies also will be standing by.
"We anticipate this to be very peaceful," said Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer. "We think we can manage this so the protesters can strut their stuff, pound their chests and we can also keep a city running."
For Gainer and Chief Charles H. Ramsey, the stakes are high. The Seattle police chief and his deputy, under bitter criticism for their operations, have decided to retire.
The protesters' target in Seattle was a summit of the World Trade Organization, which was disrupted by more than 30,000 demonstrators. In Washington, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are being cast as the villains. Their meetings April 16 and 17 are routine, but protest organizers decided to use them to sustain the Seattle momentum. They launched a plan to block delegates from entering the buildings.
How have these institutions become so notorious? Their opponents charge that loan policies of the bank and the fund impose harsh conditions on poor countries and favor Western creditors and U.S. corporations. The allure of the movement also lies in connections protesters draw to many other concerns. In their view, a pipeline through the rain forest in Chad, sweatshops in Singapore, the high price of AIDS drugs in Kenya, flat wages in Washington and the ubiquity of Starbucks and the Gap are facets of the same problem.
"This mobilization is part of a much larger movement globally that is raising a question: Who governs? Is it money, or is it people?" said Kevin Danaher, a San Francisco-based organizer of the D.C. campaign.
It's a battle cry that resonates with people such as 16-year-old Sam Junge, hanging protest posters at Wilson High School in the District. "This struggle seems more like good versus evil than any other struggle I know," he said. "I could have easily been born some other kid in some other part of the world and be suffering and starving because these corporations want to have a pile of money."
And the struggle attracted Peter Kent, 50, a retired federal worker from Silver Spring, who was in Seattle and will rally April 16--his first big demonstration since the Vietnam War. "In terms of the environmental crisis and the whole growth in the power of big corporations, we're moving down the wrong road," he said.
Police and protesters say they hope to avoid tear gas and a trashed downtown, the way Seattle fell victim to a small faction of vandals and looters among the more peaceful demonstrators. The protesters pledge nonviolence and no vandalism, but they acknowledge that they can't control everyone, and they refuse to condemn vandalism outright.
"We're saying, 'You're not welcome at our demonstration if that's the tactic you choose,' " said Nadine Bloch, a local organizer of the Mobilization for Global Justice, as the campaign is called. "I'm not saying whether it's right or wrong."
In Web site postings, self-styled "autonomists" and "anarchists" assert the right to use unspecified tactics of their own choosing.
Gainer said one of his concerns is small factions of violent protesters running amok. Fanned in part by police preparations and media fascination, the possibility of violence has raised alarm in the region.
"The thing I'm concerned with is what happened out there in Seattle," said Fred Barnes, business manager of the local Iron Workers Union. "Here's an excellent chance for a troublemaker who doesn't even know what global fairness is, who is just down there for a riot."
Citing safety concerns, the March of Dimes canceled its WalkAmerica fund-raiser scheduled for April 15 downtown.
The "tens of thousands" predicted by organizers to participate in the protest are to begin arriving Saturday for a week of teach-ins and rallies. They will join a strikingly organized community of radicals, ruled by consensus and lacking charismatic leaders.
As in Seattle, interlocking committees with rotating spokesmen make key decisions. There are guidelines for everything, from facing down the police to avoiding gender stereotypes in committee debates. "You could call the guidelines ground rules, but that sounds too authoritarian," said Elliott Caldwell, facilitating a meeting on how to facilitate meetings.
Some go so far as to call it a new kind of revolution--prizing both radical democracy and conservative accounting. Another guideline: The budget ($105,000, so far) shall be balanced.
"You had the last century, we get this one," said Matthew Smucker, 22, a local organizer and rain forest advocate. "It's a structure where instead of preplanning a demonstration and advertising for bodies to come join it, we are putting out a call for minds to participate in creating an event."
Yet the revolution is struggling to live up to its ideal of diversity. Nearly all participants in planning meetings are white. Most live in the District. They are aware they are inviting thousands of visitors to break the laws of the predominantly African American city.
So they are trying to organize in black and Latino neighborhoods. "It's always a struggle to make bridges of this type, particularly when the issue appears to be a little removed from your daily life," said the Rev. Graylan Ellis-Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, a protest supporter who is black.
In their quest to turn out crowds April 16 and 17, the organizers may get a boost from unions and religious groups coming to Washington for other rallies April 9 and 12 to cancel Third World debt and to block trade relations with China.
To extend the appeal to those who want to avoid civil disobedience and arrest, they have arranged a separate "permitted" rally--with approval from the National Park Service--for April 16 on the Ellipse. Michael Moore, the satirical corporate critic, will be the master of ceremonies. This overture to the mainstream may be succeeding. After hesitating for weeks, the AFL-CIO just endorsed the permitted rally.
The protesters are promising plenty of street theater, music, prayer and giant allegorical puppets. The police are promising arrests if they block traffic.
"It's not just a party in the streets, although it's going to be that," said Robert Weissman, an organizer with Washington-based Essential Action. "It's a real chance to change the world."
D.C. police, supported by federal and local law enforcement agencies, plan to ensure that the world doesn't change too dramatically on the streets of Washington.
One recent Thursday morning at the Lorton training facility, police officers and some U.S. Secret Service agents assembled for classroom training and field drills. The officers wore old riot helmets and carried batons while they practiced marching in formation.
"If [protesters] exercise peaceful demonstrations in areas that don't block vehicle or pedestrian traffic, then everything's fine," Gainer said. "But if they block thoroughfares that are critical to keeping the city moving, then we are prepared to . . . make arrests if they fail to move."
Failing to move is what protesters were practicing the night before the police training.
It was a clinic on nonviolence in a renovated factory building on Florida Avenue NW. After a couple of hours talking about nonviolence, 16 protesters acted out a scenario in which they blocked the entrance to a Metro station. They played all the roles--police, blockaders, reporters, bystanders.
Such a scene may or may not be part of the real demonstrations. The point was to try to empathize with all the characters they'll meet on the big day. One by one, the "police" were able to carry away the blockaders, except for bike courier Luke Kuhn, who explained his technique: "I think I came up with something new, namely, locking down directly to an officer's leg."
Across the city, in nooks and crannies donated by Greenpeace and other nonprofit organizations, such preparations are underway. Newcomers are taught the "consensus process," a kinder, gentler Robert's Rules of Order.
On Saturday, mobilization headquarters are to open in an alley warehouse off Florida Avenue, where thousands of protesters are expected to check in. Training will run from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Members of the Ruckus Society from Berkeley, Calif., and the Direct Action Network from Seattle will teach civil disobedience skills, including something called "Climbing for Activists."
The activists will not set details of their strategy until next week, so that supporters from out of town can participate in the planning. Early on the morning of the 16th, they will gather not far from the World Bank and the IMF. Secret Service agents will have jurisdiction inside and just outside the buildings, because both locations have been declared temporary diplomatic missions for the protests.
While everyone is talking nice, everyone is dressing for trouble.
D.C. police purchased $1 million worth of riot gear for the event, including helmets with neck protectors and arm, chest and shin guards. In addition to service weapons, officers will carry gas masks, and some will bear arms that shoot rubber bullets or can deliver tear gas. No one may deploy tear gas without orders from Ramsey or Gainer, who will roam the area.
Protesters have vowed to carry no weapons. On the advice of their medical team, they will bring bandannas soaked in vinegar for tear gas, shatterproof goggles for rubber bullets, and a change of clothes in case the first set is contaminated with gas or pepper spray.
"Do not wear contact lenses!" warned an e-mail sent to the protesters' listserv. "Trapped chemicals may cause eye damage."
Last year, as every year, a demonstration was called during the IMF and World Bank spring meetings in Washington. Twenty-five people showed up.
"Something has changed," said Njoki Njoroge Njehu, director of the Washington-based 50 Years Is Enough Network, a leading critic of the World Bank and IMF. "We may fancy ourselves good organizers, but I don't think we could have planned for this."
Global justice is now fashionable. At universities, classes on globalization are oversubscribed.
Having served in the battle for Seattle can be a mark of status. One activist in Washington shows off a souvenir rubber bullet. At meetings, everyone hushes while those who were there tell war stories.
But it's not a passing fad, organizers insist. Njehu says that a decade of grass-roots educating, including the failed campaign against the North American Free Trade Agreement in the early 1990s, led to this moment in history.
Every meeting of the revolution ends with a different closing ceremony. One Sunday afternoon, a couple dozen tired and wired people took turns offering a few words to sum up their expectations for D-Day, April 16.
This time, there was no consensus.
Protests in D.C.
On April 16 and 17, protesters will attempt to prevent officials from attending the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. A rally is scheduled for 11 a.m. April 16 on the Ellipse.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company