Published on Friday, April 14, 2000 in the Washington Post
Peaceful Protest Belies Rising Tension
by Avram Goldstein and Arthur Santana
Demonstrators with body piercings and color-splashed hair marched through downtown Washington yesterday to celebrate concessions made this week by the Starbucks chain on behalf of coffee farmers in developing countries.
The marchers, who sang, carried banners and beat on drums, peacefully followed a route suggested by police who accompanied them. But the orderliness belied rising tensions over accusations of harassment by law enforcement.
The National Lawyers Guild, a New York-based group assisting demonstrators, sent a letter of protest yesterday to Attorney General Janet Reno, complaining that federal and local law enforcement agencies are using unconstitutional tactics. A spokesman at the Justice Department said that the letter had not been received by 6:40 p.m. and had no comment.
The lawyers' group president, Karen Jo Koonan, condemned "pretextual and unjust arrests, intimidating visits by law enforcement officers to organizations and individuals, over-broad street and sidewalk closings and conspicuous surveillance activities."
Part of the complaint hinged on several arrests made Wednesday, arrests that police yesterday said pointed up the need for increased vigilance as a week of protests against global capitalism continued. The activists hope to close meetings at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on Sunday and Monday. The two bodies are having their spring meetings here this week, and protesters hope to repeat civil disobedience that disrupted meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle late last year.
In the Wednesday incident, seven people were arrested in the 1700 block of U Street NW, where they were stopped by officers with the D.C. police intelligence section and 3rd District officers and charged with conspiracy to commit a crime and possessing "implements of crime."
Those implements included 256 PVC pipes, 45 smaller pipes, two rolls of chicken wire, 50 rolls of duct tape, gas masks, bolt cutters, heavy chains, an electrical saw and lockbox-type devices used to link people together.
"These are instruments that are commonly used by demonstrators to connect themselves to different objects, to hook themselves to one another, to block traffic, to cause other kinds of disruptions, and we were able to intercept a lot of the material," said Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey at a news conference near the World Bank building yesterday.
Ramsey said preparations were continuing for the possibility of sustained civil disobedience and large numbers of arrests. Such preparations, the overtime required and the gear needed don't come cheap. Ramsey said that in addition to the $1 million spent on new riot gear, such as helmets and shin, chest and arm guards, D.C. police alone will pay about $1.6 million in overtime.
Those expenditures prompted Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) yesterday to send a jointly written letter to congressional leaders seeking a special one-time $5 million appropriation to reimburse the city's police costs this week.
"The District is emerging from its worst financial crisis of this century and does not have the flexibility to meet all of its local expenses and certainly not expenses imposed by the national government," the letter said. "We urgently ask for your assistance." The dollar figure is the same as that Congress appropriated to help Seattle pay for the week of protests that ended in vandalism and tear gas.
Ramsey would not say how many D.C. police officers would be on the street on Sunday and Monday, but he said that the entire 3,500-plus department has been activated. Officers will work 12-hour shifts. About 1,500 officers have been specifically trained for the protests.
D.C. police also have enlisted officers from Arlington, Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Officials would not say how many have signed up, but they will serve in the District under the command of D.C. police.
In other incidents reported by protesters and included in the complaint to Reno, one said his bicycle was confiscated by police and returned without a chain. Another said he was frisked at lunch time Wednesday near 20th and K streets NW by U.S. Secret Service agents who showed him that they were already carrying a picture of him. A Secret Service spokesperson said yesterday that the agency would not discuss its tactics.
"We want Reno to go ahead and inform her people that this kind of thing is not acceptable," said Zak Wolfe, a National Lawyers Guild member working on the protests. Wolfe said he had written to District officials several weeks ago to express concerns about police techniques.
During the midday events yesterday that included demonstrations at two Starbucks shops, a Gap store and the National Press Building, activists and police coexisted peacefully. A police captain helped marchers plan their route and then deployed 20 patrol and motorcycle officers to escort them. At the National Press Building, protesters hoped to shout at World Trade Organization chief Michael Moore, who made a luncheon appearance there, but they never saw him.
Police said they wanted to accommodate the march even though no one applied for a parade permit. For the most part, the mood was upbeat, the police remained calm and the protesters were compliant.
Some demonstrators wore bandannas over their faces, and others loudly sang or chanted at individual police officers from as close as two feet away. Those officers were clearly annoyed by the provocation, but none responded physically.
At one point, when their path on a Pennsylvania Avenue NW sidewalk was blocked because President Clinton was making a speech to newspaper editors at the J.W. Marriott Hotel--a visit that shut down an entire block of 14th Street--marchers grew frustrated and huddled with police on what to do.
Protester June Brashares, 35, of San Francisco, told one officer not to worry that protesters would try to elicit a reaction from scores of billy club-carrying officers awaiting the president's departure. "We're not going to be shutting anything down until Sunday," she told him.
D.C. police Capt. Mario Patrizio and his unit accompanied the procession from start to finish. "We hope it's like this all weekend," he said. "They stayed on the sidewalk like we asked."
Patrizio and a sergeant chatted amiably with people who seemed as if they might be the leaders of the march.
But everyone involved in the global trade protests--medical professors, economists, lawyers and grungy nomads--behaves with studied egalitarianism and steadfastly refuses to identify anyone as a leader. There is so much equality that it seems at times that the protesters move like a school of fish, guided more by a collective consciousness than any directions.
The demonstration yesterday was a celebration, although the initial plan was to hotly protest Starbucks' coffee-buying policies. But Starbucks announced Monday that later this year the company would begin selling "fair-trade" coffee beans in its nearly 2,500 stores nationwide. Fair-trade-certified coffee is stamped with a special seal by the nonprofit organization TransFair USA and signifies that the coffee is grown under safe working conditions and sold directly, not through middlemen, thereby guaranteeing more income for the farmer.
"This is a tremendous victory for the corporate accountability movement," Deborah James, 29, who works for the San Francisco nonprofit group Global Exchange, told the gathering. "It's not charity; it's altering the model of trade."
The protesters said their next mission will be to get Starbucks to brew fair-trade coffee in its stores.
Starbucks and TransFair officials said that the agreement has been in the works for months and that it already has prompted pledges from companies across the coffee industry to market fair-trade beans.
Staff writers Petula Dvorak and David Montgomery contributed to this report.