Published at 11:50 AM on Sunday, April 16, 2000 by Agence France-Presse
Police Fire Foam Bullets, Tear Gas As Protests Escalate
WASHINGTON - Police fired tear gas and clubbed and kicked demonstrators attempting to disrupt a meeting of finance ministers and top International Monetary Fund officials here Sunday, witnesses said.
Thousands of protesters opposed to IMF and World Bank policies formed a human chain blocking access to the downtown headquarters of the two organizations in a mainly peaceful demonstration, police and witnesses said.
But violence broke out when a separate group of some 500 demonstrators and police clashed several blocks to the east, witnesses said.
The protesters had uprooted metal fences from a nearby construction site and were moving towards police lines when police retaliated, breaking up the protests by firing several tear gas canisters.
One protester said police were also firing soft foam bullets, similar to rubber bullets but less painful on contact.
"They kicked and clubbed the demonstrators, then fired these foam bullets," said Billy Nesson, a student of journalism at Columbia University in New York.
Further west, thousands of protesters continued to block access to the IMF and the World Bank headquarters -- just four blocks from the White House -- and vowing that no one would enter.
"No one through, no one through," the demonstrators chanted as officials and journalists covering the joint meeting of the IMF and the World Bank were turned away.
Police were out in force and had formed a line between the demonstrators and the IMF and World Bank buildings in the downtown area but had so far made no attempt to dislodge the protesters.
Law enforcement officers arrested more than 600 demonstrators on Saturday.
However, the demonstrators failed to stop the IMF policy meeting which was already under way.
World finance ministers and top IMF officials were already inside the IMF building, bussed in before dawn by police. Journalists who arrived early had also gained access to the building.
The lively crowds of protesters, waving banners and displaying puppets, were mainly peaceful, police said.
"We want the delegates to get in. We want them to protest. Everybody is happy. Tear gas is not going to be used unless they go absolutely ballistic and set the place on fire," said Captain Mario Patrizio, manning police ranks outside the IMF building.
The demonstrators, who appeared to be mainly middle class and young, with a sprinkling of elderly activists, were undeterred that the meeting was going ahead.
"It's going better than I imagined in my wildest dream," said Kevin Danaher, a key organizer with Global Exchange, one of the protest groups.
He estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 demonstrators were on the streets of the US capital and were unconcerned about what was going on inside the IMF headquarters.
"We don't care what they do inside. It's not about them, in there. It's about us out here," he said.
Police put the figure of protesters at around 6,000 and a spokeswoman said she had no confirmation that tear gas had been fired or that foam bullets had been used.
Washington police chief Charles Ramsey said he was hoping to head off a repeat of the widespread disruptions that took place in Seattle last November, when some radical demonstrators ransacked parts of the city during a World Trade Organization meeting.
"Our goal is to avoid the kind of property damage and violence that we have seen in other places," he told a morning press conference.
He said his entire police department was mobilized and he had backup from neighboring police jurisdictions. The local branch of the National Guard was being held in reserve.
"Hopefully we will not need to call out these reserves," he said.
Thousands of activists -- from anarchists to environmental radicals -- have flocked to Washington in the days leading up to the meeting of IMF policymakers Sunday and the World Bank meeting on Monday.
Adrian, 21, a student from Quito, Ecuador said: "Where I'm from, people are born with debt of 4,000 dollars owed to the IMF and the World Bank, and we don't have food to eat.
"The government spends the money to repay the debt. We will never repay the debt. We're using five percent of GDP for education and health. Fifty percent goes to repay the rich people."
Some demonstrators were already proclaiming victory.
"We've already won," said Medea Benjamin, an organizer with Global Exchange.
"The problem with these organizations is that they have been functioning in secret and that is how they have been able to get away with actually increasing poverty."
"These last two weeks leading up to this was front-page headlines. We've had more press coverage about the World Bank and the IMF these last two weeks than in the last 10 years. This is just gravy today."