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The Courage Of Protesters' Convictions
Published on Wednesday, April 19, 2000 in the Washington Post
The Courage Of Protesters' Convictions
by Courtland Milloy
 
From the window of my house on Capitol Hill, I could see a convoy of National Guard vehicles, about a dozen jeeps and canvas-covered trucks loaded with troops, headed downtown to protect the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The convoy had been preceded by a two-block-long beeline of U.S. Capitol Police motorcycles, the helmeted riders looking grim and ready to rumble. And, as if all of that was not enough, an assortment of helicopters began to appear low in the sky, including a black shark-shaped chopper with what looked like a gun barrel protruding from its nose.

It was quite amazing to see our local law enforcement and national military might meld into one big fist, ready to crush any and all at will.

Say what you will about the threat posed by protesters at the recent meeting of global finance ministers; seeing how easy it is to turn this city into an armed camp, where government force can be used indiscriminately and without recourse against innocent bystanders--as well as news reporters and photographers--struck me as far more disturbing.

In a matter of minutes, several platoons of D.C. police officers had cordoned off 90 blocks of downtown Washington, in effect, cut out the heart of the nation's capital. So much for our great symbol of democracy. For several days, the police held the blockades with a vengeance, using pepper spray and savage blows from their batons.

Better that the finance meeting had been held offshore, like other nefarious cartels do, than to reinforce the image of our nation's capital as some two-bit capitalist dictatorship.

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey was portrayed as benevolent yet in control as he walked around with a rose between occasionally tussling with a protester or two. But Ramsey had back-up from the Pentagon, U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Capitol Police and the National Guard. All he had to do was let protesters know that if they ran over his men, their next stop would be soldiers from the group that made history at Kent State.

Not a pretty picture.

In the face of this insurmountable force, the courage and spirit of the protesters became even more impressive. They were, for the most part, just everyday people--musicians, teachers, skilled trades men and women among them--who were bold enough to get up, stand up, for what is right.

One of them, Eric Larmand, a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, drove a vanload of students for nine hours to Washington. Why would a mild-mannered guy from the Midwest come this far and risk getting beat up and tear-gassed, to say nothing of possibly spending a night in the D.C. jail?

Larmand, like so many others, spoke of being moved by a force more powerful than guns to do something, anything, that would help others to see the light. (Quite frankly, it was refreshing to find such a large group of white people taking a stand against racism and economic injustice.)

Nearly 1,300 arrests were made.

"Suppose a friend asked you for a loan, and you gave it but then demanded that he pay it back so fast that he couldn't feed, heal or educate his children," Larmand said. "That would be terrible. But that's exactly what the IMF does: loans money to our friends around the world, and then behaves like an international loan shark."

Alex Han, a guitar player, was among those who rode with Larmand.

"I really didn't know what to expect," Han said. "I just believe that this gap between the rich and poor will come back to haunt us. If not me, then my children or my children's children. When I heard that other people were trying to take a stand against injustice, I wanted to be here to stand with them."

Leslie Smith, a student of social justice at Antioch University in this area, marched and attended several rallies.

"There is a deep connectedness between the peoples of the world, and we need to be more aware of it," she said. "Erosions caused by destruction of rain forests lead to floods that result in immigrants coming to this country. All I want is for people to act with awareness that what we do affects others."

At a conference on World Bank policies sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies, several speakers highlighted the ways in which worldwide inequities are mirrored right here in D.C.

The District, they noted, has suffered from exploitative development schemes, closing of schools, eviction of residents, congestion and pollution, lack of living wages, forced deterioration of neighborhoods for real estate speculation and other injustices which, like IMF and World Bank policies, benefit corporate interests and hurt the little guy.

Roger Newell, a member of the Teamsters, posed a question: What is the D.C.'s main "cash crop"? The answer: prisoners, because the District, which has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, is required by Congress to send a certain percentage of its inmate population out of state to private penitentiaries.

Seated in the van, preparing for the ride back to Michigan, Larmand and Han bemoaned the police brutality and illegal searches and seizures that they witnessed during the protests.

"The battle will continue," Larmand said. "In the courts for sure; in the streets, I swear."

Power to the people.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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