WASHINGTON - They told everyone this was going to happen, no one listened, and now see?
As column after column of black Lincoln Town Cars disgorged international finance officials onto the sidewalk in front of World Bank headquarters on Friday, a raggedy group of about 20 free-market protesters gathered across the street to express their sadness - and in some cases, glee - over the global economic catastrophe that some said had proved them right.
"Year after year of unregulated free-market economics have finally come home to roost," said Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change, an environmental group.
"Aren't those the same people who got us into this mess?" added Kenny Bruno, another Oil Change protestor from Brooklyn, with a nod at the World Bank building.
It was a surreal day here in the capital of the free world, as the people who have been setting global economic policy - the Group of 7, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - gathered to plot strategy in the middle of the scariest economic free fall the world has seen since 1929.
The annual meetings of the World Bank, I.M.F. and G-7 finance ministers typically do not carry with them much in the way of urgency. The script is usually so familiar that the Washington police know it by heart: finance ministers arrive in their limos and stake out their tables at the city's best restaurants; free-market protestors dressed like Mutant Ninja Turtles kick up a ruckus in a tiny triangular patch of park across from World Bank headquarters; a few of the protesters get arrested trying to enter the building; and the news media, and the rest of the city, largely ignore the event.
A steady refrain from the protesters has been that more economic nationalism is needed, both to protect the poor and to prevent big corporations from robbing smaller countries of wealth. They have argued that more regulation is needed to keep big business in check, and have derided free markets as benefiting only a narrow swath of society.
Typically at World Bank meetings, officials grouse about the misguided protesters. This year, things are a little different. "There's no question the Washington consensus is dead," one senior World Bank official said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly to a reporter. He said he was referring to "the free-market consensus," adding that at the World Bank, the push toward deregulation and unfettered free markets "died at the time of the $700 billion bailout."
Huddled together in groups in the bank's cafeteria, where the specials on Friday included Ethiopian spicy braised chicken and curried tofu sauté, bank officials were focused on their own accounts. "You withdraw your money?" one British accent said to another. "No, no, no, I'm putting my money in!" came the reply.
Outside, the group of protesters included Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange, sporting paraphernalia from the antiwar group Code Pink that routinely gets her tossed out of Senate and House hearings on Capitol Hill. "It's certainly a sad thing to see the ripple effect of this unchecked capitalism on ordinary people."
Ms. Benjamin couldn't leave it there, though, and soon broke into a huge grin. "But on the other hand, to see the fat cats on Wall Street scrambling and losing their yachts! We've been saying this would happen."
For many of the protesters, there is a dreamlike quality to these days. They were in Seattle in 1999, the Woodstock of the antiglobalization movement, when they helped stop the World Trade Organization from starting a new round of trade talks.
They were in Genoa, Italy, at a G-8 meeting in 2001, when they said they were treated like criminals (Italian police even shot one protester) all because, they said, they tried to warn of the perils of unfettered capitalism. They scaled the Plaza Hotel in New York to hang banners decrying corporate greed and marched giant puppets down 17th Street in Washington to warn against globalization.
And after all that, who does the world call on to get the global economy out of this mess? Gazing at the bureaucrats entering the World Bank building, Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, was not amused. "We are doomed if we think that going back to the people who caused this problem will get us out of it," he said.
A block away, outside the I.M.F. headquarters, Clive Tasker, a commercial banker from Johannesburg, was taking a break from the doom and gloom of the meetings inside to check his BlackBerry. "There is a high level of uncertainty, with some pretty frank and open discussions happening as to what possibly might unfold, and in that context, there are as many different scenarios as there are people in the discussion," he said.
As he spoke, a group supporting Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. walked by wheeling a poster that asked "Who will be next?" They handed out fliers quoting Mr. LaRouche calling for the entire dollar-based financial system to be declared bankrupt and reorganized with a ban on derivative trading. Without such action, it warned, "this planet is doomed to a horrible dark age."
It wasn't all doom and gloom in Washington. though. Further on up the road, the ubiquitous line of black Lincoln Town Cars was queuing up in front of Kinkead's, one of the city's most expensive restaurants. In groups of three and four, dark-suited bankers ran up the restaurant's steps, for oysters and Sancerre. Outside, the Town Car armada idled.