Mild in the Streets

The A16 protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund failed to disrupt the annual meetings of the two institutions. But the protesters say they won anyway.

| Mon Apr. 17, 2000 3:00 AM EDT

At 7 a.m. Sunday, things were looking good for the thousands of demonstrators who had poured into Washington D.C. to shut down the April 16 meeting of the World Bank and IMF.

The weather was appropriately foreboding, all gray skies and intermittent cold rain, and the energy on the streets was running strong. Following plans carefully mapped out over the preceding week, motley bands of demonstrators seized intersection after intersection in the streets surrounding the two institutions' side-by-side headquarters, their drumming and chanting filling the air over the basso chatter of low-flying helicopters circling overhead. Giant puppets -- Bill Clinton, a toothy "loan shark," all kinds of amorphous birds and suns and fanciful heads -- cavorted amid them. The goal: Prevent the suits from getting to their meeting place. The tactic: Form human blockades on every road leading there.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The demonstrators were, predictably, mostly young white folks, but with a riotous variety of subcultural looks: fresh-faced college kids from Connecticut, scowling punks from Philadelphia, blissful longhairs down from Canada, a smattering of gray-headed '60s veterans. A flushed and bright-eyed Tom Hayden, the former Chicago Seven defendant turned California state senator, made the rounds joining in chants, shaking hands with people who recognized him and chatting unassumingly with the many who didn't.

Sure, many, perhaps most, had only a vague idea of what the Bank and IMF actually do. "They've got all this power and they just use it to destroy, instead of making a better world," summed up Natalie, a 23-year-old from upstate New York who wouldn't give her last name. The protesters came from a grab bag of assorted activist contexts: environmentalists, labor organizers, Third World solidarity specialists. T-shirts and signs exhorted us to variously Free Mumia, Free Kurdistan, or just Abolish All Authority. But all these people have found a common enemy in the amorphous concept of globalization, the metaissue that may be emerging as the defining phenomenon of the '00s.

And in D.C. on Sunday, they were ready for a second Seattle, kitted out with all kinds of makeshift anti-tear gas gear from swim goggles to welders' masks, trash-can lid shields to ward off rubber bullets, and lengths of pipe to stick their arms in to make it harder for cops to pull them apart.

But as the morning wore on ... nothing happened. As we found out later, the delegates had simply gotten up an hour earlier than announced, and all but a handful were already sipping cappuccinos inside the IMF and World Bank buildings by the time the barricades were going up on the streets outside. In the meantime, all that the widely-scattered protesters knew was there was no one to confront. The dispersion of the protest -- the barricades ringed an area of some 50 square blocks -- only made matters more difficult. Rumors flew around wildly, almost all of them false: The meeting has been canceled! A busful of delegates has been trapped six blocks down this way! They're trying to break through eight blocks up that way!

The limitations of the model of leaderless action embraced by the nascent antiglobalization movement quickly became clear. By 10 a.m., in the absence of anything visible to protest against or delegates to block, much of the crowd's energy had dissipated. The disciplined action began to degenerate into a good-natured street fair, the barricades growing listless, people ambling aimlessly back and forth or coalescing into short-lived spontaneous marchlets, and would-be organizers working their cell phones trying to find out where something -- anything -- was going on.

Even the famous "black bloc" of avowed anarchists, marching here and there in a force of one hundred or so, didn't do much to enliven the proceedings. Unlike Seattle, there was no window smashing or Gap trashing -- just some spray-painted slogans and some property rearrangement. Every now and then, a handful of black-clad anarcho-youth would drag a few newspaper boxes, or construction site debris, or a chunk of a cyclone fence into the streets to form a barricade. That was about the extent of the assault on property. The others, of course, stuck firm to a principled nonviolent approach.

Not even the tourists were scared. "They're peaceful, and they seem like responsible young people," said Regina Cargile, in town from Spokane, Wash., for a convention, calmly sipping a Starbucks latte and looking out the window at the ragged flow of demonstrators bouncing and strutting down the street outside.

The only serious troubles of the day were some scattered outbreaks of what can fairly be called police violence. The DC police, having carefully studied the debacle in Seattle, played tough. In the days leading up to the main protest on Sunday, they had taken an extremely proactive approach, raiding and shutting down activist houses and arresting more than 600 people at a Saturday night march.

But on the big Sunday, they simply cordoned off an area two blocks wide around the Bank and IMF buildings, and then just let the protesters dance and drum to their hearts' content on the other side of the barricades. Police Chief Charles Ramsey even spent an hour talking and shaking hands with protesters at one barricade. All told, fewer than 20 people were arrested Sunday.

But a few episodes turned ugly. About 11 a.m., when the street action had mostly ebbed, police near the Ellipse, a park by the White House that was to be the site of a permitted rally, decided to move a bus down a street still being blocked by a line of protesters. A phalanx of some 40 officers -- decked out in high Robocop style in head-to-toe black with padded vests, elbow pads, and shin guards -- marched on the two dozen arm-locked protesters sitting in front of the barricades. A couple of cops simply stepped on the protesters and vaulted over the barricade while their colleagues started dragging howling kids away down the asphalt. In the melee that briefly ensued, several people got faces full of pepper spray, more got nightsticked in the ribs, and a Japanese news photographer was knocked flat by a billy club to the temple.

But that incident -- and a couple of others like it -- was over quickly. By noon, the sun had come out and the rally in the Ellipse had begun, drawing a crowd of more than 10,000. The protest devolved into a lovely day in the park, highlighted by lefty celebs including Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, and the Indigo Girls denouncing corporate evil from the stage, and an impressively sized march through the streets toward the IMF and World Bank buildings and back.

By midafternoon, sleeping bodies surrounded by discarded placards and puppets crowded the shady areas of the park. The protesting was over, and the IMF/World Bank meetings were going ahead as scheduled. Demonstrators zero, international capitalism one, it seemed.

But surprisingly, not a single person I spoke to afterward seemed upset. The consensus was that the demonstrations had done a lot to put the issue on the map, and had been a good experience for all concerned. "This used to be such an obscure topic that only a few activists cared about, and now you've got housewives coming out against globalization," said Mike Lambert, who came up from Baton Rouge, La., for the action.

"Tactically, it wasn't a success," conceded Kenny Bruno, a veteran activist with the Transnational Resource and Action Center. "But it was in a larger sense. It proves that Seattle wasn't a fluke. The energy is still there." That night, in the cavernous basement of Calvary Church in central D.C., the air was humid as a Florida swamp and rank with the accumulated sweat of the 500-odd protesters packing the place. But the mood was triumphant.

Raucous cheers greeted each group's report of how well various actions had gone, or how supportive the media coverage they had seen was. Almost everyone in there had been up since dawn. But as I left about 9 p.m., they were just getting started with planning for the next day's action.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.