D.C. Diary 

Downs and ups of a protest

Wednesday, Apr 19 2000
Photo by Ben Ehrenreich

Wednesday, April 12

By 11 a.m., the main alley behind the Convergence is buzzing with energy. It is the headquarters, training grounds and meeting place for the Mobilization for Global Justice, a coalition of hundreds of organizations and activists who have converged on Washington to protest and, if all goes according to plan, shut down the International Monetary Fund’s and World Bank’s spring meetings. The Convergence is located down an otherwise anonymous alleyway separating two charter schools in an African-American and immigrant neighborhood a half-hour’s walk from IMF headquarters.

The mood is high — outside, everyone’s moving, working, carrying supplies, hugging lost friends. The crowd is young, largely college-age and almost entirely white. A post-punk/deadhead/skate-rat look prevails: Dyed dreadlocks, piercings and tattoos abound, as do Army-surplus and thrift-shop fashions. Someone plays guitar off to the right. Behind him, a group of “radical cheerleaders” practices its routine: “Sound off, have no fear, sound off, revolution’s here!” Electric saws hum and hammers pound in an outdoor workshop where giant papier-mâché and wood puppets are being built for street theater. Enormous faces painted in brilliant greens and yellows line one wall. An oversize Bill Clinton “corporate puppet” sits folded in a corner. Banners, tied to a fence, flap in the wind. More are being painted on huge makeshift tables. Their slogans are short and simple. “Rise up,” one reads. “Reclaim,” reads another.

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Inside, the scene is no less frenzied. Technically, I’m only allowed in if accompanied by a “media escort” — a hassle because I’d like to consider myself a participant as much as an observer. There’s a packed media-registration and information desk, maps of the city, stacks of leaflets and posters, newspapers put out by the Young Communist League, the Green Party, anarchist groups from Philly and Oakland. There’s more puppet making, a kitchen and, upstairs, training workshops. In a concrete-floored room lit by bare fluorescent bulbs, about 30 young activists receive medical training, learning how to use dish soap, vegetable oil and water to mix antidotes to tear gas and pepper spray.

Across town, as thousands of union members demonstrate on the Capitol Mall, just three blocks from the White House, former Wall Street financier and current World Bank president James Wolfensohn, silver-maned in a well-cut black suit, tells reporters, “We are ready to discuss any issue with anybody at any time.” The two police buses and more than a dozen police cars parked outside the IMF building — which is surrounded by security guards denying access to anyone without IMF-issued credentials — tell another story.

Thursday, April 13

The morning starts slowly, with activists gathering at the Convergence, huddling in small groups over a quick breakfast of coffee (organic, of course) and quartered apples and oranges. A kid with a pierced lip smokes a hand-rolled cigarette and scolds his dog: “Chiapas, no begging.”

At a little after 10, a group of about 40 leaves the center for the day’s first action, a protest at Starbucks sponsored by the San Francisco–based nonprofit Global Exchange. Bearing a giant puppet of World Trade Organization head Michael Moore, and signs reading “FAIR TRADE NOT FREE TRADE” and, more cryptically, “FAIR TRADE COFFEE IS ORGANIC AND SHADE GROWN,” as well as the ever-present backpacks and bundled sleeping bags, they head for Dupont Circle. One couple hitchhiked from Minneapolis with two dogs. Elise Hogue, who flew in from San Francisco, explains her reasons for coming: The IMF and World Bank “basically are financing the destruction of our planet.” Devin Asch, tall and thin in a military trench coat, who flew out from L.A. and is staying in a squat not far from the Convergence, hands out fliers exposing the Gap’s use of sweatshop labor. After a few rousing speeches in front of Starbucks (“Good morning, everybody, let’s hear it for fair trade!”), where there are almost as many cops and journalists as protesters, another group, the People’s Assembly Against IMF-WB, arrives.

Their ranks swelling, the demonstrators head to the Gap. By the time they’re halfway there, about 200 people have joined the march, chanting, “Human needs, not corporate greed,” and trying to avoid being run down by cops on motorcycles (Honda Rebels, no less) who are aggressively herding the crowd onto the sidewalk. At the Gap, where protesters preach against sweatshop labor, the police hurriedly form a phalanx between the crowd and store windows, which no one has shown any interest in smashing. Other officers stand back, photographing and videotaping protesters. The marchers move on to another Starbucks, this one next to the World Bank, where they distribute free coffee and muffins to passersby. A Starbucks store manager magnanimously donates paper cups, which are quickly defaced with black Magic Marker (b’s become f’s, etc.).

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