|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.
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.).
Back at the Convergence, the news has spread that seven people were stopped the night before by D.C. police and FBI agents. Their van was searched, and its contents — over 200 lengths of PVC pipe, two rolls of chicken wire, duct tape, chains and tools — were confiscated. The seven were charged with “possession of implements of a crime” and conspiracy to commit a crime, before being released. Police claim the materials were meant to be used for the construction of “sleeping dragons,” through which protesters can lock themselves to one another or to stationary objects to block streets.
A wiry Oakland-based anarchist named Tristan, who works security at the Convergence, reports that police tried to enter the center the previous night, but were turned away. Rumors — which the D.C. Metropolitan Police will not confirm or deny — are flying that the cops plan to arrest anyone covering their face with a bandanna or mask. Several blocks around the World Bank building have been closed to traffic. By afternoon, the downtown area is flooded with law enforcement, and Karen Jo Koonan, president of the National Lawyers Guild, has sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno protesting “serious violations of the constitutional rights of political activists.”
Friday, April 14
While the Foggy Bottom district, where the World Bank and IMF headquarters are located, is increasingly militarized by local and federal law enforcement, back at the Convergence, the kids are doing their part to keep things peaceful. The turnout at the protest headquarters is so high that many workshops have been moved to nearby churches and community centers. A nonviolence-training session led by Starhawk, a renowned witch from San Francisco, fills one room upstairs. As C-SPAN cameras look on, about 75 people, all but a handful under 30 and a few clearly under 16, engage in role-playing, dialogue and what Starhawk calls “active listening” to prepare for Sunday’s rallies. The air in the windowless room is thick with idealistic enthusiasm. Starhawk asks the group, “What’s your intention in being here? What do you really want to see accomplished?”
Some answers: “I really want to see people care about each other”; “I want to see an end to corporate rule”; “I want to see us create a space within the movement that sketches out the kind of society we want to create”; and, to general applause, “I want to be taken seriously in living rooms across the world.”
Meanwhile, tensions with police continue to rise. Two PETA activists are arrested after unloading a dump truck of manure in front of the World Bank building; one protester is arrested following a confrontation with police at a rush-hour puppet show and rally in Dupont Circle; three more are booked and charged once again with “possession of implements of a crime,” after an evening police raid on the house in which they are staying turns up over 100 so-called sleeping dragons.
Saturday, April 15
The police don’t waste any time. By 8:45 a.m., the Convergence has been ä forcibly closed, and no one is allowed within a block of the building. A line of stone-faced cops, many with badges concealed and one with his badge number conspicuously cut out, has formed at the corner, and angry activists are chanting, “This is what a police state looks like!”
Devin Asch recalls the raid: At about 8:15, he and a couple of hundred others had gathered at the Convergence for breakfast. “First the fire marshal came in, and we let him in because he doesn’t need a warrant, but he was followed by eight or nine police in plainclothes. The crowd was asking to see a warrant, and they basically pushed their way in . . . then about two or three dozen more came in uniform in files of two, and they started shoving people out.”
Near where Asch is recounting events, a few activists begin to chant the Fourth Amendment on the other side of the police line. Executive Assistant Chief Terry Gainer tells reporters that “the building will be closed because of serious fire-code violations,” including blocked exits and stairways, a jerry-rigged electrical system, and the use of propane tanks in the kitchen. He also saw, “with my own eyes,” he insists, one Molotov cocktail, an assertion met with outrage and ridicule by protesters. Local TV news crews will nonetheless broadcast the claim widely within an hour. Gainer denies the raid had anything to do with tomorrow’s planned protests. “It was really a hazard to the young people who were in there.”
Asch shakes his head in disbelief, gesturing to the line of cops a few feet away: “This is disrupting a nonviolence training. We were just about to start one.”
Not to worry: Within an hour, workshops have resumed at a community center a few blocks away, the new Convergence. About 200 are gathered inside, most sitting on the floor, some rearranging food and other supplies brought over from the old Convergence. A half-dozen kids wearing red clown noses skip through the crowd playing kazoos. Outside, the stairs are packed with protesters, as are two traffic islands across the street. Asch has arrived from the old Convergence and, towering over the crowd, is shouting into a bullhorn: “The medic training is happening on the far island. Nonviolence is on this island . . .”
At noon I meet up with a gangly 28-year-old anarchist from Boston, who goes by the moniker Roadrunner Krazykatovitch, to wait for a “runner” to bring us news of a squat takeover planned for the afternoon. A few hundred protesters are staying in clandestine squats scattered around D.C. Krazykatovitch and others have been planning a public takeover for days, and an appropriate building has already been chosen; they hope to hold it long enough to turn it into permanent free housing for the community, pointing out that thousands go homeless in Washington, a city with hundreds of unoccupied buildings. Within an hour and a half, a handful of black-clad squatters — and a dog sporting a faded black bandanna — have joined us, and the decision is made to enter the building. It’s pristine inside: three stories, Sheetrock intact, electricity and plumbing fully functioning.
But by 4 in the afternoon, a neighbor has called the police and about 20 squatters have barricaded themselves inside. Within the hour, dozens of cops have arrived. A tense standoff ensues, as about 100 supporters gather on the street outside and the squatters take to the roof, where they hang banners reading “FREE THE LAND” and join the crowd in chants of “No housing, no peace!” All but eight of the squatters soon leave the building voluntarily. Police don riot gear and use their batons to push the crowd — now furiously screaming, “Stop the evictions!” — off the block. But tensions between police and protesters are deflected when an African-American community resident begins to berate the nearly all-white crowd: “It ain’t the best community in the world, but it was peaceful till you got here!” An hour later, all eight remaining squatters have been dragged from the roof and booked.
Things are even hotter across town, where approximately 600 protesters taking part in a nonviolent rally in support of death-row activist Mumia Abu-Jamal are carted away en masse in school buses and charged with parading without a permit. Meanwhile, Metro stops belch out dozens of newly arrived activists every few minutes, Foggy Bottom storekeepers board up their windows in preparation for Sunday, and sirens continue to wail.
Sunday, April 16
The big day, A 16 in activist lingo, begins for many well before dawn. Devin Asch, shirtless in the heat of the midday sun, recalls that “People were starting to meet up at 4,” hoping to block the streets to prevent delegates from getting through to the World Bank meetings. “It was really organized.” Protesters built blockades, he says, with fencing and lumber taken from a nearby construction site. And as early as 5:30, when police were loading delegates onto buses, activists lay down in front of them and linked arms, preventing the buses from leaving. “I’m fucking impressed,” says Asch.
Not everything goes so smoothly. At about 6:30, U.S. Park Police try to break lines of peaceful protesters by ramming through on motorcycles. They’re unsuccessful, and no one is seriously injured. Two hours later, police pepper-spray a crowd trying to push through the barricades that wall off the World Bank building. A few minutes later, I run into the Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Bloc heading down K Street. A few hundred strong, garbed almost entirely in black — most in black T-shirts or sweatshirts with the hoods pulled over black ski masks, or with black bandannas pulled over their faces. For short, they go by Black Bloc. They march, waving anarchist flags, spirits high, beating drums made from overturned buckets or plastic water jugs and shouting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” To everyone’s surprise, as we approach intersections blocked by patrol cars, police simply drive off and cede us the street. Gaining courage, the crowd turns a corner and the cry goes up: “We’re taking this intersection!” Everyone breaks into a run and charges, but police again spoil the fun by backing off.
After a few brief face-offs, the inevitable encounter comes at about 10, when protesters, pushing in front of them a temporary chainlink fence they’ve picked up along the way, charge a couple of dozen cops on motorcycles. The cops back off, then wheel around and ram the fence, discharging pepper spray from small cannons into the crowd. The fence is dropped, and, stunned from the pepper spray, people run back down the block and into a small park, with riot police, now on foot, in pursuit. One man falls and is mobbed by cops swinging their batons. The cry goes up: ä “They’re beating him,” and police retreat as protesters rush them to retrieve their fallen friend. Cops and protesters both regroup. Then cops don gas masks and fire tear-gas canisters into the crowd. Some are thrown back at them, as are a few bottles, but the tear gas effectively disperses the protesters. Roadrunner Krazykatovitch, backpack full of eyewash and first-aid supplies in tow, is working the crowd as a medic. He’s treated three people hurt by the gas. “I didn’t treat any anarchists, though,” he says, disappointed — all three were journalists.
A block away, 17-year-old Gabby Silverman, from Brooklyn, is still recovering from baton blows, but is undaunted. “For us to be yelling ‘Whose streets? Our streets’ and then be running away,” she says, “I just don’t see the logic. I wasn’t going to run away. I wasn’t going to do anything violent, but I wasn’t gonna let them turn me away.” For her courage, Silverman was run down by motorcycles, then thrown to the ground and hit with batons until her friends rescued her, but she doesn’t want to talk about her bruises. “Don’t portray us as a bunch of crazed thugs who just want to beat up some cops,” she asks of me. “That’s not what we’re here for.”
Two hours later, the sun has come out and the mood is fully carnivalesque. Each intersection is still blocked with human chains of protesters, but for the most part, people have broken up into small groups. Folks are milling about the streets, dancing and drumming, soaking tired feet in a nearby fountain. The peace doesn’t last long. Some anarchists have commandeered a wheeled dumpster. Black Bloc gathers, and the dumpster is pushed to the corner of 19th and I, just a block from the World Bank building. As protesters on the sidelines yell, “No violence,” they charge, rolling the dumpster into the police barricade. A few blasts of pepper spray back them off briefly. When they return, rolling an overturned trash can, another protester runs out and stops it, screaming again, “No violence!” He’s pushed aside by a black-masked anarchist who yells, gesturing at the line of riot cops, “What the fuck do you think that is?”
The trash can is predictably ineffective, and the cops and crowd face off, police with pepper spray at the ready. Line after line of reinforcements arrive on motorcycle, and, after a few minutes of intense chanting, Black Bloc moves off to try the next corner. I ask John, an anarchist from New England swathed from head to toe in black fabric, if he really thinks they can get through the barricades. “The point is to make a ruckus and draw attention to the issues,” he explains. “If violence happens, it happens. If violence does break out and we get past the barricades, that’s great, but that’s not what matters.”
They don’t try again. Everyone’s been up and marching for almost eight hours at this point, so they retreat to rest in the shade for a spell, then regroup and march on, laughing and arhythmically chanting, “We’re tired, we’re cranky, we don’t like the government.”
I run into Joe, an affable NYU student in a red sharkskin suit, who, despite his attire, marches with Black Bloc, and who was with the group that first entered the squat on Saturday afternoon. “I got my ass beat on the other side of the Ellipse,” he tells me. About 40 people, including Joe, sat down peacefully in front of a line of police who were trying to clear the street. They “kicked through and started truncheoning people,” he says. “Two people went to the hospital. One guy got hit in the head and there was blood all over.” Nonviolent protesters were assaulted by police in at least two other incidents as well.
After a long march through George Washington University, where baffled frat boys look on from their stoops, the day winds to a close, with exhausted protesters collapsing on the wide lawn of the Capitol Ellipse. At the end of the day, protest organizers estimate, between 30,000 and 40,000 people have taken part in the demonstrations. Police say only 20 have been arrested. The IMF meetings were not canceled, as many had hoped they would be, but most protesters seem more than satisfied that their point has been made.
Monday, April 17
Yet more proof that God loves the rich: It begins pouring at about 4:30 in the morning and barely lets up for the rest of the day. By 5:30, the delegates have all arrived at the IMF meetings, with no resistance from protesters. An hour later, a mere half-dozen have gathered at the corner of 20th and Pennsylvania, where they make quixotic attempts to block police vans coming out from the World Bank building, attempts quickly put down by police with blasts of pepper spray and baton thrusts. At a little after 7, one valiant protester walks in front of a police van for two blocks, enduring repeated swipes and shoves from club-bearing cops, yelling at the half-dozen photographers who trail him, “Put down your cameras and join me!”
At about 7:35, Black Bloc arrives, somewhat reduced but no less enthused, already chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, smash the police state!” Joe is with them, clad today in a trash bag to fight the rain. “Where’s the main group?” he asks, looking up and down the empty streets. Within a few minutes we meet another small group of protesters, and, with hoots and hollers, our ranks swell to two or three hundred. We march down K Street, stopping rush-hour traffic, chanting, “Don’t go to work!” to trapped commuters. Bus drivers and cabbies honk their support.
The fun doesn’t last long. The crowd turns down 18th, and again on I, where a police car is leading a bus down the street. Believing the bus is hauling IMF delegates, activists sit in its path to block it. Within seconds, cops have emerged, furiously swinging batons, spraying pepper gas at short range. A few National Guardsmen, called in just this morning, appear from nowhere and fire tear-gas canisters into the crowd. Everyone scatters; young kids are running, eyes squeezed shut, faces shining with pepper spray, screaming for medics. Riot cops quickly form a line, and most of the group retreats around the corner to K Street.
There, the violence continues, though it’s not clear what started it or if it ever stopped. Police Chief Charles Ramsey himself and Assistant Chief Gainer are wrestling screaming protesters to the ground as the crowd chants, “Let them go!” Three are held facedown on the pavement, and cops begin charging the crowd with batons, shoving and striking at random. A TV cameraman is struck and thrown against a wall, not far from a kid whose bloodied head is being bandaged by medics. Even 85-year-old Thomas Hancock is beaten: “I was trying to help a guy that was down, and they threw me down and rapped me a couple times,” he tells me on the next corner, where we’ve fled after armored cars arrive and more cops begin streaming down the block.
Most of the crowd scatters, but a group of about 60 remain and run a few blocks before stopping to figure out where to go next. Soon a plainclothes cop has jumped another protester, and the crowd yells, “Shame, shame!” as a kid is cuffed facedown on the wet cement. More cars arrive, along with a few dozen riot police, and the pepper spray is once again streaming through the air. The group flees, and after a block there are only two cops behind us, pepper spray at the ready. Everyone is still scared, and angry. “It would be really good if we ran into another group,” someone says.
Sally Alice Thompson, an elderly woman wearing a Green Party button, has somehow joined us: “They’re being vicious, absolutely vicious,” she tells me, moved by the spectacle. “I certainly admire these kids — they sure are doing their best to protect democracy. The bravery and dedication of these young people is unbelievable.”
A block later, a dozen officers in full RoboCop-style riot gear have formed a line at the intersection of 17th and M. More appear behind us. Trapped, everyone backs up against the wall of a building, hands in the air. One kid screams and curses the cops, furious, but Gabby Silverman and another protester calm him down. “Keep it peaceful, it’s not worth it.”
After letting journalists out of the group, cops wait for reinforcements. They arrive on motorcycles, in vans and an armored car, heavily armed and soon outnumbering the cowed activists 4-to-1. After half an hour, school buses arrive, and the protesters, including a stalwart Thomas Hancock, are carted off. It’s only 10 a.m.
I wander the deserted streets in the pouring rain for half an hour, looking for some sign that the day’s protest isn’t over. I eventually run into three familiar faces, and then a few more, before coming across the elusive main group. Over a thousand are marching down H Street, chanting and singing, waving banners and puppets, beating drums and dancing on the slick asphalt: “We’re here, we’re wet, let’s cancel all the debt!”
We head back to 20th and Pennsylvania, where my morning began. The intersection, within sight of the World Bank, is heavily fortified. An armored car sits behind the barricade. I’m happy to find Joe, dripping wet, but unharmed by the morning’s melees. Phalanxes of riot cops continue to gather. Mass civil disobedience is in the works. “People planning to risk arrest, move to the front” is shouted through a bullhorn. About 50 National Guardsmen appear behind the line. I spot Roadrunner Krazykatovitch, who tells of being tackled by ATF agents while distributing vinegar to protesters (poured over a bandanna, it functions as a makeshift gas mask); they thought he was mixing bombs.
The plan, it seems, is to slowly, gently push through the police barricade and head to the World Bank building, or to peacefully get arrested doing so. Forty-five minutes pass. A couple of hundred kids sit on the wet asphalt in front of the barricade, and a thousand or more activists begin to chant, “The whole world is watching.” Feeling crowded, police launch jet after jet of pepper spray, and protesters run back, coughing and crying. A few are in bad shape and are carried off by friends for help. But within seconds, everyone has regrouped in front of the police line. The cops and Guardsmen strap on gas masks, and the cry goes out, “Don’t gas the people! Don’t gas the people!” before fading into a round of “Solidarity Forever.”
We wait and get rained on, but no gas is fired. Someone’s brought food; hundreds of Styrofoam cups of steaming beans are passed among the protesters. We wait some more, and the rain keeps falling. It’s getting colder. The crowd shifts from chant to chant. One activist lifts his gas mask off his face to shout medical advice through a megaphone: “Do not move anyone with a neck or spinal injury.”
Word goes round that the cops have agreed to remove their masks and put on badges (they’re concealed) if protesters wanting to take part in civil disobedience will cross the barricade in groups of 10 to be peacefully arrested. It rains some more. Everyone’s soaked through and freezing. Someone passes around chocolate bars. The cops remove their masks. An hour passes.
By 2 p.m., people are finally getting arrested, calmly filing into police custody in groups of 10, smiling and chanting as they go, cheered on by hundreds of onlookers.
An hour later, the whole intersection feels like a Dead-show parking lot. Wet dreadlocks flap about as protesters dance and sway to drums and whistles. Beach balls fly above the crowd. Somehow, despite the hours of marching and waiting in the rain, a sleepless week of late nights and earlier mornings spent organizing and running and chanting, no one’s short on energy. At last the people pick up their banners and puppets and form a line for one last hurrah, an exhausted but no less joyous march to the Ellipse, one last chance to sing: “There’s no power like the power of the people and the power of the people won’t stop!”