WASHINGTON -- Police arrested hundreds of angry protesters surging toward barriers around the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank late yesterday, marking the most serious incident in a week of demonstrations that was expected to reach its climax today.
Law enforcement officials were still processing arrests last night, but D.C. police Chief Charles Ramsey said he expected to detain 500 people before the night was through.
Those arrested were charged with demonstrating without a permit, refusal to disperse and other minor offenses, police said. The protesters "marched to a certain point and then did not move on," said police spokesman Kevin Morison. At that point, they were surrounded by uniformed officers, put on buses and taken to booking centers.
Last night's unrest was a prelude to more demonstrations today. Thousands of young, left-leaning activists were expected to gather in Northwest Washington early this morning to prevent IMF and World Bank ministers from entering those institutions' buildings near 19th and H streets for their spring meeting.
Later in the morning and continuing into the afternoon, an estimated 10,000 were expected to participate in a separate rally at the Ellipse, a park near the White House.
Today's actions cap a week of protests in the district aimed at various policies, including a proposed U.S.-China trade treaty, the refusal of Western nations to buy Iraqi oil, the eviction of poor tenants in Washington, and alleged human rights violations in Colombia. But the main targets are the IMF and the World Bank, large, powerful lending institutions that are owned by the world's nations but dominated by the United States and its allies.
Yesterday's mass arrests came as police closed off roughly a dozen blocks in Northwest Washington to clear a path so IMF and World Bank ministers could get to their buildings this morning. After demonstrators moved toward the barriers, scores of police rushed to the scene and quickly expanded the cordoned area to more than 50 blocks extending from the National Mall to I Street in northwestern D.C.
Laura Jones, spokeswoman for Mobilization for Global Justice, a group helping to organize the demonstrations, said the protesters offered to disperse immediately but police ignored their offer. She said the group had been in contact with those arrested via cell phones.
Earlier yesterday, fire officials shut down one of the protesters' staging points, behind an old warehouse on Florida Avenue near 13th Street. Citing fire hazards, including blocked exits and flammable materials, law enforcement officials evicted more than 100 from the building's loading dock and alley yesterday morning.
Protest leaders described the warehouse raid as police harassment.
"Absolutely not," said police spokeswoman Rai Howell. "We had some concerns for their safety. They were cooking in there with propane tanks" amid banners, cardboard puppets, scrap wood and other combustible items.
Protesters represent a diverse array of groups, from the Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to the Center for Economic Justice and a group calling itself the D.C. Lesbian Avengers. Several hundred protesters were expected to travel from Baltimore to Washington today, some on buses leaving early in the morning from Memorial Stadium.
"I know that there are a lot of people who are organizing," said Sharon Ceci, a Baltimore nurse who is coordinating bus rentals and who demonstrated against the Vietnam War in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. "I think we'll have several buses."
Ceci is with the All Peoples' Congress, a Baltimore group dedicated to worker rights, human rights and associated issues.
Shadowing today's demonstrations is the memory of a similar protest last December in Seattle, where activists' attempts to disrupt meetings of the World Trade Organization prompted police to respond with arrests, tear gas and rubber bullets.
The IMF-World Bank demonstrations include much of the same anti-globalist rhetoric and many of the same participants as the Seattle debacle. As a result, all parties concerned -- police, activists, news media -- view today's action with nervous anticipation.
D.C. law enforcement officials have summoned reinforcements not only from surrounding counties, but also from other parts of the country.
"We're not releasing numbers so the demonstrators don't know our force at this point, but suffice it to say we're bringing in numerous officers from our field offices," said Sgt. Rob MacLean, spokesman for the U.S. Park Police.
More than 1,000 police officers were expected to be in the streets along with officials from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and other federal agencies. Police have spent $1 million on new riot shields, bulletproof vests, helmets and other gear.
The budget for personnel and hardware has increased so much that the District asked Congress on Thursday for $5 million to help pay for it all.
Law enforcement officials say their preparations are directed by prudence, not detailed knowledge of any impending violence or problems.
"Everyone is trying to keep it from escalating like it did in Seattle," said Ramsey, the police chief. "Our plan is to be as gentle or as forceful as we need to be, depending on the circumstances."
Demonstrators pledge peaceful behavior at the 10 a.m. Ellipse rally, which will feature corporate critic Michael Moore as master of ceremonies.
"Everybody taking part in it has committed to not destroying property, no violence," said David Snyder, a student at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who planned to travel to Washington. "We're supposed to show the city that we can police our own march."
But the promised attempt to block IMF and World Bank officials from their meeting would be unlawful and carries a greater risk of violent confrontation, say police and protest leaders.
Each side is trying to outsmart the other. Neither is talking about specific tactics.
"Just as police are gathering intelligence, we are doing the same thing," said Njoki Njehu, head of 50 Years Is Enough, a Washington group that has criticized the World Bank and IMF for years.
"One journalist suggested that we might need to airlift participants into the building by helicopter," said Stanley Fischer, the IMF's acting managing director. "I hope it does not come to that."
Financial ministers and their staffs were supposed to convene at about 8: 30 a.m. today. Protesters planned to start massing as early as 6 a.m. around avenues leading toward the World Bank and IMF buildings near 19th and H streets.
By many accounts, Washington police are better prepared for big crowds and potential trouble than their counterparts in Seattle were.
D.C. police started blocking outsiders from access to the IMF and World Bank buildings several days ago.
Last night, as rain drizzled and noisy helicopters hovered, police drastically expanded the closed area to encompass about 50 blocks. Law enforcement officials said they would shrink the closed area to roughly a dozen blocks in the immediate area of the World Bank and IMF buildings by this morning. Even so, the smaller restricted area offers more than a mile of potential access points for the financial ministers -- all of which would have to be blocked by the protesters if they want to disrupt the two-day meeting.
By contrast, even on the day of the main Seattle protest, police failed to secure the entire perimeter immediately around the convention center where the WTO meetings were being held. Police and protest leaders expect the turnout today and tomorrow to be lower than it was in Seattle, where perhaps 40,000 protested.
Activist leaders have had less time to organize for the IMF-World Bank event than they did for Seattle. Thousands of union members who joined anti-IMF demonstrators on Wednesday and Thursday to criticize a proposed trade treaty with China have gone home. The forecast for rain for today might keep potential activists inactive.
Employers near the IMF and World Bank weren't taking any chances. George Washington University, which is just south of the IMF and World Bank, suspended operations until Tuesday. Potomac Electric Power Co., which has its headquarters across the street from the IMF and World Bank, has instructed employees to work from home or other PEPCO offices tomorrow. Newspaper companies have removed racks from the IMF's neighborhood for fear of vandalism. The U.S. Postal Service has removed several street-corner mailboxes for the same reason.
Critics claim that the IMF and World Bank have consistently favored corporate interests over Third World workers and the environment.
IMF officials angrily dispute such accusations. .World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn released a letter of support from 22 respected humanitarian organizations, including Save the Children and the Baltimore-based International Youth Foundation.