Protesters clog streets of capital; Demonstrators try to prevent IMF, World Bank meeting; Federal offices to close; Organizers vow to disrupt D.C. commuter traffic

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Thousands of left-leaning, mainly young demonstrators converged on Northwest Washington yesterday, skirmishing with police in several cases but failing to stop meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Police and commuters braced for more protests today, as environmentalists, union members and other activists pledged to block commuter traffic on the final day of the meetings.

In an attempt to avert gridlock that could disrupt operations for hundreds of employers, police decided to ban vehicles today within a huge swath of downtown -- more than 50 blocks from Georgetown to east of the White House, north to M Street and south to Virginia and Constitution avenues.

Last night, U.S. officials announced the closure of federal offices, for all but emergency workers, in an area bounded by 12th and 23rd streets and Constitution Avenue and K Street. Other federal offices in the district will observe an "unscheduled leave" policy. Federal offices in Maryland and Virginia will operate as usual.

"People can just about bank on traffic congestion like they've not seen here," said D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. "If people are traveling in Washington and are anywhere near this area, they should avoid it."

Today's expected Washington disruption stems from the same cause as yesterday's: crowds of chanting, dancing demonstrators streaming through the streets.

Shouting, "Hey ho, hey ho, corporate greed has got to go" and carrying bright banners and giant puppets, the protesters blocked roads leading to the IMF and World Bank buildings beginning at dawn yesterday. But they could not prevent police-escorted buses from slipping through and delivering most of the financial ministers to their destination near 19th and H streets.

In a few instances, police used pepper spray and what they said were smoke canisters but what demonstrators insisted was tear gas. Several times, law enforcement officers advanced on the crowd with riot shields and billy clubs.

Each confrontation was resolved quickly. Police maintained their barriers, and protesters moved on to the next intersection, seeking any sign of IMF delegates on the move. Later, activists held a peaceful rally and march on the Ellipse, a park near the White House.

The demonstrators, charging that the IMF and the World Bank favor corporations over workers in the developing world, called on the institutions to cancel debts for poor nations and to stop promoting environmentally destructive projects.

"I would like to see restructuring of the IMF," said Peter Colvin, 21, a student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "I'd like to see them taking more time to learn about the cultures they enter. I'd like to see them work more with countries and the countries' needs."

Officials of the IMF and World Bank say they are working to reduce Third World debt and pollution. Yesterday, they repeated promises to seek accelerated debt reduction for the developing nations.

By all accounts, yesterday's protest was calmer, smaller and less disruptive than a demonstration last year in Seattle aimed at the World Trade Organization. The anti-WTO protest turned into a street battle that caused $20 million in damage and led to the resignation of the Seattle police chief.

"Police here were much more contained than they were in Seattle," said Andrea Durbin, director of international programs for Friends of the Earth, who demonstrated at both events.

"I've seen a whole lot less property damage than after a Bulls game in Chicago," said Han Shan, a protest organizer from Baltimore who is with the San Francisco-based group Ruckus.

Even so, protest leaders harshly criticized D.C. law enforcement officials for what they said was excessive use of force.

"What we've seen over the past week in this militarized city is that it takes a police state to protect the IMF and the World Bank because their policies are so heinous," said Laura Jones, a spokeswoman for Mobilization for Global Justice, a key organizing group for the demonstrations.

Ramsey defended his force's tactics, saying officers had shown "remarkable restraint" in the face of bottles and rocks hurled by protesters.

He denied that police used tear gas, though protesters complained of burning sensations in the nose, eyes and mouth caused by what police said were smoke bombs.

Police estimated that the protests yesterday drew about 10,000 demonstrators. Protest leaders put the crowd as high as 30,000. Yesterday's action was smaller than the demonstration against the WTO in Seattle, which turned out more than 40,000 on some days.

It was unclear how many demonstrators would take part today. But police said they were taking all precautions. By restricting the broad downtown area to pedestrians with "legitimate business" there, law enforcement officers are hoping to avoid traffic tangles as well as more clashes with protesters.

Officials arrested more than 600 demonstrators Saturday -- after marchers had surged toward a police barrier -- and about 20 others yesterday.

Early yesterday, the issue of whether IMF and World Bank officials could get to their meetings unmolested and on time turned into a contest of wits between police and protesters.

The key first move occurred Saturday afternoon. Law enforcement officers closed off more than a dozen blocks surrounding the IMF and World Bank buildings, creating roughly two miles of perimeter, with some 20 intersections where the delegates might slip past the blockade.

Protesters had expected a far smaller cordon, one that would not have spread their forces all over downtown Washington.

Demonstrators seeking to disrupt the meetings had to guess where -- and when -- delegates would try to approach the IMF and World Bank buildings.

"Do you have any information on delegates moving?" a demonstrator said into a walkie-talkie just after 7 a.m. No information, said the person on the other end.

Before 8 a.m., most protesters were north and west of the closed-off area, in clots of 200 or 300 in each intersection, facing helmeted police across metal barriers.

None were on 15th Street east of the White House -- which is where several buses carrying IMF and World Bank delegates, guided by helicopters, slipped down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the meetings between 8 a.m. and 8: 30 a.m.

Some delegates had spent the night inside the IMF and World Bank buildings. Others had awakened even earlier than the protesters had. The Japanese finance minister entered IMF headquarters at 4: 30 a.m., officials said.

Not every delegate got through. For several hours, top ministers from France, Brazil, Portugal and Thailand were unable to breach the demonstrators' wall of bodies.

The delegates had relatively smooth access to their meetings, but trouble broke out at various places around the perimeter.

At 8: 30 a.m., a crowd of several hundred toppled more than a hundred yards of metal barrier on 15th Street and surged toward the Treasury Department building. More than 100 blue-helmeted law enforcement officers responded with riot shields and pepper spray, pushing the crowd east on G Street. Order was restored in about five minutes.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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