WASHINGTON - The thousands of demonstrators expected to converge on the capital this weekend to protest U.S. corporate and military interests have found a fresh issue to rally around, and will use the occasion to voice solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Demonstrations against the annual spring meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have shifted in focus. Though activists still plan to denounce the policies of international financial institutions, they also will seize on anti-war themes and rally behind the Palestinians, whom they see as an oppressed minority.
"The crisis of the Palestinians has really focused and energized the anti-war movement," said Tony Murphy, a spokesman for International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). "The fact that Palestinians are fighting back against a huge military that gets $3 billion a year from the U.S. has inspired people to show their solidarity."
An estimated 20,000 people are expected tomorrow as four separate anti-war and anti-globalization marches meet in downtown Washington. Between today and Monday, 10 events are scheduled, with protesters speaking out on such disparate topics as U.S. military aid to Colombia and alleged civil rights abuses against Muslim Americans.
The rallies are expected to draw larger crowds than last fall, when a demonstration planned for shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was converted from a World Bank and IMF protest to a march for world peace.
Police officials estimate to- morrow's crowd will be nearly three times the size of that September gathering. Authorities plan to request $9 million in federal funds to pay for the extra police manpower, an added cost of about $450 per protester above normal policing costs, if crowd estimates turn out to be correct.
The sprawling nature of the demonstrations, as well as concerns about terrorist strikes, threaten to create a high-pressure day for police.
"If you have officers assigned to each different march, it spreads your resources thin," said Sgt. Joseph Gentile, a district police spokesman. "And what about a terrorist sneaking in and causing harm to the demonstrators themselves? We don't have any intelligence to indicate that will happen, but after September 11th, you'd be a fool not to consider all the possibilities."
Police and demonstrators say they expect a peaceful day. But they remember the World Bank and IMF protests here two years ago, when about 1,300 people were arrested after clashing with police. The event, in which protesters accused international financial institutions of contributing to global poverty and racism, turned tense as police used pepper spray on crowds that included self-described "anarchists" wielding garbage-pail lids as shields.
Tomorrow, police said, they will close the streets surrounding the World Bank and IMF, as well as streets along the march route, which includes a stretch along Pennsylvania Avenue heading toward the Capitol. Police are warning of severe traffic delays in Washington over the weekend.
Demonstrators are labeling this the largest ever pro-Palestinian rally in the capital. Leaders of area mosques plan to alert their worshippers to the march during prayers today, and organizers have been drumming up crowds through fax and e-mail networks serving the Muslim community.
Other protesters come to the Palestinian cause through a less direct route. Groups that origi- nally planned to protest a range of domestic and foreign policies are reacting to the violence in the Middle East by focusing on U.S. diplomatic and financial support of Israel. Those groups now argue that the Palestinians perfectly embody the argument that global powers victimize the disenfranchised.
"I just got a call from someone from the American Indian Movement wanting to get involved," said Rami Elamine, an organizer for the Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian People. "There's a growing realization that there's a connection between the war, racism and the Palestinian issue."
Some protest organizers who are Jewish say the pro-Palestinian demonstrations will put them in an awkward position: They feel cultural ties to Israel and outrage at suicide bombings that have killed Israelis but are angered by Israeli attacks on West Bank villages and refugee camps.
"It's a hard issue for me," said Robin Metalitz, a George Washington University junior. Still, she expects to find common ground with the 25 pro-Palestinian protesters who will squeeze into her parents' home in Silver Spring for bowls of vegan chili and a free place to sleep.
"We have to find a way to say it's not OK to bomb Israelis and it's not OK to kill Palestinians," she said. "I hope we'll be able to express that."
Major Jewish organizations say they do not plan counter-protests. These groups say they already made their point in a rally at the Capitol on Monday that drew tens of thousands of pro-Israel supporters.
"The pro-Palestinian community is trying to make up for their lack of numbers by joining a larger protest," said Ron Halber, who heads the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington. "We hope students take time to learn the issues and not just adopt any cause they hear about on the spot."