WASHINGTON -- At ground zero, a few blocks from meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, a line of police stared down approaching protesters, pointed their canisters and fired.
As pepper spray shot through the air, some protesters buried their faces in gas masks or vinegar-soaked bandanas to stop the coughing fits. One spewed profanities at police, who stood their ground at 18th and I streets, clutching their billy clubs tight.
Yet after five minutes, the tension began to dissipate. The pepper spray evaporated. A demonstrator warned that foul language looks bad on television. A chant arose: "No violence!"
The isolated clashes between police and protesters flared but never raged yesterday, as district police in riot gear kept a tight rein on thousands of mostly nonviolent demonstrators across the city. "I don't think the protest was as violent as it could have been," said China Lloyd, a 19-year-old North Carolina college student. "The one thing I promised my mother was that I wouldn't get hurt."
Gabriel Freeman, 31, wearing a souvenir poncho from the Seattle protests last year against the World Trade Organization, said few of the protesters wanted a repeat of that violent clash
Across Washington yesterday, the streets filled with a rainbow of dissenters: self-styled anarchists, body-pierced peaceniks, media-savvy spokesmen, credit-card-toting malcontents -- even topless anti-capitalists.
"IMF wants the shirt off my back," one young woman had body-painted onto her naked torso, with the added offering: "Make love, not debt."
Some were surprisingly sophisticated, organizing their next gathering places via radios and cell phones. But for the most part, the demonstrations felt random and amorphous, lacking in tight coordination or seething hostility. Some protesters followed peaceful giant puppets; others lined up with black-clad anarchists, prowling the streets with face masks.
One anarchist with the name "Rambo" pasted to the front of his pith helmet was not averse to butting heads with police in his effort to disrupt the meetings and publicize the fight against what he called the exploitation of Third World nations by capitalist countries.
"I don't like directly antagonizing the police, but I'm really into nonviolently taking over street corners and using our numbers to push them back," he said, refusing to give his name. On the front lines of the protests, he said he bore the scars of police confrontation.
"I was in a yellow cloud -- don't know what that was, but I think it was a smoke bomb -- and I got hit in the arm with a police baton," he said.
Around the George Washington University campus, a large group massed along 21st Street, intent on claiming an intersection. A protester threw part of the barricade toward police, who brandished batons and kept protesters at bay before boarding a bus and leaving the scene. Another activist took spray paint and triumphantly scrawled "PIGS LOST" on the seized intersection.
Downtown had become a spectacle for the few tourists who were caught in the middle of the fray. Ellen Kuchta, 64, in town for a convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution, figured that one look at the tattooed and dreadlocked youth was quite enough, thank you.
"Isn't that a laugh -- they talk about fascism in a country that put down fascism, and I'm old enough to remember it," said Kuchta, a Milwaukee mother in a DAR sweatshirt, staring down soggy activists in the morning rain. "These people are going to ruin our day."
To many activists, the day offered the chance to speak out against everything from sweatshops in India to environmental degradation in Central America to the loss of independent farms in Mexico.
With Central American agribusiness on their minds, three women knelt by a hotdog truck and planted carrot seeds in a patch of dirt.
"We're trying to spread a little peace in Washington, D.C., by planting some food," said Cat Cutcher, 25, a graduate student at Ohio University who was tending a narrow plot near a downtown Metro station.
The demonstrators were promoting such a hodgepodge of issues that many passers-by seemed mystified by what exactly their gripes were.
The signs did not help clarify matters: A "Structural Adjustment Pulverizer" float made its way down the street, while a man waved a "Save the Narmada" sign. One protester wore bunny ears. Another banged a bicycle wheel. One more dressed as a lettuce leaf.
Many protesters were college students who said their parents approved of their peaceful demonstrations with one caveat: Don't get arrested and ruin your future. One 22-year-old from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst refused to give his name because, he feared, it would cost him a grant from the National Science Foundation and hurt his career.
Lloyd, the North Carolina student, said she hoped she could avoid arrest so she could visit her mother for dinner last night in tony McLean, Va.
But Lloyd, the child of a financial consultant, was taking her role as anti-capitalist protester seriously: She wrote a legal-assistance phone number on her arm in case she was arrested, and she arrived without identification, so that if she were rounded up by police she could participate in "jail solidarity" instead of looking out for herself.
"I feel like we're succeeding here today -- we're getting people to stop and take notice of our concerns," she said. "It's an amazing experience."