Demonstrators disrupt traffic, but not meetings

More aggressive clashes seen as IMF, World Bank wrap up

April 18, 2000|By Jay Hancock and Ellen Gamerman | Jay Hancock and Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Young activists roving through soggy streets failed again yesterday to stop meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, but they succeeded in disrupting traffic, irritating office workers and hindering employers, including the federal government.

Police skirmished with protesters throughout the day at intersections near the IMF and World Bank headquarters, firing pepper spray several times, setting off tear gas at least once and arresting more than 600.

In an odd piece of street theater, several hundred demonstrators negotiated their arrests with police, who allowed them to cross a few feet past barricades -- technically breaking the law -- before taking them into custody.

Fewer than 2,000 demonstrators remained after Sunday's larger protest against the policies of the two international lending institutions. On Sunday, a crowd police had estimated at 10,000 activists marched near the White House and tried unsuccessfully to bar IMF and World Bank officials from their meetings.

The clashes yesterday between police and demonstrators were smaller but more aggressive than Sunday's, even though most activists continued to confine their protests to marching, shouting and waving placards.

Yesterday was the conclusion of the two-day IMF-World Bank meetings, which went on as scheduled. Washington officials said they expected life in the district to return to something like normal today. All Metrorail stations were expected to be open, and street closures -- which forced many federal workers and others who work downtown to stay home yesterday -- will be confined to a relatively small area around the World Bank and IMF, police said.

Chanting "We're here, we're wet, let's cancel all the debt," some activists surged several times against steel police barriers, only to be propelled backward by chemical sprays and helmeted officers.

Law enforcement officials showed a hard edge. The D.C. National Guard joined the Washington police department and U.S. Park Police in patrolling the area around 19th and H streets, northwest, where the World Bank and IMF buildings are.

Armored police vehicles and helmeted police platoons in riot gear, marching in close order, swept up and down I Street, sometimes shoving knots of protesters half a block. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at times. In the case of the tear gas, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said, an officer mistook the tear gas projectile he fired for a smoke canister.

"These people did nothing wrong, and they were getting hit on the heads -- I saw that personally -- and police were just picking them off the street," said Seth Rick, a honeybee farmer from California who brought a camera to the protests to document police treatment of the demonstrators. "It seemed like they were very, very forceful today."

Chief Ramsey got into the middle of a scuffle at 18th and I streets, where he and another officer ran into what the chief said were 200 protesters in black garb and masks "coming at us." Police said a protester tried to snatch the chief's bullhorn and that Ramsey brought the man to the ground, started to handcuff him and then called the arrest unit.

Ramsey, who has been highly visible on the streets and on television during the protests, praised his force, saying: "I have absolutely no regrets about anything. I'm so proud of the men and women in my department and all the law enforcement in this region that if I had to do it over again and write a script, I'd have written it the same way."

The chief said he asked for the National Guard to supplement his tired and thinned-out force on Sunday night, when he feared demonstrators might overrun the cordoned area around the World Bank and IMF. He estimated that protecting the IMF and World Bank from protesters would cost the district, which has asked Congress for financial assistance, as much as $5 million -- mostly for overtime pay and equipment.

The cast of characters downtown yesterday was different from Sunday's. The uniformed officers and flamboyantly dressed activists who made up most of the population over the weekend were joined by white-collar workers in suit jackets, pumps and wingtips.

Police banned vehicles yesterday from a huge swath surrounding the IMF and World Bank -- more than 50 blocks from Constitution Avenue to K Street and from 15th Street to 23rd Street. Thousands of car-borne commuters were turned back at the perimeter, told to find alternative parking and then had to walk for blocks in the rain to their offices.

Late Sunday, the federal government had decided to close all offices within the cordon. Potomac Electric Power Co., George Washington University and other employers near the IMF and World Bank also remained closed yesterday.

But many employers were open for business. And even in agencies that shut down, numerous workers had not received notice in time.

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