avatar
The DC Demos


Cynthia Peters

Note:

I attended the protests on Sunday and Monday as an individual “on the fly.”

The impressions offered here are just that. They are based on my personal

viewpoint during the events, and do not include extensive background

information. Notes on April 16 and 17, Washington DC

Imagine

a fluid mass — not centrally controlled, not moving in the same direction, not

necessarily sharing tactics – spreading out around the perimeter of blocks

surrounding the IMF and World Bank buildings.

That’s

the impression we had when we arrived at Pennsylvania Avenue and 20th early

Sunday morning. Police had blocked off access to the IMF/World Bank buildings,

forcing activists to spread out around a wider perimeter. Police blockades kept

us from getting close to the target buildings, and protestor blockades kept

delegates from attending the meeting (though most of them made it into their

meetings early in the morning before protestors arrived). Scores of autonomous

affinity groups, working democratically within their group but not necessarily

in unison with other groups, poured into key intersections around the IMF and

World Bank in an effort to prevent delegates from participating in their annual

spring meeting. Some affinity groups “locked down” – hands chained

together and sheathed in PVC pipe – and committed to occupying an

intersection. They were surrounded by others, arms linked around them in

support. Some affinity groups were “on the fly,” roving from street to

street in an effort to plug the alleyways and parking lots that provided

roundabout access to the IMF and World Bank buildings.

It’s

hard to tell what’s going on in a completely decentralized action like this

one. People were focused on what they were doing, and what their affinity group

was doing. Cell phones, radios and messengers on bikes relayed information, but

there were no directives from anywhere. One man moved from group to group

offering news about which intersections had successfully blocked buses, and how

police were responding. “We stopped another delegate bus,” he yelled. “The

police have started using pepper spray. It’s okay. Stay calm. We have a lot of

medics and a lot of love.”

As

it turned out, the police barely used pepper spray or tear gas on Sunday, though

there were numerous occasions when it appeared they were gearing up to shower

the protesters with their toxic, painful sprays. They lowered their masks,

wielded their tear gas launchers, and moved in purposefully. The protestors

responded by pulling down their own gas masks or covering their mouths with

vinegar-soaked bandanas (vinegar apparently acting as an antidote to the tear

gas). They linked arms, upped their chants. Medics appeared with bottled water

for rinsing people’s eyes of pepper spray; someone with a microphone reminded

people about how best to cope with the spray. Reporters and camera-people moved

in. I saw many protesters visibly shaken by the heightened tensions and looming

danger. However, the tension would usually dissipate. The police would relax

their threatening posture. Vinegar-soaked bandanas returned to their zip-lock

baggies, and large circles of people linked by chain and PVC pipe would

choreograph their next move. It’s not easy to get twenty or thirty people to

all sit down or stand up in unison – timing is everything when your arm is

extended straight into an inflexible pipe and connected to dozens of others in a

similar set-up.

The

protestors committed to non-violent civil disobedience were adept at dissipating

confrontation with the police. During one of these tense moments with the

police, I heard one protestor move to the front of the line with his microphone,

and speak directly to the police: “We are non-violent,” he said, and

reminded them that protestors were exercising their constitutional rights.

“But we will resist you.” “We will resist you,” he repeated, “But we

will resist you with love.” A few of the cops broke into smiles and everyone

seemed to exhale. The guy with the mic smiled too. “We love you,” he shouted

at the cops. More smiles all around. Pretty soon, everyone was chanting “We

love you” at the police. It was funny and loose, and helpful for people to

remember that we weren’t there to confront the police. We were there to shut

down the IMF/World Bank meetings, or at least to raise public consciousness

about what international monetary institutions are all about.

From

minute to minute, affinity groups made their own decisions about what to do and

how to do it. At one point, a clean-cut looking man showed up in front of an

exhausted but still spirited group in “lock-down” across a parking lot with

access to H Street. He announced that “our work is done for the day. The

meetings are going on. We might as well join the legal rally.” A long pause

followed. No one seemed to register the news. Finally, someone called out,

“What government agency are you with?” The messenger added at that point,

“Of course, everyone is free to make up their own minds.”

Rumors

flowed. At one point, at around noon, I heard a TV correspondent broadcast the

news that the meetings had not yet begun. When she finished her broadcast, I

asked her how she had gotten that information, and told her that I had heard the

opposite was true. She agreed she didn’t know for sure. (Remember that next

time you watch the news!)

Communication

was a weak point. So many cell phones; so little news! The decentralized,

democratic model of decisionmaking happening within affinity groups worked in a

lot of ways, namely, people made important decisions about what action they

would take, what the consequences would be, and how they would stay together in

the process. It was fair and democratic, and meant that people could flexibly

respond to a changing situation. But it wasn’t always clear from one moment to

the next what the overall goal of the fluid mass would be. Perhaps it would not

have been possible or even desirable to have a single game plan. But once it was

clear that most of the delegates had made it into the meetings, and the meetings

were proceeding, what next? Stay and prevent them from coming out? Stay just to

maintain a presence? Quit the lock down, join the legal march and rally, and

save your energy for tomorrow when you would come back and do it all over again?

As

the afternoon progressed, and the sun shone down on protestors, some of whom,

because of the PVC pipe, needed a support person to administer food and water,

and hadn’t been able to use a bathroom since 6:00 AM that morning, different

affinity groups made different decisions about what to do next. At one

intersection a prepared phalanx of police stood watch over dozens of protestors

lying in the street, surrounded by several circles of supporters. At the next

intersection, the police maintained their barricade, but there was no protestor

presence at all. At another intersection, the affinity groups that had occupied

it up until that point made a huge circle, held hands, did some final victory

chants, and dispersed.

Lack

of clarity on overall goals spilled over into the evening “spokes” (affinity

group representatives) meeting, when, apparently, organizers were unable to

reach consensus about what to do on Monday. I did not attend the meeting, but it

was clear on Monday morning when we arrived at Pennsylvania Avenue at 6:45 AM

that affinity groups did not have clear direction. For one thing, hardly anyone

was there. Perhaps they were dissuaded by the rain, which had been coming down

hard since about 4:00 AM. Or they were exhausted from the week’s events.

Whatever the reason, only about 100 protestors milled about on Pennsylvania

Avenue.

The

police, on the other hand, were out in full force, along with the National

Guard. The feeling in the city was more tense than it had been the day before

when most offices were closed and city streets were empty. The media, too, were

out in force and clearly expected more action. At one point, when those first

hundred of us who had gathered on Monday morning, sat down in front of an

incoming van of delegates, the media moved out with us into the street, and

seemed to double our numbers.

One

thing I learned was that when authorities anticipate large numbers, it has

almost the same effect as actually showing up in large numbers. By 8:30, there

were still only about 300 of us, yet two metro stations had been shut down,

federal workers with offices in that area were told to stay home, the police way

outnumbered us, and the media, who wanted a story, were ready to record our

every move.

Another

thing that became evident was that when the affinity groups did not seem to

reconvene on Monday, the “Black Bloc” emerged as the strongest single

presence. After we stopped the van from passing through that intersection, we

decided to march the streets, gathering up stray protestors, and building our

numbers so that we would be more equipped for our next move. We gained in

energy, momentum and numbers, and the group’s posture was non-violent. When we

passed the police decked out in full riot gear – not a pretty sight even when

you do have a lot of medics and a lot of love, and perhaps a bandana soaked in

vinegar – protestors flashed the peace sign.

Then

we rounded a corner and met up with the Black Bloc – so called for their all

black clothing and face masks, and their black flags with the red “A”

anarchy. The police helicopters closely shadowed these folks all day on Sunday,

partly because, wherever they went “things got interesting,” as one

Washington Post reporter put it. Not committed to the same non-violent tactics,

not likely to yell, “We love you at the police,” and not respectful of

private property, the Black Bloc protestors seemed to provide the spark that set

off the police, who seemed itching to move in on the crowd, and needed only the

flimsiest of reasons. They got their reason soon enough. I didn’t see what

exactly sparked the confrontation. But once the confrontations started, they

didn’t stop. Using billy clubs and tear gas, the police attacked and made

arrests. We ran and then they closed in on us again a few blocks further on. It

was a war of attrition, and the police won that battle. Those committed to

non-violence fell away from the group, later to reconvene for more protests.

Others attempted to stay with the group, and chanted “Non-violent protest.”

Still others, kept moving through the streets, occasionally running into police

lines, where there would be more tear gas, more arrests, more violence.

We

saw more than one under-cover cop emerge from the demonstration and make an

arrest or attack a protestor. On the Monday midday news in Washington, DC, there

was a report that protestors were identifying alleged undercover police in their

midst, and escorting them to nearby armored personnel carriers.

According

to news reports, despite the police’s war of attrition on the early morning

marchers, protestors reconvened and were 700 strong by mid-day. Perhaps given

the heightened tensions, it could be considered remarkable that there were that

many. Protestors were brave, ambitious and showed incredible endurance on

Sunday. The fact that they showed up at all on Monday in the pouring rain and

survived hours of police confrontations and crowd dispersement, and were able to

join together in a significant final demonstration of resistance, is testimony

to activists’ power and commitment.

Still,

there is something to learn from what happened between Sunday’s two-pronged

effort (high-energy street occupations and the legal rally and march), and

Monday’s small attendance. We should learn more about how events evolved as we

hear from organizers and affinity groups.

Another

question to reflect on in the coming months: Did the legal rally and march

provide enough support to those willing to commit civil disobedience? Did the

simultaneous rally and civil disobedience drain energy from both? Why was labor

a small presence in DC relative to their larger showing in Seattle? And what

about local community groups? A friend of mine who is an organizer in the DC

area said this event had been the whitest thing she’d been to in a long time.

(Though the police were almost all African American.) Although the legal march

showed diversity and creativity in its chants and signs (“Spank the Bank,”

“Neuter the Fat Cats; Fix the Fund”), and was attended by Steelworkers,

Franciscan Nuns, Act Up, and the Black Radical Congress, it did not bring out

mass support. What can we learn about how to employ the most effective tactics

that make it possible for the most people to participate?

 

Leave a comment