In the nearly three weeks since anti-globalization protests ended, D.C. police and protest groups have been trading rhetoric about mass arrests that occurred at the start of the weekend events. Protest groups charge that police were overzealous and illegally rounded up demonstrators, bystanders, observers and student journalists without cause. Police say they were merely protecting the city.
Now, the two sides will meet in court.
Of more than 600 people arrested during the protests, fewer than one-tenth are likely to be prosecuted, all for misdemeanors, authorities said. But some of those arrested say they want to have their cases heard.
"I'm very concerned about this sort of police action," said Robin Metalitz, a George Washington University student arrested during the first day of protests. "I really feel that if the police think this is an okay thing to do, they'll do it again."
The issue of police tactics in handling demonstrations is crucial for the District. Washington is a magnet for demonstrators, the venue for protests from destitute "bonus army" veterans during the Great Depression to the peaceful crowd of 200,000 who heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a Dream" speech in 1963.
After a relatively quiet couple of decades, the emergence of anti-globalization protest groups in the late 1990s has forced police forces, including the District's, to embrace new tactics. D.C. police say they're pleased with how they've adapted, while protesters are saying again that police went too far.
Seven George Washington University students sued D.C. police on Tuesday for allegedly violating their constitutional rights after they were swept up in mass arrests during a Sept. 27 demonstration at Pershing Park.
The students, who said they were present as legal observers and news photographers, were charged with failure to obey an order to disperse, but such an order was never given, said George Washington law professor Jonathan Turley, who is representing the students in the federal lawsuit.
"Journalists and citizens are entitled to an opportunity to disperse," Turley said. ". . . That opportunity requires both sufficient warning and a sufficient opportunity to disperse. Neither warning nor an opportunity was given."
This year's protests began in earnest on Sept. 27, the day before annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. A group of anti-capitalism activists had promised to "shut down the city," but that never happened. By noon that Friday, police had arrested more than 600 people, likely a majority of those on the streets.
Hundreds of the arrests and many of the sharpest complaints stemmed from events in Pershing Park. The crowd there included members of a "bike strike," who said police directed their bicycle parade, which did not have a permit, into the park at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
Protesters and the seven individuals who filed the lawsuit against the police on Tuesday said officers systematically arrested people who had not broken any law. Critics say the real purpose of the arrests was "preemptive," that is, made to head off possible violence by taking legal demonstrators off the streets.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said he was satisfied with the handling of the protests, noting that traffic disruptions were minimal and property damage limited to two broken windows at a Citibank branch at Vermont Avenue and K Street NW. Ramsey said he was not concerned that many protester's cases had been dropped, adding that prosecutors, not police, made the decision.
"We did what we had to do to keep the city safe," Ramsey said. "It's unfortunate that we had to make any arrests."
Police said a large majority of those arrested chose not to enter the legal system. About 385 people "posted and forfeited," paying a bond of $50 or $100 with the understanding that they would lose the money and the case would be dropped.
Another 251 cases were referred to the city's Office of Corporation Counsel, which prosecutes misdemeanors, according to spokesman Peter Lavallee. In general, he said, these people refused to post and forfeit or declined to give their names after arrest.
Of these cases, 151 have been dropped, Lavallee said, most often because prosecutors felt that they had no probable cause to connect the protester with a particular crime. Four have been dismissed by the court because of lack of evidence to establish probable cause. The corporation counsel is still charging 50 people with misdemeanors, including disorderly conduct and failure to obey a lawful police order. Most of those were not arrested at Pershing Park.
Four other people, whom police said they found on the second night of protests with firecrackers and balls of nails stuck together with epoxy, are being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for possession of the implements of a crime. The corporation counsel appears unlikely to pursue charges in 46 additional cases.
Attorney Mark Goldstone, representing more than a dozen protesters who were arrested, said the relatively small number being prosecuted indicates that police were arresting people who had done nothing wrong. "It's not to get convictions, because convictions mean squat," Goldstone said. "The idea is to clear people off the streets."
After the anti-World Bank and IMF protests here in April 2000, protest groups filed suit against the city, police officials and various federal agencies, saying preemptive arrests were used to hamper demonstrations. That suit is still pending, as is one contesting about police tactics during the 2000 presidential inauguration.
But Goldstone said many of those arrested would use their cases to dispute police handling of this year's protests. In some cases, Goldstone said, those who had agreed to "post and forfeit," forgoing trial, would be asking to reverse that decision and request a trial.
Metalitz, 21, of Silver Spring, is a GWU senior who said she was acting as a "legal observer" at the protests. She was among the last people arrested in Pershing Park, at 11:30 a.m. She said she was kept on a Metrobus until 2 a.m., hands cuffed behind her back for more than five hours.
Metalitz said she took the "post and forfeit" route by using $100 that her parents brought to her at a police station to dispose of a charge of failure to obey. At the time, she said, she was tired and wanted to be released, but now she wants a trial and a chance to defend herself by saying she never heard a police order to leave the park.
"I would have been perfectly willing to obey a police order if one had been given, because I didn't want to be arrested," Metalitz said.
She said she was at the demonstrations because of undue interference by the World Bank and IMF in affairs of various countries and because she wanted to protest federal government interference in D.C. affairs.
Protest organizers for Mobilization for Global Justice and Anti-Capitalist Convergence, two groups that planned demonstrations, viewed the weekend as a kind of public-service announcement in which they did get out their message. Activists sought to draw attention to multifaceted problems of globalization, the international push to free markets that they say results in social and environmental destruction worldwide.
D.C. police had expected tens of thousands of protesters and gained federal funding to bring in hundreds of police from other jurisdictions. In the end, police estimated that the largest crowd of protesters was about 3,000 on Sept. 28, a number disputed by protest organizers, who said 15,000 to 20,000 were present.
"If you're not a seasoned protester and you have to confront a phalanx of police to participate in a demonstration, march or rally, you may choose not to participate at all," said Robert Weissman, 36, an organizer for Mobilization for Global Justice.
The city's handling of nearly constant demonstrations here is a longtime issue. An enduring image of the Great Depression is of military officers on horseback driving out the Bonus Expeditionary Force as members' shacks burned in the background. Those marchers had come to Washington in hopes of receiving the early payment of a bonus for World War I service.
The May Day protests against the Vietnam War in 1971 led to arrests of 12,000 protesters after some attempted to shut down the city. A decade of litigation followed, focusing on arrests of 1,200 demonstrators on the east steps of the Capitol.
In 1975, a federal jury concluded that the arrests violated the Constitution's guarantee of free speech and assembly. In 1978, the Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that federal and city governments could be ordered to pay damages to those arrested. In August, 1981, the demonstrations received checks of $750 for the denial of free speech, and various payments for the amount of time spent in jail under false arrest, plus 6 percent interest.
David Bayley, a professor who researches law enforcement at the State University of New York at Albany, said other police departments have used the tactics employed by D.C. police during recent anti-globalization protests. Police, he said, have often made arrests to maintain order, intending only to hold those arrested but never charge them.
Bayley also cited a change in protesters' attitudes. During the civil rights movement and anti-war protests of the 1960s, he said, demonstrators often committed civil disobedience in an effort to be arrested and underscore the vehemence of their complaints. But no longer, he said.
"At some point, the protesters lost something where they're saying, we are going to challenge the law, but if the law exacts a price, we'll sue," Bayley said.