Protesters against global capitalism and the war in Iraq held twin demonstrations in Washington yesterday, carrying cardboard coffins and bowing their heads in prayer amid intense police security downtown.
Both events were quiet, solemn gatherings that together drew several hundred people, far fewer than have rallied at antiwar and anti-globalization demonstrations in the city in recent years.
Outside the International Monetary Fund and World Bank buildings in Foggy Bottom in the morning, about two dozen people, continuing a vigil begun Friday afternoon, called for debt cancellation for the world's poorest countries. At noon, across the Potomac River, peace activists, military family members and a few hundred others marched from Arlington National Cemetery to the Ellipse south of the White House, displaying makeshift coffins to symbolize the human toll of the war in Iraq.
About 4:45 p.m., 28 were arrested for entering a closed area on the Ellipse, a planned act of civil disobedience, a spokesman for the U.S. Park Police said.
Scores of local and federal police officers monitored both demonstrations and established a security zone around the World Bank and IMF buildings, where the institutions were beginning their annual two-day meetings. Identification checkpoints were set up, and more than two dozen blocks were closed off by Jersey barriers or metal fencing about four feet high.
D.C. police officials said the precautions were necessary not because of the protests but because of the increased terrorism-threat level at the IMF and World Bank, which homeland security officials announced in August.
Five city snowplow trucks were parked end-to-front along Pennsylvania Avenue NW outside the glass facade of the World Bank. Although protesters said they didn't know of plans for demonstrations today, the streets were scheduled to remain blocked.
Some people entering the security zone were checked by officers with metal-detector wands. Some tourists appeared bewildered by the maze of fences and peppered officers with questions about how they could get out.
"It's certainly disproportionate to any kind of activity we've ever contemplated or announced," said Robert Weissman, 38, co-director of the corporate accountability group Essential Action and a longtime critic of the IMF and World Bank. "This was just going to be a small, low-key vigil."
Weissman was one of about two dozen protesters who assembled at a park outside the two institutions in the morning. The gathering's tone was quieter than previous IMF and World Bank demonstrations'. Five University of Maryland students sat in a circle on the grass and whispered prayers. Other protesters laid out white wooden crosses, with the names and debts of countries written in black pen: "Bolivia $4.8 billion," "Tanzania $7.2 billion," "Ethiopia $6.5 billion."
Activists said they wanted their 27-hour vigil to highlight the urgency of the debt crisis. The Bush administration and U.S. Treasury officials have been pushing to dramatically increase debt relief programs for at least 27 poor nations, including Uganda and Bolivia, a move that has been both supported and criticized.
Shortly after 10:30 a.m., Marie Clarke, 28, national coordinator with the Jubilee USA Network, one of the vigil organizers, gave a World Bank director who came to the protest area a mail bin filled with 1,900 cards signed by churchgoers, union organizers and environmental activists urging 100 percent debt cancellation.
"We also share the sense of concern with the debt burden," Katherine Marshall, the director, told Clarke in a brief but polite encounter.
At Arlington, antiwar activists carried 100 black cardboard coffins to their rally site on the Ellipse, where 1,000 coffins had already been assembled. Tracy DiMambro, of the Iraq Pledge of Resistance, one of the event's sponsors, said, "We are mourning the dead while calling for an end to the war."
During their march, the demonstrators were accompanied by dozens of U.S. Park Police officers, who stopped traffic and monitored them from atop motorcycles and horses. The procession was largely silent, punctuated by somber drumbeats and few chants.
During rallies before the march outside the cemetery and afterward on the Ellipse, speakers derided the Bush administration's policies as they eulogized sons, daughters, brothers and friends who were killed or wounded in Iraq. "I can't sit here in my grief and let another mother go through what I'm going through," said Cindy Sheehan, of Vacaville, Calif., the mother of Casey Austin Sheehan, a 24-year-old Army specialist who was killed in Iraq in April. "[My son] died for someone who wouldn't even fight for his country."
As the demonstrators left the cemetery and marched toward Arlington Memorial Bridge, they passed a group of about 25 counterprotesters who were waiting for them with signs and bullhorns. Kristinn Taylor, co-leader of the D.C. chapter of Free Republic, was helping to hold up a large sign that read, "Go to Hell Traitors: You Dishonor Our Dead on Hallowed Ground."
Staff writer David Snyder contributed to this report.