A massive local and federal police force outnumbered and overwhelmed anti-globalization protesters yesterday in downtown Washington and quickly stamped out sporadic acts of vandalism in a morning of demonstrations that ended with hundreds of arrests.
Tactics used by riot-ready D.C. and U.S. Park police were criticized by activists and attorneys for protesters as overly aggressive and unconstitutional. But law enforcement officials defended their handling of a series of improvised rush-hour protests, saying that police acted properly in the face of a threat to shut down the city.
A coalition of anti-capitalists had called the shutdown to protest corporate greed and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund annual meetings, which begin today and end tomorrow.
But nothing like it emerged: The nation's capital suffered only a handful of minor disruptions of day-to-day business, as those who chose to went to work, to the bank and to Starbucks, pausing along the way to watch the scattered spectacle. Protesters on the street numbered perhaps 2,000, police said. That was nowhere near the 20,000 at the April 2000 meetings of the IMF and World Bank, though they exhibited some of the same passion and controversial tactics.
Black-clad protesters used rocks to bust cantaloupe-size holes in two windows of a Citibank branch at Vermont Avenue and K Street NW. Someone spray-painted the window of a nearby Bank of America branch with the words: "Class war." Metro officials said vandals coated locks at the Addison Road, Fort Totten and West Hyattsville subway stations with a gluelike substance overnight.
Hundreds of D.C. and Park police personnel responded to the unpermitted gatherings and marches in the city's center with a massive show of force. Police said they arrested 649 men and women by midafternoon, nearly all on misdemeanor charges. Many refused to give their names, delaying processing. One minor injury was reported, a 19-year-old protester who activists said was struck in the face with a police baton. She was treated at George Washington University Hospital and released. Three others were transported to hospitals from police custody, one for chest pains and two with nausea and vomiting.
Yesterday's actions, in a city where traffic was lighter than a normal Friday's, began a weekend of demonstrations that continue today with a march and an attempt to surround the Foggy Bottom headquarters of the IMF and World Bank. Tomorrow, a march is planned to begin at Dupont Circle against a rush to war in Iraq. Protesters said yesterday's show of force by the police would only encourage more dissent this weekend. But police staffing strength will be greater today, as out-of-town officers are expected to be on the streets to augment the force.
Police Tactics Questioned Protesters strongly criticized law enforcement's handling of the demonstrations, saying police used unconstitutional tactics by preventing large groups from leaving demonstrations. Activists said protesters and onlookers were beaten and pepper-sprayed by police, but they provided few specifics. Witnesses said officers acted roughly in some cases, particularly when vandalism was involved, but reported no police brutality.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney for the District-based Partnership for Civil Justice, said lawyers were pursuing action against the police. "This is Washington, D.C.," she said. "People should be allowed to come out and express opposition to government policies."
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said he decided to act forcefully because of threats to shut down the city followed by the breaking of windows and attempts to halt traffic. Infractions such as blocking the street could lead to mayhem if not stopped, he said.
Organizers with the D.C.-based Anti-Capitalist Convergence, which organized yesterday's People's Strike, said the police overreacted to isolated incidents of vandalism during largely nonviolent protests.
Protesters viewed the day as a success, saying they achieved their goal of shutting down parts of the city for several hours, dominated the national and international news with their anti-capitalist, anti-globalization message and reenergized activists to voice their dissent in a United States that has cracked down on civil liberties since Sept. 11, 2001. "It was truly a day of noncompliance with the system," said Rae Valentine, an Anti-Capitalist Convergence organizer.
As of 6 p.m., only about 130 of those arrested had been processed by police, authorities said. Five were charged with felonies -- destruction of property -- and faced the possibility of a maximum of 10 years in prison.
The rest were charged with failure to obey a police officer, a citation that carries a $100 fine. If they had valid identification and the cash, they could be released. The others had to await presentation to a magistrate judge in D.C. Superior Court this morning.
A Southwest Washington police academy served as a processing center, where arrested protesters were given something to drink and a meal. A vegetarian meal was an option that officials added for this weekend's protests after complaints from activists arrested at previous D.C. demonstrations.
"We tried to disperse, but the police wouldn't let us," said Jennifer Lawhorne, 22, of Richmond, one of several hundred protesters playing drums at Freedom Plaza yesterday morning and among those arrested. "There wasn't any order to disperse. They just moved in and arrested everyone."
Many activists came from outside the Washington region, with clusters from Arizona, California, Illinois, Iowa, New York and North Carolina. Eric Gillard, 18, came to the protests with eight others from Keene, N.H. He said he came to Washington to "challenge the people who perpetuate this destructive paradigm of capitalism and greed," comments echoed by numerous others.
The other side viewed the day as a success, too. At a 5 p.m. news conference, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) praised Ramsey, saying he had balanced "the need for an open city and . . . open expression" with concerns for public safety.
Workers Heed Warnings Police had advised motorists to stay off roads into the city, advice that many commuters appeared to take. The Capital Beltway and main arteries from Maryland into the District were unusually light during the morning rush hour, authorities said. A slowdown on the Beltway that protesters had planned never materialized.
In Virginia, police said there was little effect, although the District's first traffic blockage of the day, at 14th Street and Independence Avenue SW, caused a half-hour backup into Northern Virginia.
Metro ridership was down slightly. By noon, 263,918 people had boarded trains, compared with 269,758 by the same time a week earlier. At the end of the workday, Metro reported carrying 448,917 passengers, 5,300 fewer than the Friday before. Metro officials reminded riders that bicycles and large coolers are not allowed on trains through tomorrow.
There were suggestions that many federal workers stayed home. At the Federal Triangle Metro station, ridership was nearly half the level of a typical Friday. Ridership on the commuter railroads was normal, according to officials at Virginia Railway Express and MARC.
"From the passengers' perspective, it was a normal day," said Jim Gallagher, Metro's deputy general manager for operations.
But from other perspectives, it was anything but normal. Some downtown parking garages were open only to monthly customers, and several businesses near three planned actions -- a bike ride from Union Station, a march from Franklin Square and the Freedom Plaza event -- were closed, including a federal credit union and a few restaurants.
Parts of the downtown corridor appeared largely abandoned by the usual crowds, given over to police and chanting protesters. A spokeswoman for the Interior Department, which has about 4,000 employees in the District, said attendance at the department dropped off dramatically. "It's very quiet here," she said.
The day's first arrests of protesters came about 7 a.m., when 21 were arrested for lying in the road near the 14th Street bridge.
An hour later, about 300 who assembled in Franklin Square for a march headed down K Street to Vermont Avenue NW, where they were surrounded and stopped by police. Protesters wearing black ski masks and hooded sweat shirts pulled out rocks they had been carrying and threw them at a Citibank branch at the corner, and police moved in and prevented the group from leaving. Some of the protesters tossed smoke bombs on the sidewalk, yelling, "Our streets! Our streets!"
One by one, dozens of protesters were escorted or carried out of the crowd and put aboard Metro buses police had borrowed for the demonstrations. Meanwhile, a protester and a spectator on K Street NW got into a heated exchange.
"Peaceful demonstration is fine, but if people can't get to their jobs, it's disruptive," said Shane Deithorn, 38, a construction superintendent from Mount Airy. "They should lock them all up," he said to the protester.
Other demonstrators a few blocks away used a different approach, handing out yellow pieces of paper to motorists sitting briefly in traffic with the heading "Sorry for the inconvenience."
Surrounded and Arrested About 8 a.m., a bicycle ride intended to disrupt traffic attracted about 75 activists to Union Station, along with just as many police officers on bicycles and motorcycles and in cars. The protesters rolled through downtown for about an hour without incident. The procession was stopped by police at Pershing Park, near 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where a couple of hundred other activists assembled.
At that point, D.C. and Park police ringed the protesters, not allowing them to leave for about two hours. Protesters -- and bystanders as well -- were caught inside the cordon, and police also surrounded drum-beating activists across the street at Freedom Plaza. Some complained that police overreacted. "They closed Freedom Plaza and turned it into a non-Freedom Plaza," said Joseph Mayer, 69, of Alexandria, a retired Army lieutenant colonel among those caught on the wrong side of the shoulder-to-shoulder police lines.
Carlos Lemos, 19, a protester from Adams Morgan, ate from a bag of baby carrots and stared at the lines of police officers surrounding him. Some activists wrote the phone number for legal support on their arms; supporters beyond the lines chanted, "Let them go!"
"My parents are going to yell at me," Lemos said. "They told me not to get arrested."
Inside the lines, there was a sense of defiance. One protester said: "If I have to go to jail in my life, I'm glad it's for a good cause."
Ramsey said all the protesters arrested had broken the law, either by blocking the sidewalk, blocking the street or parading without a permit. He said the group had blocked Pennsylvania Avenue NW and had not obeyed officers' orders to stop. "They put themselves in a position to be arrested," he said.
The day's events appeared to draw to a close with a demonstration at the Gap store in Georgetown with some protesters stripping to their underwear. About 300 people showed up carrying signs reading, "Stop Gap's Sweatshops." There were no arrests, as police and protesters negotiated a compromise: Activists agreed to wrap up the demonstration in 20 minutes if the police moved a helicopter from overhead so the event's speakers could be heard.
Asked whether the stripping stunt trivialized their cause -- their belief that the clothing chain exploits Third World workers and the environment -- one protester said no. Marcela Smid, one of those who stripped, said, "This makes people notice."