We are standing inside the "Convergence Center" in a warehouse on Florida Avenue, in Washington's Adams-Morgan district, where all around us activists like Celeste (who declines to give me her last name) buzz in their preparation for the Mobilization for Global Justice's anti-World Bank and International Monetary Fund protests scheduled for Sunday and Monday.
Most of the two-story, 20,000-square-foot warehouse -- donated by the Quaker-run American Friends Service Committee -- is crammed with hundreds of activists who float in and out of the building, signing up for the protest, collecting information and attending seminars.
Celeste is not the angry sort, and her shot against the uninspired is fired softly and with an adorable smile, and only after I ask her why she came to D.C. and, indeed, why she has dedicated herself to activism.
"Once you know something about these things, I don't understand people who don't do anything," Celeste says.
Like her 27-year-old sister, for instance, whom she calls a "yuppie" and sneers at for continuing to shop at the Gap despite her awareness that they employ sweatshops abroad.
"She would never keep a woman in her closet sewing for her," she says of her sister, "just like she would never keep a chicken in a shoebox to lay eggs for her -- but still, she eats eggs." Celeste's a vegan, she wants me to know.
But there's hope for her sister yet: Celeste and her boyfriend, Conner, 29, flew here from Austin by using her sister's frequent-flyer miles.
"She's very supportive, even if she does think we're freaks," Celeste says.
Her parents, too, are supportive if somewhat leery, Celeste says. It's been like this from the very beginning of her days of activism when, at 11, she was drawn to an animal-rights center after seeing some posters. "I thought it was going to be rescuing kittens and puppies, not seeing pictures of vivisections and cows getting clubbed over the head," she says. "But every 11-year-old should see that."
Celeste is my appointed "Media Escort" in the Convergence Center. She's there mainly to make sure I don't stick my nose where it's not wanted -- like the workshop on blockades, for one -- as well as to ensure that anyone I talk to knows I'm with the media. And to be helpful and answer all my questions, of course.
On Sunday, during the spring meeting of the board of governors of the International Monetary Fund, Celeste, Conner and thousands like them will take to the streets of Washington to protest its policies. On Monday, they will do the same for the World Bank, which is holding a comparable meeting that day. Those who are willing to risk arrest will try to shut the meetings down. The more timid activists can cheer on their comrades from the sidelines or attend various other events, including a Sunday rally at the Ellipse -- between the White House and the Mall -- which will feature music and be hosted by sloppy lefty filmmaker Michael Moore.
"It's not just people standing there holding signs," Celeste says. "It's so much more creative than that these days." There are huge puppets being constructed around us -- artistic papier-mbchi likenesses of President Clinton and various anonymous fat white men, representing corporate America. An immense three-headed cobra stands poised to strike, the heads of the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization emerging above its flared hood. A map on the wall lays out Kabuki-like instructions on the physical dynamics of the play that these puppets will enact.
"It's so simply put, people can get into it and be entertained without the remote control," she says.
There's more than that, Celeste says, pointing to a squat guy with whom she did guerrilla theater when she was in Seattle last year for the WTO protests. They scurried around from coffee shop to mall to grocery store, getting and waiting in line when suddenly they would begin holding very loud scripted conversations about the evils of the WTO. It sounds annoying and preachy to me, but Celeste seems so sincere and committed to her beliefs in the evils of corporate culture -- beliefs I share a bit, though I'm also a lame-ass carnivorous consumer, so clueless I actually wore a Nike shirt today -- so I don't tell her that.
"What's radical cheerleading?" I ask her, pointing to a sign on the wall at the entrance of the Convergence Center where everything from housing information to personal ads are taped.
"That's the best!" she says, taking out and unfolding a wrinkled leaflet from her pocket. It's from a Texas rally for International Women's Day and with the lyrics come a clearer understanding of radical cheerleading. These aren't just your average "Hey hey, ho ho" cheers I recall from college "Take Back the Night" rallies:
Hey Ladies! (Yeah?) Hey Ladies! (Yeah?) R U Ready? (For what?) To shoot that rapist? (Yeah!) You put that .45 up to the sky And shoot that dick between the thighs! Shoot the rapist! Shoot shoot the rapist!
"What's that about?" I ask.
"An alleged rapist cop in Texas," she says, "Samuel Ramirez. He allegedly raped a pregnant black woman." (She makes sure to say "allegedly.") But they put him back on the force, she says, charging him with only "official oppression." Celeste and several other Texas feminist activists made a point of disrupting his trial for "official oppression," since they thought it a sham.
Celeste points to a more appropriate song, "Consumption, consumption," which they'll sing to the tune of School House Rock's "Conjunction Junction."
"Totally for sure I just got a manicure; The sun I swear is messing with my golden hair; Go go buy buy; Gee I hope I look alright; Consumption consumption what's your function? Consumption consumption what's your function? Tell me I should buy more to feel good; When I'm depressed buy more to impress; For only $19.95 you might let me stay alive."
A guy from Public Citizen stands and makes an announcement for "anyone interested in shaking the pillars of power." A contingent is heading down to the National Press Building to protest WTO President Michael Moore. "The cool Michael Moore's going to be there, too," the Public Citizen guy says, "both the good one as well as the evil one."
"Bring your Generation X angst," he tells the crowd.
Celeste's shift as a media escort will be done at noon, after which she and Conner will look for a local vegetarian restaurant that I'm pretty sure doesn't exist. Then she'll sign up for workshops. "There are a lot of workshops I took in Seattle that I should take again," she says. "Like jail solidarity."
This is the united-we-stand process in which arrested protestors refuse to give their names, or even eat, so as to stand together and increase the odds they all will be freed without any charges. According to Adam Eivinger, one of the organizers for the Mobilization for Global Justice's protest, "99 percent of the people arrested in Seattle were freed" because of jailhouse solidarity, a process he says was brought to the forefront of the protest movement by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
The other workshop Celeste wants to take again is on nonviolence, training in the art of going limp and spreading peaceful vibes so cops have not even the slightest excuse to hurt you.
She sighs. She got majorly tear-gassed in Seattle, she says, and she's worried that Washington's Metropolitan Police Department's about to do the same thing. The first day of the WTO protests she was tear-gassed six times. "You can't breathe at all. You sneeze. Your eyes burn. It suffocates you." She fell victim after a cop had confiscated her gas mask, she says.
Then on the second day she was gassed four more times. "This one had a weird odor to it," she says. Speculation ran rampant that it was nerve gas. "It didn't burn your eyes as much as it just knocked you out. They were gassing whole neighborhoods. All the women started their cycle," she says. "One woman had a miscarriage -- obviously she thinks it was because of the gas." After she returned to Texas, she was sick for four days.
Ugh. She wasn't even really protesting in Seattle, she was the designated "jail support," responsible for getting out of jail members of her "affinity group" -- one of the many ragtag consortiums of protestors brought together to stick together. Those assigned to jail support aren't even supposed to be at the protests, they're to wait by the phone to help bail out their fellow affinity group members. "That's a big role and a big responsibility," she says, "which is why I don't want to do it this time."
"All of us are working so hard, training for months in nonviolence," she says, "and the cops are being trained in how to control us and how to be violent. We're prepared for a peaceful demonstration and they're prepared for war. I don't want to be gassed again."
Celeste's fear is rooted not only in her Seattle experience of police overreaction (to put it charitably), but that of Washington, D.C., cops. Wednesday night, only three blocks away, seven protestors were arrested for carrying raw materials that would be used to make modern protestors' tools known as lockboxes, a construction through which protestors all weave their arms in order to form a more united physical force. "As far as I know there's no law against chicken wire," Celeste says. But the cops, calling the chicken wire, plastic pipes and duct tape "implements of crime," didn't see it that way.
"They weren't plumbers, they weren't electricians, they weren't chicken farmers," a D.C. cop told the Washington Post. "The use was for the protest, to disrupt traffic."
But Eivinger disputes this, saying that at least some of the materials were going to be used to construct the humongous puppets. As of Thursday afternoon, one of the chicken-wire-smugglers was still in jail, having refused to give his name. These weren't the first protest-related arrests of the week. On Monday, seven others were busted for blocking traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue for an hour and trying to put up anti-World Bank banners on the World Bank itself. "World Bank Kills," said the smaller banner, which was successfully unfurled.
Celeste and I go upstairs to some of the workshops. "You can't go in there," she says, pointing to the one on blockades, in a corner room. In the front room five white people sit with a black woman who is conducting a seminar on diversity. On the side a crowd of 30 or so listen to lessons on being "medical monitors," freelance faux-First Aiders.
And in the middle room, 20 protestors and three toddlers stand in a circle moaning. This is the seminar on "magickal activism," conducted by a witch known as Star Hawk.
"She's, like, super-highly regarded," Celeste says.
The crew is being instructed by, er, Hawk on creating a "circle of protection." When she was much younger, she was cycling on a country road one night while sporting a circle of protection, when she was hit by a car, she tells the earnest faces before her. "The car ran into my bike and sort of bounced off," she says. "I thought: 'That didn't happen!'"
A middle-aged guy with Velcro sneakers comes over to me and makes sure that, as a member of the media, I'm accompanied by a media escort. Celeste waves him off.
Next, Hawk gets the crowd "grounded," and at peace, so they can practice nonviolence in the face of confrontation. Different protestors assume the role of menacing cop, none of them successfully approaching anything remotely resembling a threat, which I guess is the point.
"All right, I'm a guard, and you're coming with me!" Hawk cries; the woman she's gently dragging away goes limp while others in the group collapse in a heap on and around her.
One of the seminar participants, a skinny guy with green hair and an unbelievably painful-looking lip piercing, has a phone number written with thick black marker on his arm. Or is it a tattoo? Celeste informs me that that's his legal support number, for after he gets arrested and the cops remove every shred of paper from his pockets.
Hawk opens the floor to comments and green-hair guy speaks. "It's hard for people to get worked up," he says, finding fault with the lame "instigators" in the cop/protestor role-playing. "The last few days have been really intense. But it's real 'Twilight Zone' in this space here, so it's hard to get worked up." Another guy, Sensitive Ponytail Man No. 342, says that the "grounding" makes him feel "a real desire to connect with people."
These connections are one of the reasons Celeste loves the causes she fights for, whatever they may be, she says.
Celeste doesn't believe in monogamy, though she's also quick to clarify that she doesn't favor promiscuity, either. But monogamy doesn't make any sense to her. "Why would you deprive someone you love of an experience that they might grow from?" she asks. (Oh, to be 22.) As far back as her first "partner," at age 15, Celeste says she was pushing anti-monogamy, telling her boyfriend to go ahead and make a move on another woman, er, girl.
When I point out that intimacy with a lover -- or "partner," as she refers to Conner -- might not be as special if it's not unique, she scoffs. "That comes from people's insecurities. I mean, I feel that sometimes, too. But it's from me worrying that he'll like her more than me, or whatever."
Besides, right now Celeste is far more interested in intellectual and cause-oriented interaction.
"Before I went to Seattle, I never had any idea that so many thousands of people gave a shit" about the evils of the corporate world, or sweatshops, or the questionable policies of the IMF and the World Bank. "But they do, and they come here, sleeping on floors with no electricity or water," dedicated to the cause. True enough. One local activist opened up his home to protestors, thinking he had room for maybe three or four people. He put up a notice on the "Housing to share" section of the official protest Web site and was bombarded with hundreds of e-mails, including:
I'm looking for a place for myself and one possibly two other women. Our Details: 2 (possibly 3) women. 2 dykes, 1 'person'. 2 jews, 1 gentile. All white girls. We're former college activists transitioning into activist 'real' world. Whatever that is. Personally, after a year working as a community organizer for tenants in low-income housing, I'm on a quest to learn how to stick it out for the long haul and avoid burn out and would love any advice. We're respectful, fun, and while we may oppose the state's laws, will respect your house rules.
But it was too late for her and her friends: The house was packed. Now 30 or more out-of-town activists temporarily reside there, including a backyard full of geodesic tents.
Celeste and Conner are a little luckier -- they're staying in the basement of one of his friend's parents. The mom is always trying to cook the 20 or so guests breakfast, she says.
After massage therapy school, Celeste tried, but eventually dropped out of, an Arizona community college. She will go to school eventually, she pledges, but when she's much, much older. Like 30. "There's just so much more important stuff to do," she says, "like this, or going to Seattle."
Besides, she's already getting an education in Real Life 101 from the School of Hard Knocks. "I've learned so much from all the workshops and stuff," she says. "Like blockade training, legal support, jail solidarity. I just got certified for CPR last night, and tonight I'll get certified for first aid." Last week she attended a conference on the dangers of tampons, including toxic shock and cancer, she says. "Women don't know about that," she says. "We're trained to be ashamed of our uterine discharge. I just started to get into the anti-tampon movement."
Conner joins us by the door and I tell them I'll give them a lift to the vegetarian restaurant I still don't think exists. Nearby an activist spray-paints -- rather nicely -- one of the many puppets. Celeste bemoans her lack of artistic skill.
For a spray-painted robot, the rendering is quite lovely; there's shading and shadowing and interesting colors. I ask the painter if he's a professional artist.
"I don't know if I can say I do it professionally," he says. "But I do it a lot."