Prepping for the protests

Washington's mayor and police force get ready to rumble, though they hope they won't have to.

Published April 15, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

The white dump truck pulled to a stop near the World Bank, at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue two blocks from the White House, at 11:28 a.m. The protesters pulled a lever in the cab and dumped a load of manure. They jumped out, locked the doors and scrammed -- into the waiting arms of police.

At that moment D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams was about to speak at the Faith Based Conference on Economic Development and Neighborhood Revitalization in the basement of the Washington Hilton Hotel, known locally as the "Hinckley Hilton," the place where John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan. Williams didn't find out about the pooping of the avenue for three hours -- after the conference, after a few meetings, after lunch.

But if Williams were not the mayor, he might have been driving the truck of manure, an appetizer leading up to the massive demonstrations planned this weekend and Monday to disrupt the meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

"The protests as they relate to debt are well placed," Williams says. "Our own economic interests are at stake. These debts are punishing on developing nations. I do have some sympathy for what the protesters are saying."

Williams is sitting on the tan leather seats of his black Lincoln Navigator, which is being driven uptown by his security detail to Catholic University for the second of two religious events of the day. Dressed in his mayoral uniform -- tailored suit and bow tie -- Williams is following the regular schedule he plans to maintain during the course of the coming demonstrations.

The capital city that will host the meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and those protesting them is far different from Seattle, which was torn up by the World Trade Organization demonstrations last year. For one thing, these meetings will take place in the heart of downtown, far from the city's main residential neighborhoods, so the country is unlikely to revisit scenes of protesters and police battling under clouds of tear gas that seep into the homes of residents. Local and federal police units have been preparing for the protests since January to avoid a repeat of Seattle.

"We're as ready as we're going to be," said Police Chief Charles Ramsey outside his brand-new command center.

Williams knows all about demonstrations -- from the inside. As a student in the Bay Area, he demonstrated against the Vietnam War. In 1974 he organized a 20-mile march from Santa Monica to Long Beach, Calif., on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. At Yale University he organized protests aimed at gaining access to the school's budget information. In 1992 he marched with Jesse Jackson in his demonstrations for economic justice.

Williams has done a lot of reading about global economics, and his rhetoric could be a manifesto for the protesters. "We should have free trade," he says, "but it should not be at the beggaring of nations. It shouldn't be just about globalization of business. It has to be the globalization of working conditions.

"Globalization without attention to working conditions doesn't work," he says, "but to pretend that we're not in a global business environment doesn't work either."

Williams would like to see "a global social democratic economy -- one that fosters entrepreneurship yet maintains basic working and safety conditions." The way the system works now, he says, is destructive to the world economy, "no questions about it."

The mayor has discussed all this with World Bank president James Wolfensohn. Williams is a Wolfensohn fan and believes the banker is doing well to reform the World Bank and bring it down to the village level. They see each other socially, and have discussed the business of preparing for the impending demonstrations.

"We don't want to be John Wayne or Bull Conner," Williams says, "but we can't be oblivious to civil society. My concerns are that we will overreact or the protesters will overreact and we could lose control of the situation."

Meanwhile, as the mayor is finishing his speech at Catholic University, law enforcement officials are in the midst of a briefing at the brand-new, high-tech command center in police headquarters, rolled out to deal with this demonstration. Stationed at computer screens in the center of a huge room, local police officers share the technology with federal officers from the FBI, Marshals Service, Secret Service, Park Police, U.S. Capital Police, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and National Guard. During the 1968 riots, National Guard troops occupied the city; this time the soldiers will fill in for the local police in neighborhoods, and the local cops will deal with the protest.

Four 5-by-6 screens show computer-aided dispatch grids of the protest area. Local news is running on two huge TV screens at the end of the room -- one is hooked directly into the FBI's command center. Cameras mounted on the World Bank building can beam images of an eight-block area into the command center, and helicopters with satellite links can beam in real-time images. A command bus at ground zero has the same capabilities.

The 30 or so assembled police officers are chatting and joking in this calm before the protests, but the room goes quiet when an older woman in braided gray hair comes on the local news to say she came to Washington to make a statement so that the "world's environment will be safe for her grandchildren."

When the briefing is over, Chief Ramsey predicts that the mayhem of Seattle won't happen here. "We have no intention of using any chemical weapons," he says. "We hope to go through this entire event without having to put on our helmets and riot gear -- unless things escalate."

It's true that the demonstrations will not take place in the midst of neighborhoods where most Washingtonians live, but there is the matter of Georgetown. The elite community that's home to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and the Washington Post's Katharine Graham, among other VIPs, is 10 blocks away -- a perfect staging area or escape hatch for demonstrators.

"Could it spill over?" Ramsey asks. "Yeah. But we don't envision a situation where we'll have to take back neighborhoods."

Mayor Williams doesn't plan to be anywhere near the demonstrations, unless things get out of control. He'll go on national TV, perhaps "Face the Nation" on Sunday and "Good Morning America" on Monday. Other than that, he expects a normal few days.

But, he says, "you can never be totally relaxed about it."

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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