Police and protesters alike were primed for combat Sunday morning in the area surrounding the World Bank building. Early in the day, police made busts and used pepper spray to disperse demonstrators in the vicinity. Saturday, police had arrested 600 protesters, along with a handful of bystanders and reporters, in these same city blocks, and tensions between protesters and police seemed to be escalating.
But after some moments of nervous reactions, a few gas masks and threats of escalating violence, a festival atmosphere generally dominated the streets of Washington Sunday. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund spring meetings went off without a hitch, and protesters were given their own little section of the city to shut down.
Moods varied widely at different police positions along the perimeter of the restricted area surrounding the World Bank. At 18th and I streets in the northwest part of the city, the protesters spread along police positions. They locked arms and formed human chains with the stated aim of keeping IMF and World Bank officials from attending their meetings. "Nobody in and nobody out. That's what the line is all about," chanted demonstrators with the Consensus Project as some of their fellow protesters kept time on plastic buckets.
The atmosphere was very different a block away at the police checkpoint within sight of the World Bank building. A small but highly visible minority of protesters, clad entirely in black with scarves obscuring much of their faces, flew the flag of anarchy and raised their fists. Though they made no threatening gestures, Washington authorities had decided earlier in the week that bandana-covered faces might mean serious danger that requires the use of force. Most of the demonstrators did nothing more threatening than shout anti-corporate slogans such as "Unemployment and inflation are not caused by immigration. Bullshit. Get off it. The enemy is profit."
For more than an hour, an edgy order prevailed at the roadblock, perhaps due to its proximity to the World Bank. The number of demonstrators waxed and waned in response to perceived police action. When those along the front lines caught sight of officers in riot gear advancing toward the crowd, a cry sounded across the street, and protesters who had been parading between police positions would swell the crowd in front of the barricades into thousands. If no visible police action followed, some protesters would drift back into the roving parade of puppets and banners.
The police made sudden moves seemingly at random to reinforce their positions. Motorcycle cops faced the demonstrators at a distance of several yards, turned on their lights and moved forward, then stopped. Police officers standing closest to the demonstrators shooed reporters away, as if preparing for battle, but nothing happened. At the most tense point of the event, authorities opened pouches along their belts and donned gas masks, as a few officers pulled out red-and-black canisters of pepper spray. An anxious rumble spread through the crowd. Some protesters donned gas masks of their own; others crouched down and covered their noses and mouths with whatever was handy. Then, just as suddenly, one cop whispered to the others and the gas masks game off. The crowd breathed a collective and audible sigh of relief.
Throughout, the sun was beating down on the first warm day in Washington in a week. Between the heat and the crowd and the cops, tempers flared. Unable to approach the IMF and World Bank officials that they opposed, some protesters turned on the press. "Corporate media, we don't need ya!" protesters chanted as photographers blinded them with flash bulbs. An ABC news photographer, struggling to get a spot between the line of cops and the mass of demonstrators, got into a tussle with a young protester. "Nonviolence!" many in the group shouted, and eventually the pushers and shovers were subdued by those surrounding them.
The beginning of the end occurred when Police Chief Charles Ramsey arrived. He paced among his officers, patting their shoulders encouragingly. Though he said he didn't have time to answer any questions, he paced up and down the line of protesters and reporters, pausing several times for a camera-friendly handshake and a few words. In his third of perhaps a dozen tours before the crowd, Ramsey gave a kingly wave of his hand, and called for the officers to remove their riot helmets, much to the delight of the protesters. "Thanks for being nonviolent," shouted a legal observer, one of several volunteers trained by the National Lawyers Guild to keep watch for possible police brutality.
From that point on, protesters and cops relaxed. The police, relieved to be helmetless in the hot sun, slicked back their sweaty hair, guzzled bottled water and started to smile. Many protesters unpacked the area in front of the barricade and the paraders went back to going up and down I street. Some of the demonstrators who remained thought it was time to revive their arm-linked line. "Nobody in, nobody out. That's what the line is all about." Though many media people, office workers and even World Bank employees slipped by as the line was forming, the police stopped them at the barricade anyway. Passes didn't pass; work I.D. was meaningless. Even some smartly dressed ladies on their way to a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution were stopped by the police.
But the line did snag one person. A reporter from the USA Radio Network tried to get to the police to plead her case for crossing the barricades. The protesters' resolve stiffened, and she literally ran into demonstrators several times until about half a dozen forcefully pushed her down onto a ledge lined with bushes. All this happened within sight of three police officers, who watched wide-eyed and did nothing. Ramsey, perhaps two yards away during one of his several strolls, barely noticed.