An Uncivil War

Anarchists and Cops Square Off in Washington’s IMF Slugfest

A peaceful atmosphere could quickly sour, should the cops decide to strike. "If attacked, we have to defend ourselves," Smith says. "No one wants to be arrested, gassed, shot with rubber bullets, beaten. No one wants to engage in physical confrontation. If they attack, we'll defend ourselves. It's our right."

Veteran protesters say the cops' barricade carries an implicit threat. "I think the fence is provocation and it's intended as such. It almost guarantees that there will be some level of confrontation at the fence," says L.A. Kauffman, a New York activist and historian of the protest movement. "A lot of people are aware that it's a provocation and a potential trap."

The danger hasn't scared off many. "We will take to the streets because we have the right to freedom of assembly, not that we need those rights," Smith says. "We intend to get our message across to the people of the world and have fun doing it, a party in the streets, but with meaning. I want to have music, dance, theater, puppets, which should threaten no one."

Thick Blue Line: "State power will do whatever it takes to quell dissent."
photo: Mario Tama/NEWSMAKERS
Thick Blue Line: "State power will do whatever it takes to quell dissent."

That's how so many of these clashes start, with pageantry and dancing in the streets. Claiming the carnival is just a cover for domestic terrorism, the cops move in. Tear gas flies, batons flail, and the Black Bloc people go over the top. While some smash windows and throw stones, their real objective is to drive the police mad. One cell rushes toward the blue line, then falls away as another attacks from a different direction. By the end, the cops are furious and ready to fire.

In D.C., the guerrilla demonstrators plan a shift to other activities aimed at bringing the city to a halt. These groups are giving the FBI fits.

Protesters loosely affiliated as Homes Not Jails will attempt what they call a People's Repo, in which they'll teach people how to move into empty buildings in Washington and set up squats for other arriving demonstrators. Later, they'll turn the squats over to the city's homeless people. The action borrows a leaf from the German punk Autonomen movement, which seized properties in East Berlin before the wall came down. They fortified these holdings and fought hand-to-hand with neo-Nazis. When lookouts spotted an attack, the punks rushed into their redoubt, pulled up the rope ladders, and went to the roof, where they had laid in a stock of bottles and rocks. They then suddenly unleashed a huge barrage on their foe.

Bike riders with Critical Mass plan to gather suddenly at rush hour, clogging a busy commuter thoroughfare leading into or out of the city, slowing traffic to a crawl.

Another organization, Reclaim the Streets, traces its roots to a save-the-rave protest in London in May 1995, when some 20,000 gathered in Trafalgar Square. What began as a party ended with revelers throwing bottles and other debris at cops. Since then, Reclaim the Streets has popped up all over the world, gathering at one place, moving to another. Sometimes they crash old cars and stage a fight to block traffic. In London, people with jackhammers dug holes and planted trees in the street. They're big fans of the Situationists in Paris, whose slogan was "Beneath the cobblestones, a beach." The new group's motto: "Beneath the tarmac . . . a forest."

The FBI says Reclaim the Streets is a terrorist organization.

Ya Basta! will also be out in force, with the FBI right behind them. In Prague last year, these Italian supporters of the Zapatistas turned out in padded clothing and shields. They fought the cops to a standstill at a key downtown bridge. As comic as the approach seems, they may well be the ones most determined to breech the fence and gain entrance to the World Bank meetings. In a bit of psychological warfare straight out of Apocalypse Now, Ya Basta! will blast the proceedings with taped voices of the planet's dispossessed.

For some, talking a good game is the whole point. Take rtmark, a Bay Area venture-capital gang that backs radical social initiatives, which is behind the recruiting drive for grenade-catching lacrosse players. No word yet on any takers.

The IMF/World Bank demo has provided the D.C. police a welcome relief from a constant barrage of criticism for their handling of the Chandra Levy case and given a good excuse to get more federal money. Originally they asked Congress for $30 million, on grounds they expected a huge crowd that might well turn to violence. "If we have large numbers of people show up but they basically remain peaceful, then we'll be OK," Chief Ramsey said last month. "If they engage in large-scale, violent behavior, then we're going to have a problem with or without this money being in place, because of the numbers we're talking about."

These protests are also giving cops a chance to strut their stuff. Major Tom Pellinger, who heads preparations for the U.S. Park Police, has said he worries protesters might get "too close" to the White House and someone (like maybe a world-class shot putter) could hurl a Molotov cocktail onto Shrub's lawn.

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