An Uncivil War


WASHINGTON, D.C.—The big event in George Bush’s backyard this fall is not the visit from his buddy Vicente Fox or his wife Laura’s book fair, but an old-fashioned street fight hosted by the Washington cops.

On one side stand the Blue Bloc, as the D.C. flatfoots are known. Most recently noted for dropping the ball in the Chandra Levy case, the Blue Bloc have persuaded Bush to kick in $16 million for what looks like a riot in the making at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings, slated for September 29 and 30 in downtown Washington. They’re spending $2 million more on a fence, nine feet high and two and a half miles long, designed to keep protesters away from the global financiers. The perimeter will be ringed with thousands of cops from around the country, armed with riot gear.

On the other side stand the Black Bloc, the most visible wing of an anarchist corps seasoned by years of confrontation and determined not only to hold their ground but to win. Unlike the Blue Bloc, these radicals have no appointed leaders or list of members.

Black Bloc isn’t even a standing organization, really, but a loose collection of people who adopt—however temporarily—particular tactics for resistance. In the streets of Quebec City this spring, a Bloc formed and worked to shut down a free-trade conference. A few months later, in Genoa, anarchists gathered again—this time to crash the barricades at a confab for the G-8, the world’s richest countries. When the tear gas cleared, one demonstrator had been shot dead by cops, dozens were missing or in jail, and activist circles buzzed with talk that the people wearing black had been nothing more than provocateurs hired by the Italian government.

With its passionately drawn sides and great potential for collateral damage, the siege of Washington could equal, if not surpass, the battle at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Protesters won’t be caught unprepared. They’re plotting strategy, working with lawyers, and training medics to handle the wave of injuries that have become a regular feature of these demonstrations.

“Where there are police, there is violence,” says Moose, a New York member of Ya Basta! “I don’t expect protester violence. The majority of what we see is cop violence. State power will do whatever it takes to quell dissent.”

In this case, that includes an extraordinary show of military force for what is essentially a civilian operation. Blue Bloc cops are closing off a widening swath of the District’s downtown, having convinced George Washington University to shutter its campus. Meanwhile, their backup teams—the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms—are spying on dissident groups, trying to glean specifics on their plans, and working to keep foreign protesters out. In particular, the feds are said to be targeting foreigners who might have been part of the Genoa melee. During the Washington meetings, FBI agents are expected to scour the city in command trucks, ready to pounce on any groups found wearing black gear.

In predicting violence, Washington police chief Charles Ramsey has virtually assured the public there will be property damage. “The odds of us escaping without property damage of any kind is probably fairly low,” he declared this summer.

While some of the predicted 40,000 protesters say they’ll tangle with cops at the fence, others will fan out across the city in an elaborate game of cat and mouse. The barrier gives them a chance to see where the cops are—and to figure out where they aren’t. Groups are organizing masses of bike riders to block traffic, or plotting to dress up as highway workers and dig up busy streets. One group is advertising for lacrosse players to catch tear gas grenades and hurl them back into the police ranks.

The Blue Bloc remain focused on the fence, and they’re openly challenging the demonstrators to see who can pull the fence down first, hoping they will exhaust themselves attacking it. “They are creating a climate of fear,” says Robert Weissman, a key organizer for the Mobilization for Global Justice.

What cops get in return may not be flight, but fight. “I think ultimately police want to be fucked with,” says John Kellogg, an anarchist student from Baltimore, home to one of the most active anarchist cells. “Whether or not each one shows up in riot gear, that is becoming standard procedure. Everyone is expecting violence. Lines of communication are almost completely broken down. It is regulated warfare, with gas, masks, rubber bullets. There may be no room for diplomacy.”

Yet other protesters, even the anarchists, insist they want to demonstrate peacefully. “I intend to ignore the fence,” says Andrew Smith, who runs Baltimore’s anarchist bookshop Black Planet Books. “The D.C. police are the only people talking about violence. None of us are talking about violence.”

The demonstrators have recruited AFL-CIO support for a big march and have persuaded IMF and World Bank leaders to meet them head-on at a debate sponsored by a TV network, Weissman says, possibly the BBC.

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.”

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.

Fearing the worst, the Bush administration said in late August that it will reimburse the city for up to $16 million of a projected $29 million in costs for providing security for the meetings. Up to $11 million will go to transport, house, feed, and pay for more than 3000 out-of-town cops, who’ll bolster the District’s 3600-member force. Another $4.9 million will pay for riot gear, medical supplies, and operating equipment, including protective suits and helmets, for about 2000 police.

Not every cop thinks the fence is such a great deal. “If you can make the fence a target so police aren’t the target, or private property is not the target, or individuals are not the target, then this fence would have served its purpose,” Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation and former head of the Newark police department, told The Washington Post recently. He notes people anxious to break through the fence might develop “countertactics,” which he wouldn’t discuss in detail for fear of giving demonstrators a heads-up. “It’s a problem if it’s toppled over on police officers, used in a way to undermine police officers,” he said. “The biggest problem for the police is that tactics might be developed where the fence could be used against them.”

Already, the police are having to take steps to protect the fence itself. By closing George Washington University, whose campus abuts the fence, they’ve set up a no-man’s-land between the fence and the expected demonstrations. If the past is any guide, the D.C. cops will try setting up checkpoints and skirmish lines in front of the fence. This will force the crowds back into the K Street corridor, home to the city’s well-heeled lawyers and lobbyists who crisscross the area attending meetings and eating lunch at fancy restaurants.

What’s more, the World Bank owns six buildings, including its new $317 million headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue—outside the fence—which must be defended.

The cops have exaggerated the expected size of the demo to 100,000, which may have helped them get money out of Congress. The actual size of the demonstration, according to organizers, will probably be upwards of 30,000 but less than 50,000. Many of the demonstrators will not be the terrorist kids the cops rail against, but peaceable older members of labor unions brought into town by the AFL-CIO to march around the Ellipse and up to the IMF site following a delicately crafted plan that is almost certain to win them a demonstration permit. If the cops start attacking these people, they’ll be in for a debacle.

All the money and power the cops now hold could be outdone by a smart, swift, impromptu demonstration on the streets. Protesters can take their marching orders from a tactical guide working its way around the Web. “The best defense is chaos,” reads the message from London. “They cannot cope with constantly changing situations. Keep moving, utilize mad props, change your appearance, weave in and out of the crowd.”