Finance leaders carry on talks despite protests

Amid show of force by Washington police, march a mix of Woodstock and Seattle


Monday, April 17, 2000

Washington -- There were angry scuffles, police sprayings and hundreds of arrests yesterday, but as many as 10,000 protesters couldn't recreate the mayhem of last year's trade summit in Seattle.

Gatherings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund went ahead in Washington with some minor disruptions, amid sporadic outbreaks of violence.

The mostly twentysomething demonstrators marched, jostled with police and tried unsuccessfully to block access to the headquarters of the two international lending institutions. The protesters blame the agencies for a host of ills, including perpetuating Third World poverty, environmental destruction and excessive secrecy.

With police helicopters hovering overhead and riot fences ringing the site, much of downtown Washington was turned into an armed camp, with a force of nearly 2,000 baton-wielding riot police and Secret Service officers.

Heavily padded police clubbed protesters and squirted pepper spray in their faces as some tried to break through the security zone set up around the meeting site, just two blocks from the White House.

The show of force culminated after a weeklong police crackdown, including the arrest Saturday night of more than 600 people for demonstrating without a permit. The number topped the 525 arrested in a week at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, although Washington police said most had been released by yesterday.

As morning drizzle gave way to bright sunshine, the event took on the air of a re-enactment of Woodstock rather than of Seattle. Crowds of young people peacefully chanted slogans, carried puppets and waved banners.

Washington Mayor Anthony Williams defended the police tactics, saying he was determined to prevent a repeat of Seattle, where there was widespread looting and property damage.

"What we have been trying to do from the very beginning . . . is to try to prevent a replication of what happened out in Seattle," he said. "I think the vast majority of these demonstrators want to demonstrate peacefully."

Washington Police Chief Charles Ramsey would not say whether tear gas was used against protesters, noting that the policy is not to "unless we absolutely have to."

Police urged residents to avoid the downtown area. Many streets were closed to traffic. With demonstrators vowing to continue their protests today, Washingtonians are bracing for disruptions.

"People can bank on seeing traffic congestion like they've never seen before," Chief Ramsey said.

By early morning yesterday, a double line of police and protesters ringed the buildings, making access to the meetings difficult. The finance ministers of Brazil, Portugal, France and Thailand never did make it through the crowds, but were represented inside by other officials.

Most delegates, including Finance Minister Paul Martin and Bank of Canada Governor Gordon Thiessen, arrived at 6 a.m. in police-escorted buses, and the meetings began on time.

Mr. Martin later told reporters that the ministers, like the protesters, are grappling with the dislocation caused by globalization and rapid technological change. "The means are a little different, but the ultimate aims are the same," he said.

Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, who was in Seattle and helped organize the Washington protests, said the capital's police were better prepared and were quick to thwart outbreaks.

But she said the protesters' message still rang out loud and clear.

"If they have to hold their meetings inside a veritable armed camp, with thousands of police, pepper spray and guard dogs, the statement has already been made," she said. "The IMF and the World Bank aren't ready for an open dialogue."

The WTO summit in Seattle was to have launched a new round of global trade talks, so its disruption was a major development. But the Washington meetings are routine semi-annual gatherings. At the IMF, which doles out short-term loans to countries in trouble, members are still dealing with the fallout from the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and trying to prevent future financial problems.

At the World Bank, the main issue is the pace of debt forgiveness on loans to developing countries. There was no major breakthrough in yesterday's talks.

Outside the meetings, anarchists in balaclavas mixed with environmentalists in a sea of eclectic causes. At times, the streets took on the air of a carnival. Protesters carried giant puppet caricatures, and thousands of others waved placards as they marched toward the IMF building wearing "Free Tibet" T-shirts and singing, "We all live in a global fascist state."

At times, however, the crowd seemed on the brink of violence, with protesters appearing to goad police as they pounded pails, blew whistles and chanted slogans like, "Whose streets? Our streets." Sometimes police responded with pepper gas and smoke bombs, which the crowds mistook for tear gas.

Brent Patterson, an organizer from Toronto with the Council of Canadians who travelled to Washington with 220 other Canadians, said the mood on the streets was decidedly different from that in Seattle.

Despite the chaos there, Seattle protesters seemed to have a better sense of what was going on throughout the city, he said. "Police in Seattle were caught flat-footed," he added. "The cops here seem to be prepared. . . . Things intensify and the police exhibit their muscle. Things build up, and then it dissipates."

Many of the 1,500 Canadians who descended on Washington by the busload over the past week were declaring victory.

"I'm here to stir up trouble, not to smash windows," said Meredith Ferguson a 19-year-old telemarketer from London, Ont. "It's absolutely beautiful. Look at all of these beautiful people. . . . If anything, today's protest should tell the capitalists that we're not going to go away."

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