Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Report:  Eye-witness to Non-history, or, 
What I Saw at the World Bank Protest

John Bedell

My office is across the street from the World Bank, and so I expected to have a marvelous view of today's demonstrations from out my window. I certainly had a good view of the preliminaries that went on last Friday, when a dozen or so early-arriving protesters tried to climb onto the little roof over the bank's main entrance. They were chased off by an immense force of lawmen that quickly arrived in a vast caravan of vehicles: secret service in big sedans, a busload of city cops, and several Suburbans full of mysterious guys dressed in anonymous black, looking exactly like the enforcers for the shadow government who populate the X-Files. They even brought a hook and ladder fire truck to lift the protesters off the little roof, which was rather amusing, since the roof can't be more than 12 feet off the ground.

Friday afternoon, forcing our way past the wall of TV trucks by the front door for a quick look, we witnessed a marvelous confrontation between the elderly black homeless man who hangs out on our corner and a strange white interloper.

"This is my corner!" our regular screamed. "I claim this corner! Get off my corner!"  The new guy never said anything we could hear, but he held his ground. Surely he must have been an undercover cop, disguised so well he even fooled the local beggar into treating him as a rival. 

But today there was nothing outside my window but eerie silence. When I got off the Metro this morning I almost immediately encountered a police barricade blocking 18th Street, and I
had to show my corporate ID to two different cops to get through. Inside the barrier the streets were so empty that it felt as if a neutron bomb had gone off, and there was hardly anybody in my office.  My morning was extremely peaceful, with nothing happening anywhere I could see, but after hearing stories about people who took hours to get out of the war zone yesterday my only present colleague and I decided to head home a couple of hours early. We first headed west, out Pennsylvania Avenue, but that way we stumbled upon the main police/demonstrator confrontation of the afternoon, from the police side. I could see at least a hundred cops massed several ranks deep across the street, including a mounted platoon drawn up as if to plug any holes opening in the ranks.  I felt like I was observing the Battle of Zama from behind the Roman army.

Me, to cop in full riot gear: "I guess that's not a good way to get out."

Cop: "Not unless you like pepper. Huh, huh, huh."

Then we tried going north up 19th street, but although there were no demonstrators in sight that way was completely closed by barricades. At least 30 police were standing around, ready to face down the non-existent enemy.

Cop: "Sorry, nobody goes through here."

Me: "We're just trying to go home."

Cop: "Good luck. Huh, huh, huh."

My colleague, under his breath: "No wonder they hate cops."

Then we headed east, were turned back at 17th street but managed to pass the barricades on 16th street, by the White House. (Surely this is the first time in many years when the White House was the least secure part of downtown Washington.)

Since our escape actually took only a few minutes, and we had still not seen any demonstrations, we decided to wander around some more. We made our way back to the west, seeing small groups of very wet, bedraggled-looking demonstrators headed wearily home through the steady rain. (It rained hard enough this morning to generate flash flood watches.) They all looked like you would imagine: nose rings, dreadlocks, bandannas, Peruvian wool hats, ugly shoes. I was impressed by how small most of them were; I've never seen so many little women in one place.

Finally we made it back around to Pennsylvania Avenue, west of the police barricade, and found something that somewhat resembled a demonstration. Actually, it more closely resembled a street party.  I always thought that demonstrations had something to do with words, which were intended to communicate something.  Not this one; it may have been history's most inarticulate political movement.  There were a few signs--"More World, Less Bank", "Stop the Rape of Mother Earth"-- but only a dozen or so in a crowd of around a thousand people. Nobody was haranguing the crowd, nobody was chanting slogans, nobody was singing protest songs.  Instead, there was lots of drumming on plastic buckets and trash cans, punctuated by whistles and shrieks, and people were dancing in the street.  Other people were kicking soccer balls, jumping rope, and, everywhere, drinking coffee, much of it from Starbucks.  The signature event of the day, though, was people videotaping each other.  There were video cameras everywhere. Most of them were trained on the crowd or the dancers, but every so often one protester would grab another and interview him or her. I had the impression that half the people came to participate in the revolution and the other half came to cover it. Or maybe they were just getting footage to post on their web sites. I wanted to ask somebody what he actually knew about the World Bank or the IMF, but I didn't see anybody who looked interested in talking. The contrast between the large, extremely serious cops massed on one side of the barrier and the very small college kids dancing on the other was quite amazing.

I did see several dozen "anarchists" dressed in black, proudly sporting their gas masks--I took these as a proclamation of seriousness, as in, "back off, man, I've faced down cops with pepper gas"--but they were all too busy dancing, drinking coffee, or being videotaped to make any trouble. I gather that yesterday they did make a serious effort to keep delegates away from the annual meeting of the board of governors at the IMF (the excuse for this charade), blocking lots of intersections with human chains and similar tactics. Having failed to stop the meeting, I guess they gave up on confrontation and decided to dance instead. Or maybe they just got too wet.

It started raining harder, and I thought I had seen enough and wandered home. On the way to the Metro I had this urge to do something charitable, and I gave two dollars to a homeless
woman.  I think that was the day's biggest contribution to fighting world poverty.

April 17, 2000

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