Sunday’s demonstrations against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings exemplified the power of free speech when it is exercised in a peaceful manner. The vast majority of protesters and police maintained an air of civility, which usually prevailed when tense situations arose.
But certain fringe elements within the demonstration clashed with some over-zealous law enforcement officials in a few isolated incidents. Some of the violence that marred parts of the protest occurred on the GW campus. The scene on the 2100 block of G Street at noon was surreal as a bad mixture of excited protesters and agitated police clashed in the street, an illustration of how peaceful demonstrations can escalate into violence.
A busload of Metropolitan Police officers wearing riot gear and brandishing nightsticks attempted to corral a massive group of vociferous, but generally peaceful protesters. The excited protesters rushed the police, who retaliated with nightstick blows and smoke grenades before retreating back to the bus.
Like a beehive that has been shaken, some protesters responded angrily. When the calamity was over, a dumpster lay strewn in the middle of the street with the slogan Send Elian Home scrawled on it, the back window of a University Police vehicle was busted out, and graffiti defaced much of the property along G Street.
Members of both sides – the police and the protesters – were at fault during several incidents throughout the city. Perhaps the police were acting rashly by trying to contain peaceful demonstrations. Instead of bringing order, law enforcement officials sometimes incited protesters to belligerent behavior. Also, demonstrators should have kept in mind their purposes for rallying rather than resorting to harassing law enforcement officials who were just doing their jobs.
It seemed as though many of the causes represented at the protest had little to do with this weekend’s World Bank and IMF meetings. Many wanted to free Mumia Abu Jamal, a Philadelphia man convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, and Leonard Peltier, a Native-American radical also convicted of murder. Others wanted to send Elian Gonzalez home to Cuba, while some simply advocated anarchy. There were feminists, gay-rights activists, animal rights activists and the occasional curious bystander.
Of course, many protesters represented causes tied to economic globalization. Marching side-by-side were environmentalists, socialists, AIDS activists and advocates for a free Tibet. In a heartening show of unity, all these diverse groups marched together. And the vast majority of the crowd deserves commendation for demonstrating peacefully, including members of the GW a16 Coalition.
For the most part, police employed nonviolent crowd control techniques. MPD Chief Charles H. Ramsey set the tone for his police, walking along police barricades to converse cordially with perturbed protesters. Ramsey and other law enforcement officials worked successfully to diffuse possible turmoil.
Ironies abounded among the throngs of protesters. Flower children on cell phones and demonstrators wearing sweatshop-manufactured clothing seemed out of place. But the core of the protesters seemed charged with the kind of energy that only comes from idealism, exercising the right of free speech granted to them in the First Amendment.
As a whole, things could have been a lot worse Sunday. In comparison with its predecessor – the ill-fated World Trade Organization protests in Seattle – the World Bank/IMF demonstrations were an excellent example of peaceful demonstrations. The protesters and the police, alike, deserve praise for acting prudently in a time of great commotion.