The MPD’s mass arrests at the World Bank/IMF protests in April 2000 yielded no convictions and a number of unrepentant activists.
Sarah Sloan came to Washington, D.C., from New York City in April 2000 to join in a demonstration against what the 20-year-old activist calls the “prison-industrial complex,” timed to coincide with the meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). On the cold, gray afternoon of April 15, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) gave Sloan and more than 600 other demonstrators what they describe as firsthand evidence of the righteousness of their cause.
After passing the U.S. Department of Justice building at 950 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, protesters affiliated with the International Action Center planned to march toward the World Bank, proceed to Dupont Circle, and then disperse.
The demonstration’s police escort directed the group up 20th Street, and between I and K Streets, the march was confronted by rows of riot-gear-clad police. Having bottled up the protest, the MPD began making arrests in the early evening hours.
“They did this huge sweep and arrested everyone on the block,” Sloan says.
After being held on the block for a few hours, Sloan says she was bound in a set of plastic handcuffs and loaded onto a school bus with 50 or so fellow protesters. School buses carted the arresteeswho a lawsuit and news reports claim included several bystanders and reportersto one of three processing locations in the District.
Sloan has no idea where she was taken, but she says the bus parked outside and sat with its quarry for about 20 hours. For most of the night, Sloan claims that she and others were not allowed water or bathroom breaks. She says she “doesn’t recall sleeping.” She was processed 24 hours after she was picked up, choosing to fork over $50 for a bond, thus forfeiting her chance to defend against a charge of parading without a permit.
“At the time, we weren’t really apprised of our charges,” Sloan says. “There were police sitting there collecting money. They didn’t seem to have a set procedure for it.”
Fresh images of tear-gas clouds and shattered McDonald’s windows from the December 1999 riots at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle still loomed large when the District geared up for an expected 20,000 protesters at the World Bank/IMF meetings four months later. Seattle police admitted that they had been caught off-guard by the magnitude and ferocity of the WTO protests, and MPD Chief Charles H. Ramsey stated that he did not want a similar disturbance in D.C. After all, the WTO protests had caused such a ruckus that a WTO meeting was canceled and a state of civil emergency had been declared in Seattle. The post-WTO fallout included a $9.3 million bill for Seattle and the resignation of the city’s police chief.
Protesters claim that the District’s desire to avert such chaos led to hardball police tactics, including overzealous surprise raids and mass arrests. By the conclusion of the 2000 IMF meetings, on April 17, the MPD had arrested nearly 1,300 protesters, including Sloan and the 600 other marchers cleared from the streets in April 15’s mass arrest.
According to Zak Wolfe, a staff attorney for the District-based Partnership for Civil Justice (which provides legal assistance to protesters), the vast majority of those arrested in April 2000 were charged with crossing a police line or parading without a permit. Both charges are classed as misdemeanors. Wolfe says that many of those arrested (such as Sloan) chose to avoid the hassle of appearing in court by forfeiting their right to a trial and paying a fine of $50.
It was a different story for protesters who did challenge their arrests. “No judge or jury ever convicted a demonstrator for any charges that were related to the April protests,” Wolfe says.
A number of the cases against protesters picked up in the April 15 mass arrest were heard in D.C. Superior Court. According to Wolfe, the judge in one case threw the case out at the close of the prosecution’s presentation, before a defense was offered. “The defendants won in the best way possible,” Wolfe says. “They hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Wolfe observes that even the charges against the International Action Center’s Brian Beckerwho led the April 15 march that ended in the mass arrestswere thrown out. “If you can’t convict the guy who planned and organized the demonstration, you can’t convict anyone,” Wolfe says.
Although he declines to discuss the outcomes of individual cases, Peter Lavallee, public information officer for the District’s Office of Corporation Counsel, says, “These violations were generally minor, and the vast majority of them resulted in the payment of fines.”
The lack of convictions was not the end of the legal imbroglio caused by the April 2000 arrests. Groups and individuals involved in the protests have filed a broad-reaching class-action lawsuit against the District and numerous defendants, including Ramsey both in his official capacity and as an individual. The pending lawsuit alleges a host of constitutional violations by the MPD, including a claim that the 600-plus protesters picked up on April 15 were falsely arrested and imprisoned in a pre-emptive strike aimed at squelching upcoming protest activities. The suit also claims that protesters were not asked to disperse before being arrested, and that police prevented those who did attempt to leave the scene from doing so.
“While I can’t comment on the specifics of that lawsuit, we’re confident that the police action was proper in general,” Lavallee says of the April 2000 arrests.
The MPD also refuses comment on the lawsuit. But when the suit was filed, last summer, the Washington Post quoted Ramsey as saying that, although he had yet to read the lawsuit, “I apologize for nothing we did. They have the right to sue us just like they had the right to protest.”
Also cited in the class-action lawsuit is the much-publicized shutdown of the demonstration headquarters, located in a warehouse at 1328 Florida Ave. NW. The lawsuit claims that at 8:30 a.m. on April 15, 2000, the MPD and members of the D.C. Fire Department raided the warehouse and declared it to be in violation of the city fire code. Activists were evicted, “political materials” were confiscated, the building was sealed off, and two arrests were made. The lawsuit claims that the protest-material confiscations and the two arrests were wrongful, and that the sole intention of the raid was to disrupt the demonstrators’ operation.
Liz Butler, a 29-year-old Mount Pleasant resident, was one of the two women arrested in the warehouse sweep. She was charged with failure to obey a police officer. Butler that says she and the other woman were acting as go-betweens with the police while protesters tried to carry out as many of their placards and puppets as possible. After the building was cleared of all the protesters except Butler and the other woman, she claims, a police officer ordered their arrest because he said he was “sick of those two.”
According to Butler and news reports, Butler’s misdemeanor charges in D.C. Superior Court were dropped by Hearing Commissioner Jerry S. Bird because the Corporation Counsel attorney claimed that the city was not ready to proceed with the case. Butler says the dropping of charges against her is proof that the charges were bogus. Since her arrest last year, Butler has remained active with the Mobilization for Global Justice, the local umbrella group for protesters.
“[The arrest] definitely opened my eyes to the lengths that our police force will go to disrupt a demonstration,” Butler says. “The IMF and the World Bank have a friend in the Washington police force.”
The majority of the arrests in the days following the sweeps on April 15 were voluntary arrests negotiated by demonstrators with the MPD as they chose to cross police lines. Many of these arrests resulted in $5 fines for what basically amounted to a jaywalking charge. But there were handfuls of other arrests that occurred around Washington during the IMF meetings.
Jamie Loughner was picked up in one of the smaller, more scattered arrests. She had come from Baltimore to participate in protest actions with a group known as the Black Block. Loughner went to Dupont Circle for a meeting on the morning of Monday, April 17, 2000, but she says the police “were wise to the meeting.” She took off but then ran into another group of police a few blocks away.
“The cops decided to arrest people who were dressed in black. We weren’t doing anything illegal,” Loughner says.
A veteran protester who had been arrested in demonstrations before (“falsely, of course,” she observes), Loughner says the April 2000 arrest experience “made me angrier, if that’s possible.” She claims that she took a blast of pepper spray while being arrested, from which she still suffers complications. Although she says some of the police officers were “nice,” she claims she was forced to strip on the street and stand behind a sheet while being hosed down with cold water, to get the pepper spray off her body. She says the pepper spray and standing naked in the chilly air sent her to the hospital later that day.
Loughner says she doesn’t remember what her charges resulted in, but she thinks she ended up paying a $5 ticket. After coming back down from Baltimore to work with a group that was helping to process protesters’ fines, Loughner moved to the District. She remains a D.C. resident, and she has since participated in the work of local housing activists Homes Not Jails. And she was injured in a high-profile protest over the closing of D.C. General Hospital this past summer.
Sarah Sloan was planning to be back in the District as a youth coordinator for the International Action Center during protests planned to coincide with the late-September World Bank/IMF meetings to be held in D.C.
These protests were expected to be even larger than the April 2000 marches, and the MPD expected up to 100,000 demonstrators to participate. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, however, both the World Bank/IMF meetings and the protests were canceled. Anti-war demonstrations did occur in the place of the anti-globalization marches, but only 11 protest-related arrests occurred during those demonstrations.
Sloan’s brush with the law in D.C. hasn’t dissuaded her from protesting against globalization or the criminal-justice system. She traveled to Quebec for IMF protests in April 2001, and she now works full time for the International Action Center.
“[The arrest] showed me the police and the government’s attitude toward this movement,” says Sloan. “The police act as the private security guards for the IMF, World Bank, and the bankers and CEOs.” CP