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“I feel like the Unabomber,” says Alistair Millar, “making concoctions in the night.” It’s about a week before the NATO summit, and Millar has a ways to go before he becomes a world-famous outlaw. With leaders of the world’s most powerful military alliance in town for a 50th-anniversary round of self-congratulation, the British-accented program director of a group called the Fourth Freedom Foundation wants to send them a message.
So do lots of other folkswhich is why downtown will disappear behind NATO’s security cordon once the summitteers arrive. D.C. public schools will be closed, federal workers will get Friday off, and tourists hungry for a waffle-cone sundae at the Old Post Office Pavilion will be screwed. Water-cooler chitchat across town is full of fears that the Ronald Reagan Building will become the next Murrah Building.
Not good news for Millarwhose mystery concoction produced glue for posters announcing the Citizens’ Summit Rally, an assemblage of anti-nuke activists that has been in the works for more than a year. In more revolution-friendly times, Millar might have New World Orderites shaking in their jackboots. But here at the placid end of the American century, his biggest challenge is getting anyone to notice him. “I think a lot of people don’t know how to feel about this yet,” says an earnestand anonymousco-conspirator. “Most people you talk to don’t have an opinion one way or the other.”
It’s 9 p.m. on a pre-summit Tuesday, and covert operatives are beginning to convene outside of the U Street-Cardozo Metro Station. A young woman approaches, asking, “Are you here for the wheat-pasting?” and then declines to give her name. Like the others who are beginning to gather, she wears a conspicuous “Stop NATO Now” button on her lapel. Amid U Street’s nightclubbers, the group members begin nervously discussing stealth strategies for creative postering and deriding their apathetic friends for not showing up.
The wheat-pasting crew has been assembled via e-mail lists from the Washington Activists Group and Washington Peace Center; most of its members prefer to remain anonymouswheat-pasting is, after all, completely illegal. Over the next three hours, the activists branch out across the city, using the gunk to cover lampposts, garbage cans, and newspaper bins with posters exclaiming, “UNPLUG THE TIME BOMB!” “DE-NUKE NATO” and “I WANT YOU TO DE-NUKE,” and advertising their April 23 rally.
But the activists’ year of planning apparently didn’t take into account a couple of pesky realities shaping this year’s summit. For one thing, Millar says, there is public confusion between the message of ringleader Adam Eidinger’s protest group and that of the pro-Serbian, pro-Milosevic groups planning NATO-oriented rallies. But mostly, the activists say, there’s the downtown quarantine, which puts the rally in danger of breaking a cardinal rule of protestmake it bigin front of the international media corps.
A young woman identified as “Gila” breaks out a low-tech solution to their PR problem: paint rollers, hundreds of full-color posters, and a trunk-load of buckets. Gila is introduced as the brewmaster (“She brews it at home in a big vat,” notes Eidinger), and is pressed for the secret ingredients: water and wheat paste. Given the doomsday talk about mad bombers, that’s about as innocuous as Sunny Delight. “The brand of choice among activists is Harvest GoldI think it’s organic,” says Gila. You get the sense Gila isn’t really keeping the FBI up at night.
This night of civil disobedience is pretty civil. One volunteer keeps a lazy watch as Millar and Eidinger sporadically paste the posters. A security guard at the MCI Center makes a call on his radio and follows the group for two blocks, but nothing comes of it. The summit’s status as terrorist magnet may be the talk of the town, but the alliance’s politics are lost on the crew of passers-by, who wonder aloud why anybody would be protesting NATO. Anti-nuclear activism is, like, so 1982. Several homeless men ask if the protesters might be sympathetic to their own plights and lend some spare change.
As the night progresses, Eidinger becomes less concerned about getting busted than about the longevity of his work. He suggests that a properly placed posterno bubbles, lots of wheat paste, strategic locationwill have a long enough life span to serve its purpose, and he’s heartened to find intact posters from a separate effort the previous weekend. He steers clear of most private property and avoids freshly painted lampposts, but says newspaper bins are fair game, especially when the day’s headlines tout NATO’s bombing power.
“In the media, unless you have a lot of money, you have to be creative to get your message out,” says Eidinger, as he rolls coagulating wheat paste over a newspaper bin. “Once you start doing something like wheat-pasting, you’ve taken a stand. If you choose not to do it, you’re also taking a stand. That’s the kind of awareness it raises, even if this poster gets ripped down tomorrow morning.”
And that’s pretty much what happens. Two days later, Millar and Eidinger estimate that 95 percent of their work has been completely removed. Millar masks his disappointment about the effectiveness of his wheat-pasting, because in at least one way, it has worked: He’s just derided NATO during pre-summit coverage on CNN. CP