The Battle of Washington.com

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
April 11 2000 10:30 PM

The Battle of Washington.com

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Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.  

Radical activists have been arriving in Washington to prepare for the massive protests planned for April 16 and 17 to coincide with the spring meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The local base camp for these protesters is a warehouse where an eight-day training session and happening called "Convergence" is taking place. But the real staging area for the 100,000 protesters expected to attend isn't the "Welcome Center" at 1328 Florida Ave., N.W. It's www.a16.org, the home page of the Mobilization for Global Justice and the place where "A16" is being organized on the Web.

The A16 Web page is as centralized as it gets for a coalition of anarchists, environmentalists, peace activists, and workers groups. (This is a group that "consensed upon" a plan of action rather than deciding on one.) For those planning to participate, the site provides something resembling instructions. For those planning to observe, whether in horror or in sympathy, it offers an unusual glimpse into protest planning. And finally, for those who merely want to know how to get to work on Monday, it provides the closest thing to a road map of pending trouble. Here's a distilled version of the advice the site offers.

Be prepared. The A16 page is filled with instructions for how to get to D.C., where to stay, and what to do once you've arrived. There's a map showing the location of the Convergence site, a calendar of planned events, and "action guidelines" urging nonviolence. Activities during the weeklong Convergence include training sessions on first aid, street tactics, and of course puppet construction. Local activists offer housing, some of it according to ideological preference. The site also offers information on inexpensive guest houses, youth hostels, and campgrounds.

During A16, the activists will organize themselves by "affinity groups," autonomous units of five to 15 people who work together during a mass action. Roles within affinity groups include ushers, who stop traffic at intersections; police liaisons, who try to stall the cops; and action elves, who "vibes-watch," meaning they provide water, food, and first aid. Support people serve as contacts to the outside if group members are arrested. They must know everyone's name and description, where people who are arrested are likely to be taken, and whether each individual wants bail, a lawyer, or both. Support people agree to attend court appearances, visit group members in jail, and pick up activists when they are released.

Better safe than sorry. The A16 medical team recommends a variety of supplies for protesters. Essentials include water (both for drinking and for rinsing off chemicals), bandannas soaked in vinegar (a "gas mask semi-substitute"), and some form of shatter-resistant eyewear. Other necessities are sealed goggles for protection from tear gas and pepper spray, and a fresh shirt—sealed in a plastic bag—to replace a chemically contaminated one. Wearing contact lenses is a major no-no because they can trap chemicals that cause eye damage. Optional supplies include a gas mask and a windbreaker. The A16 pocket guide to first aid offers tips for preventing and treating tear-gas and pepper-spray injuries. It also has phone numbers and addresses for area hospitals.

Know your rights. A16's legal handbook, prepared by the D.C. chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, lists some common charges resulting from protest activities, including disorderly conduct and failure to obey a police officer. If the rumor that protesters plan to block the bridges connecting D.C. and Virginia is true, activists may want to note that obstructing those bridges is punishable by a fine of between $1,000 and $5,000, plus up to 30 days in jail. Activists who are arrested are advised to remain silent except to demand to speak to an attorney, unless they feel they are being physically mistreated. In that case, activists are told to inform their arresting officers of their complaints and to ask them to note the complaints in their reports. Mistreated activists are also advised to ask their arresting officers to identify themselves.

Manipulate the media. The A16 media kit gives protesters interview tips, as well as how-to guides for writing press releases and op-ed articles. Activists are advised to memorize three sound bites and not to "get frustrated by difficult questions—just stick to your messages." The talking points feature pat quotes that can be used to answer reporters' questions. For example, the question "Why are you protesting the World Bank?" could prompt an answer such as: "Because working families and the environment are more important than the profits of Wall Street. We want to stop the policies of the IMF and World Bank that profit the few at the expense of the many."

Activists are also planning their own reporting to compete with corporate media. The IndyMedia Center DC will provide live coverage of the protests, and Mobilization Radio will broadcast streaming Internet radio (as well as low-power FM within Washington) of A16 events beginning on Friday.

Keep a sense of humor. The "Globalization for Mobile Justice" page was posted on April Fool's Day. It contains news items such as "World Bank Accedes to Demands; To Offer Free Checking Until the Year 2000" and "Michael Moore To Take Position at General Motors." The "Medical Info" link transports users to www.bayer.com. The "Find Housing" link takes you to Priceline.com

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.