Analysis of breaking news events.
April 16 2000 3:06 PM


WASHINGTON, D.C.--The guy skitters through the crowd and grabs an empty beer bottle from an overturned trash can. He hunches over to hide himself. His face is masked by a black bandanna. He sneaks behind a knot of protesters, crouches down, and hurls the bottle at the line of cops 30 yards away. It explodes harmlessly against a cop's armored shin. Black Bandanna high-fives another masked man, then races away.


A moment later, the crowd erupts with shouts of "gas!" A cloud of white smoke billows from a canister in the middle of 14th Street. The 300-odd anarchist protesters retreat south from the police line, thrusting their vinegar-soaked bandannas over their faces. A few don gas masks. I duck my head under my shirt. Someone grabs a smoking canister and chucks it back toward the cops--a fruitless gesture because they're wearing gas masks. A few people, mostly cameramen, run away clutching their faces. "Medics" wearing red cross patches race over to pour water in their eyes. Like most people, I catch a only few whiffs, enough to set my eyes watering and scrape my airways.

(Embarrassing next-day confession of error: After reading Monday's news reports, your riot-inexperienced reporter realizes that what I thought was tear gas was actually pepper spray and smoke bombs. The smoking canisters were smoke bombs, and the substance that irritated everyone's eyes was  pepper spray.)

This confrontation between cops and World Bank/IMF protesters had begun building about 15 minutes earlier--around 9:45 a.m.--at the intersection of New York Avenue and 14th Street. A16 demonstrators had pulled down the fence around a construction site. They started borrowing construction material to erect a barricade. They piled up metal reinforcing rods, two-by-fours, wire fencing, and newspaper boxes across New York Avenue. A contingent of a dozen cops, batons at the ready, moved out from behind their barricade to try to secure the construction site. The protesters had surged around them, shouting "Nonviolence!" and "It's our street!" The cops soon withdrew behind their metal barrier, but a crowd began marching north on 14th Street.

The crowd's aim wasn't clear--they were moving away from the cordoned-off center of the protests. They seemed to be following a contingent of cops ahead of them. The crowd seemed guided by the "black-bloc" anarchists. These are the radicals who reject the nonviolent principles of the A16 organizers. They were gunning for a confrontation.

When the crowd reached McPherson Square a block north, the 20-odd cops advanced toward the protesters. A few bandanna-wearing men hurled fruit at the cops, then chunks of plastic. The cops charged, pushing protesters with their batons. (They did not swing their batons.) The anarchists dispersed at the charge. Some of them pulled out vinegar bottles and began soaking their bandannas. The crowd reassembled on 14th Street. Someone grabbed a trash can and heaved it copward. Bottles started to fly at the cops. The officers donned their gasmasks. They fired a smoke bomb. More bottles. They fired more smoke bombs and sprayed pepper.

By the time the smoke clears, two dozen reinforcements have arrived and the police have marshaled a line across 14th Street. The officers stand three-deep, all in gas masks and heavy armor. Bottles continue to crash near them, but they don't flinch. Peaceful protesters--the majority of the crowd--try to stop the bottlethrowers by yelling "Nonviolence." The throwers shout back, "Fuck the police! Fuck the police!" The gasmasked cops and the anarchists stare each other down. Everyone waits for more bottles or more smoke. It doesn't come.

A demonstrator lays down a stars-and-stripes cloth at the cops' feet and garlands it with flower petals. The black-bloc folks yell more curses at the cops, trying to incite them. The cops ignore the taunts. The black bloc melts away. (They seem to be racing around the demonstration, stirring up trouble where they can find it and generally irking the vast majority of protesters who are nonviolent.)

By 10:15, there are more cops than demonstrators on 14th Street, and more journalists than cops. The cops remove their gas masks: Their faces are sweaty and relieved.

The standoff marks the darkest moment of a morning of civil disobedience that is gleeful, passionate, spectacular, and largely ineffective. Several thousand direct-action protesters descend on downtown Washington at 6 a.m. with the goal of stopping the World Bank/IMF meetings scheduled for today and tomorrow. Just as many D.C. police, Secret Service, and Park Service officers are there to stop them. The city has cordoned off almost a square mile in the heart of downtown, blocking all access to the bank with metal barricades and formidable numbers of cops.