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Massive Protests in Capital to Spotlight Eclectic Causes

Activists: Tens of thousands are expected to target such disparate issues as the war on terrorism, monetary talks and the Mideast.

April 19, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of activists are expected to take to the streets in Washington this weekend in what organizers are calling an "extravaganza" of protests expected to culminate in the largest street demonstration here since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The causes are sweeping and eclectic, with groups rallying against the war on terrorism, in opposition to International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings, against U.S. policy in Colombia and for Palestinian solidarity.

"Never have there been more things we need to protest!" reads one of the Web sites offering a schedule of events, which range from teach-ins to an anarchist soccer match to a joint march on the Capitol scheduled for Saturday.

The largest of the factions is expected to be the student-organized antiwar march, likely to be the most public U.S. display to date opposing President Bush's anti-terrorism campaign. Also expected on the streets are supporters of the anti-terrorism effort.

Then there is the pro-Palestinian contingent, which will take its argument to the site of the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had been scheduled to speak at the conference early next week but canceled because of the West Bank conflict.

Too Many Causes May Blur Messages

Brought together by coincidence and design, the groups have worked side by side to shape events. Still, the disparate causes have led to concerns by some that the individual messages will be lost.

At a meeting Wednesday night, anti-globalization activists practiced getting out clear messages in manageable sound bites.

"We know what the issues are: The cost of having the debt is too high," said Njoki Njoroge Njehu, director of the group 50 Years Is Enough. "Bear in mind what our demands are and people can hear us even if they say we don't know why we are here."

Adam Eidinger, a spokesman for Mobilization for Global Justice, said it is significant for social justice groups to come together.

"The movement is like a muscle," he said. "If you don't flex it every once in while, it gets weak."

The planned protests--some with police permits, others without--have local law enforcement on high alert. Starting Saturday, the entire 3,600-member Washington police force will be put on active 12-hour shifts. Their numbers will be bolstered by other area law-enforcement officers, and National Guard troops will be on standby.

Gearing Up for Any Terrorist Threat

Already this week, Washington police have contended with tens of thousands of pro-Israel demonstrators at a rally on Capitol Hill, as well as a march--revived after a 100-year hiatus--commemorating the emancipation of the slaves.

"Everything has changed since 9/11," said police spokesman Joe Gentile, adding that police anticipate anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 protesters. "You have to take that into account because you'd be a fool not to. We have to concern ourselves with the possibility that a terrorist could work his way into the crowd or attack the crowd. That's the new reality."

Gentile said organizers who have met with police have vowed to be "peaceful, although not necessarily lawful." A proposed parade route that would have taken anti-globalization demonstrators by several corporate offices was denied this week. Nonetheless, protesters vowed to march past the offices of Coca-Cola, Monsanto and Occidental Petroleum to put on street theater with giant puppets--with or without police permission. These demonstrators are in town for this weekend's IMF and World Bank meetings, which have become magnets worldwide for disruptive street protests.

Two years ago, police clad in riot gear prevented massive crowds from shutting down the IMF and World Bank meetings here, arresting nearly 1,300 and putting on a show of force designed to prevent a repeat of violent demonstrations in Seattle the previous year. Local police had geared up again last September for a planned massive demonstration that was canceled in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. That protest, backed by organized labor and environmental groups, had been expected to exceed the tens of thousands that managed to shut down the Seattle meetings.

But the mainstream groups that added volume and credibility to those protests are electing to stay home.

Thea Lee, assistant director of public policy for the AFL-CIO, said this weekend's planned demonstrations lack the clarity and focus required for labor to become involved, particularly given the large antiwar presence.

"Any time you go to the trouble of organizing a big street protest, you hope to gain support for the actions you are organizing around," Lee said. "If at any time you are going to be alienating as many people as you are intriguing, it's a problem."

A coalition of labor and environmental groups instead issued a report this week calling for greater transparency in World Bank decision-making, deeper debt relief and assurances that worker rights and environmental protections will be upheld--the same demands that protesters plan to make on the streets Saturday.

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