Terry J. Allen | 802.229.0303m
w| tallen@igc.org


Police Abuses in DC:
Breaking Law To Keep Order

It's a win-win for everybody," said Police Chief Charles Ramsey, assessing the IMF/World Bank protests that engulfed Washington in mid-April. "The bank was able to meet. The protesters were able to express their views and exercise their First Amendment rights, and we were able to maintain peace. We were able to keep ourselves from being the issue. That's a very thin line to walk."


Far too thin, charge some, for the legions of armor-clad D.C. police, U.S. Marshals, National Guard troops, and FBI, Secret Service and ATF agents, as well as neighboring law enforcement agencies that backed them up.

For now, police are basking in a warm glow of triumphalism. But as activists and lawyers review police conduct, they are uncovering a pattern of pre-emptive raids, restrictions, harassments, arrests and seizures, as well as instances of police brutality. There is much to dissect: Police department strategy was sometimes restrained and justified, sometimes technically legal but chilling, sometimes violent, and sometimes -- civil rights lawyers charge -- illegal and unconstitutional. Katya Komisaruk, a lawyer for the Midnight Special Law Collective, a mobile legal team that supports movement activists, is one of the lawyers currently preparing a lawsuit against the department. She says police violated activists' First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by restricting their free speech and due process.

In trying "to save the city," as Ramsey put it, law enforcement agents surveilled activists, infiltrated meetings disguised as participants, conducted a mass arrest of more than 600 non-violent marchers and bystanders, mistreated people in custody, confiscated First Amendment-protected literature, violated a contract with protesters' lawyers, and used the fire department -- thereby avoiding the need for a warrant -- to search and then shut down the organizing headquarters. In violation of department policy, police frequently failed to wear identifying badges, refused to give shield numbers, and arrested peaceful protesters without a warning or an order to disperse.


The lawyers bringing suit say legal precedent, much of which dates back to the civil rights era, is on their side. They are also looking at cases such as Collins v. Jordan, a 1997 ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that "First Amendment activity may not be banned simply because prior similar activity led to or involved instances of violence. . . . The proper response to potential and actual violence is for the government to ensure an adequate police presence and to arrest those who actually engage in such conduct, rather than to suppress legitimate First Amendment conduct as a prophylactic measure."

Ramsey all but admitted to APBNews.com, a crime news Web site, that his actions were indeed prophylactic: "There were groups trying to agitate, and another group who could have committed acts of violence and vandalism. We wanted to neutralize these groups. No one wanted to see another Seattle." In the weeks leading up to A16, Washington spent $1 million on riot gear and high-tech equipment and trained some 1,500 officers in crowd control using footage of Seattle. (Police also showed the video to area business leaders.)

During the demonstrations police maintained the upper hand, aided by good leadership, disciplined troops, the cordoning off of 90 city blocks, and helicopter, rooftop and on-the-ground surveillance. They also used informers. "Ramsey, probably working with some of the federal agencies in D.C., was successful in infiltrating some of the groups," says Robert Scully, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, "and had firsthand, inside information of who, when, why and where things were going to happen." Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance Gainer says that to his knowledge no electronic surveillance was conducted by the department, since that would have required a court order and none was sought.


Although the level of violence was far lower than in Seattle, brute force in Washington was never more than a nightstick away. Police insistence that their use of chemical weapons and batons was minimal and appropriate is countered by numerous observers. While police sometimes ceded streets to demonstrators and ignored provocative violence, at other times they cracked down hard on nonviolent protesters or in response to minor infractions.

Witnesses stood aghast when officers dragged a protester out of a crowd and beat him bloody or doused peaceful activists with pepper spray. Some demonstrators ended up in the hospital with broken bones and other injuries. AP photographer Heesoon Yim was hospitalized for a concussion and scalp wound after being clubbed. Ramsey defends the professionalism of his troops and says he has "no regrets."

The activists who came to Washington in the thousands were not without resources and planning of their own. In the week leading up to the mass demonstrations, they assembled at the Florida Avenue Convergence Center, where they learned nonviolence training, media relations and street medicine and law. In the grubby, chaotically energetic warehouse, an amorphous group of activists coordinated hundreds of media tours and prepared puppets, plans, pamphlets and thousands of meals.

Although police had roamed freely through the center for days, surveilling the neighborhood, conspicuously writing down license plate numbers, and occasionally stopping and frisking people, they took no action against the center until Saturday, April 15-the day before the main demonstration, a day when courts were closed. At 8 a.m., with two fire inspectors in the lead, police rousted 300 groggy activists into the gray drizzle and sealed off the building.


The prize capture of the raid was what police dubbed "a potential Molotov cocktail," a plastic bottle with a rag either in it (or depending on account, nearby). Police also raided the kitchen where they cited chili, onions, garlic and gazpacho as "potential homemade chemical weapons." Two people were arrested. "What are they going to charge them with?" quipped Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice, a public interest law firm, "Unlawful possession of gazpacho?" No one believed that fire code violations were the real reason for the closing, especially in a neighborhood where low-income renters plead in vain for attention from fire inspectors. But under this pretext, police were able to enter, search and close down the headquarters without a warrant. "Once the Fire Department knew" about the danger, Gainer says, "it had to act."

Asked if police had given the Fire Department a heads up about possible violations, Gainer answers, "Police and fire did have ongoing conversations about that, yes." And he adds, "It was to our delight that it did discombobulate a bit the protesters, and to the extent it threw them off balance, that was helpful too."

The assertion that police closed the Convergence Center to disrupt the demonstration is bolstered by the department's subsequent refusal to allow protesters to retrieve medical supplies, literature and banners-a refusal that will be at the crux of one set of future legal actions against the D.C. police. The Partnership for Civil Justice tried to force the city to release the organizing materials. They got federal Judge Thomas Hogan to agree to an emergency hearing Sunday morning. But rather than see the issue come before the court, the D.C. Office of Corporation Council signed a contract agreeing to allow the protesters to retrieve the "First Amendment protected materials and medical supplies" at 7 a.m., prior to the Sunday demonstration.

But when Partnership for Civil Justice lawyer Carl Messineo arrived, police refused to let him inside. Gainer later insisted that police really wanted to release the medical and other materials. "But they couldn't get in," he said, explaining that someone had broken off a key in the lock of the interior door to the room where the goods were stored.


In an affidavit obtained by InThese Times, however, a locksmith called to the scene on Saturday afternoon to secure the outside doors said that all the interior doors in the center, including the one to the medical room, were open when he arrived at 4 p.m. They were still open when he returned and toured the site at 7:30 a.m. on Monday, April 17.

Police finally released the medical supplies and organizing pamphlets on Monday night-after the demonstrations ended. "The only reasonable conclusion you can draw is that police absolutely intended to restrict First Amendment rights," Messineo says. "They set out to make sure these demonstrators' political views would not be heard."

Some of the rumors spread by police were more inflammatory than the alleged fire hazard at the Convergence Center. A pre-emptive raid on several vehicles on Wednesday netted police seven people and PVC pipe (that could be used to lock people down during sit-ins) and other "instrumentalities of crime." These raids, Gainer says, were implemented to prevent the crime of impeding traffic.

Gainer also told media that on Friday night, April 14, when police raided a Kalorama Street house used by activists, they found "small caliber ammunition" along with the chains and PVC pipe. Three were arrested and charged with possessing "implements of criminal intent."

According to a woman staying at the raided house, the only "ammunition" was fake bullets in her decorative cowboy belt, which police confiscated. Police records, says police spokesman Anthony O'Leary, show no ammunition logged into evidence from the raid.

But the specter of violent protesters-armed with Molotov cocktails and possibly guns-readied an already nervous public for the whoop of batons and whiff of pepper spray that was soon to follow. "The point of these pre-emptive actions," says Zack Wolfe of the National Lawyers Guild, "was to frighten people and send them the message that if they participate in free speech activity, police will bust down their door in the middle of the night and close down areas where people are gathering to learn. There is no way it can't have a huge chill on First Amendment rights."

Police treatment of demonstrators on Saturday, the day before the main event, sent a similarly chilling message. After rallying briefly at the Justice Department, a group of 1,000 people protesting the prison-industrial complex marched a dozen blocks toward the IMF. Suddenly, the police escort, which had been efficiently rerouting traffic in front of the march, and herding the demonstrators onto the sidewalk when they veered into the street, blocked the way. The marchers, not wanting a confrontation, decided to disperse, but their retreat was blocked by lines of officers in riot gear, who refused to allow either protesters or reporters to leave. Hemmed in for 90 minutes on 20th Street, the protesters waited anxiously, sealed off by more than 200 police on foot and horseback.


The level of fear rose when police ordered journalists to leave or face arrest. Most left but about 15 refused, some out of concern for the demonstrators. "I have been covering this stuff for 15 years," said a trapped NBC cameraman, "and I've never seen anything like this." In the end, announcing that the marchers were parading without a permit, police arrested more than 600 protesters, one Washington Post photographer and, police acknowledge, a few tourists and bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Wolfe says this police action further "chilled dissent and kept crowds down for Sunday's mass demonstrations" by instilling fear of being swept up in arbitrary arrests. They sent a message that "if you are in the vicinity when free speech happens, you are in danger of being arrested, tear gassed and hit with clubs."

While Sunday was relatively peaceful, the pattern of intimidation and selective arrests picked up on Monday, the day targeted by organizers for the most militant actions and mass arrests. Police swooped down and arrested a group of about 15 people walking down the K Street sidewalk.

Dressed like Black Bloc anarchists, the group was neither blocking pedestrians nor demonstrating. A search netted gas masks, "Seattle solution" (antidote to chemical weapons), a box of nails and one slingshot.

The demonstrations came to a wet end Monday afternoon with a wave of ritualized arrests, when some 400 demonstrators offered themselves up to police. Some of those willing to risk arrest wanted to challenge the police more directly and break through the barricades. But with many of the more radical elements rejecting arrest altogether or already swept off the streets in pre-emptive police raids, those in favor of more ceremonial civil disobedience prevailed. The cold, rain-soaked protesters walked slowly through an opened police barrier a few blocks from the IMF. Some knelt before police to receive the handcuffs. The arrests came after surreal negotiations between Gainer, holding a bunch of roses, and spokeswoman Mary Bull, dressed like a molting tree. As one of his "concessions," Gainer agreed that the police would don their badges.

But activists' compliance on the street turned to resolute defiance and solidarity once inside Washington's jails. Many of those arrested reported that, out of the glare of cameras, police beat, intimidated and humiliated activists. Numerous people reported that they were left in unheated spaces in wet clothes, without blankets; some were not fed for 24 hours or went long periods without water; despite nonviolence some were shackled ankle to opposite wrist; others endured homophobic and racist comments. Two people were taken to the hospital.

Despite the abuse, 156 maintained solidarity until April 21, refusing to give their names until lawyers negotiated a plea bargain. Under the agreement, those in jail, as well as more than 250 who had been released but had not paid a fine, had their charges downgraded to jaywalking, with a $5 fine.

Ramsey was right that both sides won something. The D.C. police prevented another Seattle and gained-at least for the moment-accolades from media and colleagues, including police observers from Los Angeles and Philadelphia, who will implement the lessons of Washington at the presidential conventions.

The demonstrators turned downtown Washington into a free zone that was militant, celebratory and anti-corporate. They continued to expose the effects of IMF and World Bank policies on the world's poor, the global environment and U.S. workers. The planned lawsuits, Verheyden-Hilliard says, "will seek to remedy the abuses and instruct police and national leaders that they cannot stifle dissent." "The fact that police used tactics usually reserved for armed terrorists is a testament to the threat that our movement represents," says John Sellers of the Ruckus Society. "That threat is the challenge we make to corporate power and the light we shine on such secretive institutions as the World Bank and IMF."