[from May 2000 issue]


This is a provocative question indeed. but provocative also was the apparently official, authoritarian response to what started out as peaceful, albeit raucous, political demonstrations directed toward the International Monetary Fund's policies and other related (and maybe a bunch of not-so-related) grievances.

It doesn't matter if we agree or not with what the thousands of "IMF Weekend" protesters were protesting; the Constitution guarantees that people can get out and make themselves heard so long as they don't destroy the place.

It would appear that the Metropolitan Police department, aided and abetted by a whole host of federal paranoid police and law enforcement agencies, simply assumed from the get-go that these thousands of people were going to be big time trouble-makers. And, so they appeared to act accordingly by taking pre-emptive action where it is questionable that such should have been taken.

Is it a coincidence that DC Police Chief Ramsey is a product of the Chicago police department? We wonder if he trained under proud veterans of the Chicago police riots of 1968 Democratic Convention fame? The Chicago cops didn't much care for the liberals that summer who swarmed into their city to protest the direction of the Democratic Party in those years of Viet Nam turmoil. Kinda weird how many of the IMF protesters of a few weeks ago could remind old-timers of the anti-Viet Nam types.

But was it really called for to revive Chicago police methods 32 years later here in DC? We think not.

We won't repeat what a very perceptive contributor to our Letters to the Editor had to say about this. Instead, we commend our readers' attention to that thoughtful piece, titled "Chief Ramsey's Alarming Tactics," which is reproduced below, following this commentary.

We also commend our readers to David Barrows' page 1 report on the actions of the police (which can be accessed from our home page by clicking on the May issue lead stories link). He was on the scene and interviewed scores of persons who were caught up in the police dragnets. The despicable and mostly illegal actions of so many officers--and we don't much care if they were MPD or feds--cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. There were too many corroborated incidents of outright brutality, criminal negligence, wanton disregard of the rights of the legitimate press and of certified lawyers and observers, not to say anything of abused innocent citizens who were attempting to go to and from offices and shops downtown.

The city council was much too quick to issue its ringing resolution of praise for the work of the police department. It would have been wiser if the politicians had taken a wait and see approach. If they had, they would have wisely determined that they would have done themselves and their constituents a great favor to raise the serious questions that so many have been raising on behalf of the Constitution and our rights supposedly guaranteed by that document and the oath of office of law enforcers to adhere to it. They screwed up, plain and simple.

How horrible (and illegal) was some of the police behavior? If refusing to identify themselves, even punching out or covering up their badge numbers was not enough, how about the beatings for merely requesting those numbers or even looking at arresting officers? What about the threats made to women to be thrown in cells with "raping lesbians" and the attempts to intimidate volunteer legal counsel with remarks, as stated to lawyer Katya Komisaruk, "How are you going to feel when [they] hang themselves after being raped by those dykes in jail?"

But that wasn't the only incidence of that kind of behavior and attitude by a law officer. As reported by San Francisco Frontiers Online Newsmagazine, "Sara Koch, an organizer and member of the Midnight Special Legal Collective (MSLC), is one of many activists who are charging that queer men and straight activists were subjected to homophobic slurs and outright violence from U.S. Marshals after being arrested. . . Among the choicer comments from the U.S. Marshals that Koch and others collected from those arrested were: 'There are no video cameras down here, we can do what we want' and '[The men in the general population] love to kill fuckin' white boys in there, you pussy faggot protesters.' "

Our Congressional Delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, ought to take note.

We could go on and on. It was and is disgusting that the days of Bull Connor can be reprised here in the nation's capital and the Bull Connor methods were and are approved by the successors to the civil rights fighters of over 30 years ago who were brutalized by the likes of Bull Connor. Shame on them all!

Our writer David Barrows had it correct in the P.S. he penned to his editor upon submitting his article. It's worth sharing his thought:

"Our city needs to retake those streets now controlled by gun-and-drug-stuffing crews, to be cleaned up by the same strength of enthusiasm as exercised during IMF, but not in the same manner. Police on foot patrol in sufficient numbers who know and are personally accountable to the neighborhoods, who are respectful to citizenry, will gain trust as they earn it. Spend five million dollars that way. "

We couldn't agree more.




A number of extraordinary events occurred in our city recently, when thousands of demonstrators assembled here to express their opposition to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the effects these institutions have upon struggling Third-World countries. As a participant in these demonstrations, and as a resident of Washington, none of these events was more extraordinary to me than the rampant police misconduct orchestrated by Police Chief Charles Ramsey, which, in many cases, demonstrated an appalling lack of good sense, and, in at least one case, represented a potentially criminal disregard for the U.S. Constitution.

By far, the greatest excess occurred on the night of Saturday, April 15, when more than 600 people were summarily arrested just moments before their peaceful march was about to come to an end. At 20th Street between I and K Streets NW, marchers were herded into two groups by hundreds of police officers decked in quasi-riot gear. Although the vast majority of the demonstrators had been marching on the sidewalk, those arrested were charged with parading without a permit. Essentially, they were told that they were not allowed to be where they were. Simultaneously--and contrary to statements made later by Chief Ramsey--they were not allowed to leave. According to eyewitnesses, in at least one point in the proceedings, members of the crowd were asked by the police to raise their hands if they wished to be set free. Nearly everyone did so. They were then arrested anyway, handcuffed and packed onto school buses, where most of them would end up waiting for hours upon end, without food, water, or use of restroom facilities.

Much has been made about the innocent bystanders who were also arrested, including a few tourists, at least one shopper, and a Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post photographer. However, I think it's important to note that the distinction between demonstrators and innocent bystanders may be a false one to make. While some of those arrested may have been bystanders, all of those arrested were innocent. The First Amendment of the Constitution gives us, as citizens, the right to free speech, and the right to peaceable assembly. Yet this seems to be precisely what hundreds of people were arrested for that Saturday night.

In the aftermath of the protests, many voices in the local news media have praised Charles Ramsey for his effective handling of the weekend, and for avoiding a situation like that seen in Seattle. While Ramsey's actions on Saturday night may have been effective in removing demonstrators from the streets, at the very least, they were surely profoundly unethical. Unlike Seattle, Ramsey's handling of the weekend may have allowed most members of the IMF and the World Bank to attend their meetings, but, just like Seattle, Ramsey's decisions largely represented poor judgement, police overreaction, and a state of undeclared martial law, in which the rights of American citizens were violated en mass. If America stands for anything at all, such behavior on the part of our city's chief law enforcer should not be lauded, but condemned.

Jeff Becan Dupont Circle

Editor's Note: In submitting his letter for publication, the writer stated his reason for doing so with the following statement: "Let it be known that I have no official connection with any of the groups involved with the demonstrations that weekend, but I do sympathize with the cause of placing progressive, people-centered values over a form of globalization driven primarily by profit and greed. As such, I proudly participated in a number of the demonstrations surrounding the April 16 event. Many of my experiences during that dramatic weekend affected me profoundly, but, in the end, nothing affected me more profoundly than the baffling police misconduct I witnessed--in addition to the subsequent whitewashing of that misconduct from many voices in our local news media. . . . I feel that our Bill of Rights is far too important to simply let go of when those in power find it inconvenient."