Thousands of protesters flooded the centre of Washington yesterday, seeking to close down meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Tear-gas was fired in clashes between police and demonstrators as chanting crowds blocked the streets.
The world's economic policymakers met under siege ahead of what may be a global financial rout today. US stock markets plunged on Friday as investors lost confidence in the New Economy boom.
Central bankers and finance ministers tried to carry on as normal and project a message of confidence. But they met behind a vast, multi-layered security screen, with roadblocks, wire fences, armoured cars, phalanxes of police motorcyclists and row after row of helmeted officers.
Scuffles broke out in mid-morning, and tear-gas and batons were used to disperse demonstrators near the US Treasury building. "The use of tear-gas is something we don't resort to unless we absolutely have to," said Charles Ramsey, the chief of police in Washington. He said that worse was expected and warned people to stay away from the centre of the city. "We expect to have serious disruptions," he said. The protests will continue today.
Several finance ministers were unable to getto the meeting, and they expressed frustration and anger with the US authorities for failing to clear a path through the protesters. "It's surprising that in such a modern country it's difficult to organise a meeting," said Laurent Fabius, the French Finance Minister, after trying and failing for four hours to get from the Watergate Hotel to the IMF. "What's bothering me is we can't do our job.''
The city, usually quiet on Sundays, echoed to the sound of chants, drumming and the clatter of helicopters as the protests built through the day. Red and black anarchy flags flew on streets usually clogged with smartly dressed politicians. Demonstrators formed human chains and chanted anti-IMF slogans on Pennsylvania Avenue, outside Kinkead's restaurant where the IMF's top staff lunch.
The protesters aimed to duplicate their success at Seattle last year, whenprotests, clashes between police and demonstrators and vandalism shocked the country and badly disrupted a meeting of the World Trade Organisation.
They come from a wide spread of organisations, united by little but their opposition to global capitalism. They say the two organisations spread poverty and oppression through their policies, but they were also demonstrating on behalf of Tibet, animal rights, the environment, prison reform and against the death penalty and the embargo on Cuba. One protester, John Kelly, aged 29, said he became involved through campaigning on human rights issues. "We started to see the connections between the US and corporate interests in Latin America and the Caribbean," he said.
Aged anywhere between 20 and 60, the protesters were clad in everything from suits and ties to hooded sweatshirts with anarchy symbols. Some wore ski-masks or bandannas; others had gas-masks in case the protests turned ugly.
"I feel very inspired by what these young people are doing," said Bob McCormick, a legal observer at the protests and a veteran of the civil rights struggle and anti-Vietnam war protests.
In pre-emptive strikes, the police closed the demonstrators' headquarters as a "fire risk" on Saturday, and arrested 600 people, more than were arrested in five days in Seattle. "I think it was certainly legal, it was certainly proper, it certainly was preventative and proactive," said the Mayor of Washington, Anthony Williams.
Ilyse Hogue, of the Mobilisation for Global Justice, one of the groups organising the protest, said: "No matter how many of us are arrested, we are resolved to carry our message to the streets."
The ministers and central bankers at the IMF meeting pledged to press ahead with their work. "We will meet, we will get through this," said theacting managing director of the IMF, Stanley Fischer.
But even as they met, theworld's financial markets, which have celebrated vast gains for the past few years, were nervously awaiting the opening of trading today. Huge declines on Wall Street on Friday wiped a trillion dollars off the value of stocks.
The Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England moved to calm fears of an imminent crash. Gordon Brown and Eddie George said there was no need for panic and gave a strong hint that central banks would not cut interest rates to support the market.
"The general view was that we concentrate on the fundamentals of the economy and continued stability in monetary and fiscal policy," Mr Brown said.
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