News & Politics

Police Crack Down on IMF/World Bank Activists

As activists gear up for protests against the IMF and World Bank in Washington, they are facing an abnormal hurdle in their planning -- DC cops. Washington's Metropolitan Police Department has been monitoring activists' e-mails and has dropped in on at least one meeting to intimidate protest organizers.
WASHINGTON -- It was around 8 o'clock last Thursday evening when the buzzer rang in activist Adam Eidinger's apartment. Thinking that some of his fellow activists had arrived a bit early for a postering party, Eidinger buzzed the door open and stepped out into the hall.As one of the organizers of protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund scheduled for April 16, Eidinger is used to people dropping by in the evenings.But upon glimpsing the police badges hanging around the necks of his two visitors, Eidinger quickly realized they weren't looking for a bucket of adhesive wheat paste and reams of posters that read "Mobilization for Global Justice."Instead, the visit was part of an effort by Washington's Metropolitan Police Department to intimidate protest organizers -- even though District of Columbia municipal code makes it clear that their activities aren't criminal.According to Eidinger, the detectives said that "they were monitoring our e-mails," had read one about a "poster night" at his house, and wanted to know "what that was all about.""Since we've been doing a lot of organizing on the net, many of our e-mail lists are public," said Eidinger, whose day job is doing public relations work for Rabinowitz Communications."We know the police are looking at our e-mails, which isn't surprising, since they've been coming to meetings since day one."But, Eidinger adds, he was taken aback by what one of the officers, Detective Neil Trugman of the Gang Intelligence Unit, told him, that the postering activities of his group were illegal and must cease immediately, and any further activity would likely be cause for arrest."He said, 'I was against the war in Vietnam, I protested, we don't want to cause any problems for you, but you can't hang up posters, because it's a violation of the law,'" Eidinger says.The discussion went on for about a half-hour, and inevitably veered toward police concerns about violence."I told them if I knew of any violent people coming to town, if I knew of anyone coming here to trash anything, I would tell them, because I don't want that," Eidinger recalled."I think I calmed them down, yet they insisted that hanging posters was illegal, and that if anyone was caught, they would be arrested and charged with destruction of public property, and that they were looking out for us on the street."Lori Wallach of Global Trade Watch, one of the organizers of Seattle's anti-World Trade Organization protests last November, was appalled."There seems to be an undue amount of zeal in stifling debate as compared to focusing on the substance of World Bank/IMF policies, which need to change," Wallach said. "If the police have all this spare time to crack down on people exercising their First Amendment rights, maybe they ought to check into corporate criminality of the WTO and IMF, too."What the Law SaysAccording to Fritz Mulhauser, legal program administrator of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Capital Area chapter, the police explanation was at best a stretch. Although commercial posters on lampposts are illegal, Section 108 of Title 24 of DC's municipal regulations protects political postering, with certain caveats."They can't be up for more than sixty days, they have to have on them a date when put up, they should be put securely to the lamppost to avoid be torn or disengaged by weather, and may not be fastened by adhesives that prohibit complete removal, and you can't put up more than three copies within one block," Mulhauser explained.Detective Trugman wouldn't comment on the matter without permission from D.C. police spokesman Sgt. Joe Gentile, who declined to meet our deadline request for a conversation.Activists and others are supposed to provide copies of the posters, along with a name, address and phone number, to the mayor's office. But it doesn't take but a short walk through some DC neighborhoods to discover that this regulation isn't the police department's -- or anyone else's -- highest priority. Multiple posters of a commercial bent can be found all over town."I've never heard of anything like this before," said Sam Smith, a lifelong DC resident and veteran activist on causes ranging from the Vietnam War to the environment and D.C. statehood. "The only times political posters have been an issue in DC is after campaigns, when all the anal compulsives want the politicians to take posters down as quickly as possible."Eidinger's case is not entirely unprecedented, however. In 1998, when a number of DC residents mounted a campaign to stop the building of a convention center, their leader, Debbie Hanrahan, received scores of tickets from the D.C. Department of Public Works for hanging anti-convention center posters. After brandishing Title 24, Section 108, Jim Drew, a longtime Washington attorney, got the city to withdraw the tickets. But the incident was, he says, chilling."I got a sense this was being directed by a higher authority -- my strong assumption was that the individual enforcement officer wasn't acting on his own, in the same way I don't think the individual police officers in this case decided to do that," he says."These regulations are extremely selectively enforced. They're only enforced when they're in opposition to a huge economic force, like the convention center or the World Bank. You don't have them enforced for anything else -- the circus, a rock concert, a yard sale."What Price Postering?The meeting with the cops left Eidinger shaky. When his postering crew arrived Thursday night, "I explained that we'd been told we'd be arrested, and I was really spooked."Even though I think I'm doing the right thing, I really don't want to get arrested and fight this out in court," says Eidinger, whose worry was understandable. Last year, he was arrested for manipulating a Bill Clinton head puppet at an anti-NATO bombing protest."As I was explaining this [situation], we noticed a police officer in his car outside my house. People were thinking, 'Are we going to walk out of here and get arrested?'""After about 20 minutes of this, we started yelling at the cop, and eventually he drove off, but I felt like I was in China, or somewhere they don't protect freedom of speech."While Eidinger and a handful of others hung back, over a dozen others went forth and postered -- with no interference from the police.A former associate editor on US News & World Report's business and investigative staffs and former Village Voice writer, Jason Vest is a national correspondent for Speakout.com and In These Times. He is also a 2000 Project Censored award-winner.
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