When Police Attack

David Graeber

I spent 15 hours handcuffed on a bus with 44 other people, all charged with a crime that everyone, including the police, knew perfectly well we did not commit. At the Police Academy outside Washington where we were taken on September 27, stood a line of 13 buses, each one full of 45 innocent people. As sleepy Metro drivers slouched over the wheels, riot cops checked to make sure everyone’s hands were securely fastened behind their backs. It didn’t feel particularly glorious, but in doing so we pretty much shut down the IMF.

For months, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence (ACC) had been planning a People’s Strike” to correspond with the annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank. This time, rather than a vain attempt to shut down the meetings themselves, they would shut down the city, thus bringing home (they hoped) the intimate connections between the IMF, financial institutions and government agencies headquartered in the capital. 

Not only did the ACC spell out beforehand that they intended an explicitly nonviolent action, but they took the rather unconventional step of asking people not to form a Black Bloc” at all, recommending business casual” as a way of blending in with the urban population. They also came up with a set of demands, from ending the colonial status” of the District of Columbia to canceling all international and personal debt.

Mobilization for Global Justice, the traditionally more moderate, NGO-friendly (but also predominantly anarchist) group threw their action together a bit more belatedly, but managed to mobilize large numbers for a permitted march that (it was hoped) would end with an attempt to quarantine” the World Bank and IMF by surrounding the buildings with activists garbed in chemical-safe jumpsuits.

A week before, Assistant Police Chief Terrence W. Gainer told Congress that the threat posed by the ACC required consideration of pro-active” measures. On the following Friday, we found out what that meant. As the marches began, hoards of police, hundreds imported from cities like New York and Chicago, started systematically surrounding and arresting everyone.

The climax came, ironically enough, in Freedom Plaza — which organizers had designated a safe space” for those who couldn’t risk arrest — when hundreds of riot police appeared, cut off all exits, held hundreds of people for an hour as they begged to leave, beat anyone who linked arms and finally hauled off everyone (including medics, National Lawyer’s Guild legal observers and a number of construction workers and bike messengers who just happened to be around).

After 650-odd illegal arrests on Friday, it was fairly easy to terrorize crowds on Saturday; even on a legal march to the World Bank building, only those couple thousand willing to risk spending the night in jail actually finished the route.

It might have seemed a weekend of frustration and defeat. But what we really learned was this: While it might be possible for police to completely stop us from shutting down a meeting, in order to do so, they effectively shut down the meeting themselves.

IMF/​World Bank meetings fulfill two major functions. They are moments of ceremonial display and occasions for networking. The real action is at the parties, where bankers and consultants, executives and economists sip cocktails, exchange phone numbers, and brainstorm new projects and ideas. But this year, a planned week of meetings had to be limited to two days; ceremonial events were reduced to gray-suited figures cowering behind an army of riot police; most of the parties were canceled; and much of the communication had to be done via the Internet from sites outside of the city entirely. At every stage the message was clear: Business as usual was now a thing of the past.

In light of all this, the police’s open defiance of legality — on the buses, we were finally charged with failure to obey” a police order — makes a bit more sense. Just a few years ago, we were still hearing the line that free trade,” privatization and corporate greed were going to produce a world of such unimaginable wealth that even the poorest would eventually benefit. Now, the actual message from the meetings themselves is the fact that the neoliberal world economy seems to be hovering somewhere between tailspin and crash.

Pretense therefore has been brushed aside. Pieties about free markets leading to a flowering of peace, democracy and justice have been replaced by the Orwellian prospect of a world of permanent war with no particular framework of legality, in which anyone who opposes the neoliberal order can (like the ACC) be classified as potential terrorists and subject to pre-emptory attack. 

Perhaps these are desperate measures, the kind one might expect of those seeing their certainties melt away like the stock market in the face of an unprecedented (and overwhelmingly nonviolent) global uprising. The question is what they will be allowed to get away with in suppressing it.

It’s all the more appropriate that the IMF actions culminated on Sunday with an anti-war rally. While much of the initiative in the anti-globalization” movement is centering on places like Argentina and Ecuador, U.S. activists are realizing that their prime historical responsibility is to stop their government from moving from a failed economic model to a global regime based entirely on its ability to wield terror and pure, naked force. 

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

David Graeber is a professor of anthropology at Yale University and author of The False Coin of Our Own Dreams: Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value. A contributing editor of In These Times, he is currently working with the Direct Action Network and other activist groups.
The War on Protest Cover
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.