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Living in a police state

(Published April 24, 2000)

During the past year, D.C. residents have been witness to two massive mobilizations of law enforcement might in our city – but not to protect the citizens from the scourge of drug dealers, murderers and other marauding offenders in their neighborhoods (whose civil rights, residents often are told, preclude interrupting their illegal activities).

Instead, these multimillion-dollar police operations have focused on restricting citizen access to large parts of our downtown – first for a summit of North American Treaty Organization leaders and, more recently, for the annual spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

While we fully understand that Washington’s distinction as the nation’s capital sometimes requires extraordinary means to protect foreign heads of state who visit our city (which occurred during last year’s NATO Summit at the Reagan center), we cannot understand the official mindset that went into three month’s worth of security planning for the recent IMF/World Bank events.

It is downright disturbing that the official explanations we have received for why it was necessary to essentially shut down 90 downtown blocks April 16-17 centered on local authorities’ fears of what "might" happen had they not done so.

This is America.

This is the capital of the Free World.

The prospect that something "might" happen isn’t reason enough for the extraordinary precautions that were taken.

What local authorities created in downtown Washington – and in the area surrounding our local city hall and in at least one residential neighborhood north of Dupont Circle, surrounding the Third District police station – was nothing short of a police state. Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ press secretary, Peggy Armstrong, tells us Police Chief Charles Ramsey and Mayor Williams, "working closely with federal agencies and with the White House" and suburban government officials, were in charge of the planning and execution of these "safety precautions."

This is a case where the end result did not justify the means. Eroding law-abiding citizens’ rights should always be the last option – but, in this case, it appears to have been the plan right from the start.

There were other, less disruptive ways – and probably less costly, as well – for the IMF and World Bank sessions to have gone on without disrupting the lives and livelihoods of literally millions of working people in this metropolitan area. The resultant disruption touched millions of other Americans who live outside the Beltway, as well, when many federal agencies that serve them were crippled April 17 by workers’ inability to get to work on time due to the outlandish security precautions that were imposed, including the complete shutdown of incoming express lanes on the 14th Street bridge.

If unrevealed intelligence truly gave local authorities credible evidence that some among the 10,000 anticipated demonstrators presented a clear and present danger of uncontrollable terrorist destruction to our city in an attempt to threaten the personal safety of those attending the financial meetings, we wonder why the meetings of these two quasi-governmental agencies weren’t simply shifted to one of several more secure locations in the metropolitan area that possess adequate facilities to accommodate business meetings. Such locations do exist.

Why was it necessary for authorities to disrupt the city’s, the region’s and the nation’s business in order to stand up to a handful of disruptive individuals whose actions clearly were not condoned by the majority of peaceful, unarmed citizens who gathered to protest their government’s involvement in actions they oppose?

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator