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THE AFTERMATH: Mayor addresses questions about security planning, execution for protests

(Published April 24, 2000)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mayor Anthony A. Williams spoke with Common Denominator Editor and Publisher Kathryn Sinzinger and Associate Editor Oscar Abeyta at length on April 20 about various aspects of how local authorities handled the recent protests against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and how the security arrangements that were imposed affected local residents. We publish below excerpts of the mayor’s comments from that interview.

PLAY BY RULES: "I thought the police did a good job. …You know, from my college days I believe in civil disobedience as a glorious tradition, but I think if you’re going to engage in civil disobedience it should be on regular rules. You shouldn’t have special rules when you’re engaging in civil disobedience. If any criminal defendant came through the criminal justice system and didn’t state his or her name they’d have to follow certain rules, and I don’t think we should make an exception for the protesters. Should we negotiate with the protesters, give them a special situation? That’s all part of prosecutor discretion and I don’t have any problem with that, but I do have a problem with just categorically saying, ‘OK you don’t want to state your name, waive them through, no big deal.’ I think that’s a bad precedent, not so much because of what are you going to do in other protests but because I think it raises a fairness and equality issue. Your regular old garden variety defendant out in Ward 7 on a hot summer night says, ‘Well, I'm not gonna state my name because of some belief system.’ Well, too bad….

SERIOUSLY REVIEW: "I think any time you have a major event like this, I think you have to seriously review all the different transactions all the tactics, and if there were problems, obviously take corrective action -- collectively as a department and individually with officers who may have done this or that wrong, but the right way to do it is that….

DOING EVERYTHING WE CAN: "Misconduct anywhere in the government would concern me. And we are doing everything we can to ensure that everybody is treated fairly and safely and the right way. No question about it.

COMPLAINTS TO BE INVESTIGATED: "The chief has stated and I totally agree with him and I think he takes this seriously that all complaints are going to be investigated immediately and taken seriously….There are other government agencies that may get involved, so it will not be limited to the police department. But I think this police department has shown the ability to investigate itself and police itself well, actually. …

NOT PERFECT: "I’m not going to say that everything was done perfectly. But there were measures taken to see that everyone was processed through as best we could and under extenuating circumstances.

$5 MILLION ESTIMATED COST: "Estimate is about $5 million (for overtime)…I would say the bulk of the costs were personnel costs. The cars would’ve been moving around anyway….

POLICE BADGES: "I’m not sure what the rules are for wearing badges. …If they were supposed to be wearing their badges, they were supposed to be wearing their badges. Are they supposed to wear their badge at all times? … I’m not sure. …clearly the police should follow all applicable rules. I think what you’re asking here is that we want the police, because of the special burden they bear, to be extra meticulous and follow every single rule in accommodating many protesters who as a stated goal were not gonna follow any rules. Provided they’re gonna be nonviolent, they’re not gonna follow any rules. So we had a complete disadvantage in that situation and that’s the way it should be and where mistakes are made, I think that has to be taken into account. That doesn’t excuse the mistakes, if they were made, but it’s a very, very difficult situation. They have protesters who are very, very sophisticated who set out as their goal to get into this compound, stop this meeting from happening and use every means at their disposal to destabilize and put off balance the police. That’s what I know.

"…citizens have rights to redress and certainly that’s an important right, right to notice and all that, that’s part of why police wear badges. I’m not a law enforcement expert. I’m not trying to equivocate. … but I’m saying police, in many instances that I’ve seen, are not wearing badges, so in these special situations, maybe they are wearing a badge and I just don’t notice it.

WHAT WAS THE ACTUAL THREAT? "This is a situation where you had protesters who were -- who we had intelligence from Seattle that they were hell bent on not only shutting down the meeting, but disrupting traffic, causing congestion. We also had intelligence, and there was precedents from Seattle, that they would come down to the government buildings as people were being arrested and stage protests around that building. There’s ample literature, evidence, tradition and everything else that people have a right to protest but time, place and manner restrictions can be placed on rights of protest and the two can be reconciled and live in harmony. And so what we did with the IMF and the World Bank was set a perimeter that gave the police the ability to allow that meeting to continue, which was a right of assembly, which was another constitutional right — allow that meeting to occur while allowing the protesters a right to protest. Monday, the calculation that went into Monday in shutting down the city was not so much fear of damage, but it’s what happens in this city whenever there’s a big event in the middle of downtown. It was a notion that there would be complete gridlock and there would be hundreds of thousands of people stuck in traffic, enormously complicating an already difficult situation, if you had people gridlocked in traffic on I Street or H Street or whatever street while you’re also trying to manage these protests which had been shown over the weekend to move all over town. That’s kind of roughly the situation. And as time goes on, I’d be happy to provide more information, but I don’t look at it as limiting people’s – citizens’ right to petition their city hall but protecting our citizens and certainly supporting the convenience of our citizens and our visitors in a very difficult period.

MAKE DECISIONS WHEN YOU MAKE ‘EM: "I think it’s easy at this point to second-guess and say that this or that’s happening. When you’re sitting in the middle of this situation, you’re trying to balance freedom of movement, convenience of your citizens, right of assembly, the right of the protesters to protest and reconciling all of these. Now somebody can look back at all the films, look at all the documentation and make some different judgments — maybe they can, but you make the decisions when you make ‘em.

CITIZENS’ RIGHTS PROTECTED: "I don’t think there’s a necessity to show a direct threat. That’s my own personal opinion. I’m not sure what — there has to be a direct threat shown?…I guess I would disagree on that construction that regular citizens’ rights were restricted. I would say that regular citizens’ rights to safety and security were protected. And certainly people had the right to enter into some of these areas, provided they had proper identification. But this whole notion of setting up perimeters and setting up boundaries around protected areas is not like -- this is not as if this has been done the first time in this instance this weekend. It’s kind of been done for a hundred years, in special circumstances where circumstances dictate. I would disagree that there has to be shown a clear and present danger, but I don’t want to be a lawyer and get into a legal argument.

INDIVIDUAL REVIEWS: "Everyone in the criminal justice system is entitled to certain rights and courtesies….review individual cases …all of that will come out if it is to come out…

WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE? "Personally, as I said on TV, I’d have preferred the meetings were held in Area 51 or something -- you know, out in Nevada, but it’s part of being the nation’s capital that these things happen and I’m not sure where you draw the line. If you say you can’t manage one meeting because there’s an international component, you’re in a hard way in Washington, D.C., when we’re the international capital. Every meeting’s got some international component to it. But I’m just speaking for myself. I do not know myself of any request to move the meeting.

LESSONS CAN BE LEARNED: "…do we need to look at how we can try to hold these meetings with minimum disruption and inconvenience … to our citizens? Absolutely. No question about it. But you have to understand. You’re going from Seattle where there was basically no preparation -- they clearly underdid it and had to over-respond in terms of use of force -- to our situation, where we had a big use of force, tried to set criteria out early, clearly and concretely and then say well, in retrospect can we make adjustments, make this more efficient this and that? Lessons quite clearly can be learned and we want to learn them. For every meeting, clearly it would be a bad thing if for every big meeting the city were shut down."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator