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Rebel With a Cause

How did the Washington, D.C., police department get the rebels on their side during the IMF protests?

April 17, 2000

How did the Washington, D.C., police department get the rebels on their side during the IMF protests?

Thousands of protesters — all with their separate complaints against the IMF and the World Bank — descended on Washington, D.C., for a series of rallies on April 16-17. While the city’s police department is used to dealing with domestic disputes, drug deals and other urban crimes, it has little recent experience in dealing with mob scenes like Seattle’s WTO demonstrations.

But unlike the Seattle police — who, even with months of forewarning, seemed unprepared for the WTO crowd’s unruliness — the Washington police have a secret weapon: They have the “Rebels” on their side.

The police officers patrolling the area around the World Bank and the IMF were given hours of additional psychological and physical training. But for quick maneuvering in the expected throngs of protesters, several dozen officers are equipped with a slick set of wheels — Honda Rebel motorcycles, to be precise.On nearly every street corner in downtown Washington, several of these policemen-cum-Rebels can be found straddling their bikes, coolly discouraging confrontations. One might say they are Rebels with a cause — even though their demeanor recalls one of the famous lines uttered by actor James Dean, playing the young Jim Starke in “Rebel Without A Cause”: “I don’t want any trouble.”

Nevertheless, the Washington police have found themselves in an unfamiliar set of circumstances. The city has frequently been the scene of political marches and rallies — but none in recent years with such real potential to spark into mayhem.Area business owners were advised to secure or remove objects such as flowerpots, tables, chairs, umbrellas, ashtrays and garbage cans — anything an unruly mob could seize and throw. Construction crews were told to lock down their equipment. Shop and restaurant owners were to be prepared to board up windows. The precautions are essentially the same that a city would undertake to get ready for a hurricane.

The D.C. police are determined to leave nothing to chance. To reduce the number of places where a bomb could be hidden, sixty-nine mailboxes were removed not just from the sidewalks around the World Bank and IMF buildings — but virtually all of downtown. Reminiscent of the tactics used by London police to safeguard the city against IRA bombs, D.C. police evidently have “explosive” political situations like that in mind.

Of course, one only needs to recall the anti-IMF demonstrations in Seoul a few years ago to understand why. With the IMF providing emergency loans only after extracting drastic spending cuts out of the Korean government, student radicals violently protested “IMF imperialism.”

Again, we are reminded of the powerful symbolism of that other rebel — James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause.” Taunted by members of a gang, Dean is lured into a “chickie run,” in which he and a rival race their cars toward a cliff edge — only to jump out at the last possible moment.

Egged on by a motley crew of activists and agitators, the hardest task for the D.C. police was to avoid getting lured into its own “chickie run” — one that could leave downtown Washington in flames. But, then again, the odds were not great for that anyway — as pouring rains poured down steadily on the big day of protests.