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Published on Thursday, August 30, 2001 in the Washington Post
Global Economy's New Guardian
D.C.'s Answer to IMF, World Bank Protests: Miles of Chain-Link
by David Montgomery
The D.C. police are old hands at crowd control, but they never went this far before. They never boosted their arsenal with a weapon as tricky and volatile as a great big shiny silver chain-link monster anti-protester peace device, a fence designed to keep globalization-haters from getting at globalizers among the bankers and trade ministers gathering at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Depending on what part of the country you're from, you might know it as a cyclone fence or a hurricane fence. Pick your storm.

The fence will be nine feet tall. It will have a perimeter of 2 1/2 miles. It will enclose 220 downtown acres and block 27 streets, according to preliminary plans. Corralled will be: the White House, parts of Foggy Bottom and George Washington University, four apartment buildings, a church, dozens of stores, restaurants and offices.

We've had astounding, unpredictable and occasionally violent crowds converge on Washington before, but never a fence like this. Among the unfenced: Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington; the May Day and Moratorium demonstrations against the Vietnam War; the boisterous rejection of inaugurations, from Richard Nixon's second in 1973 to George W. Bush's in 2001; the crusades for and against abortion rights, gay rights and women's rights; the Million Man, Mom and Family Marches; last year's anti-globalization protests.

When there was fencing, it was piecemeal, ad hoc, not a single grand installation. During anti-Vietnam protests, police surrounded the White House grounds with buses. It was kind of cute, the buses shoved nose-to-butt like elephants.

This is a much more ambitious quarantine. Perhaps it springs from the same good intentions and low tolerance for dread and uncertainty that are driving the crusade for a missile defense shield.

When the police propose to erect the biggest cyclone fence ever seen in Washington, are we supposed to grab Toto and hunker down for heavy weather?

Don't expect a straight answer from a fence. Fences have two sides, and at least as many meanings. Sometimes good fences make good neighbors. Sometimes.

"In our society people think a fence is just a fence," says Craig Herrick, commercial sales manager for Long Fence in Capitol Heights. "There's a lot more to it."

Keeping New World Order

Call this one chain-link, in fence industry esperanto, recognized from coast to coast, around ball fields, playgrounds, racetracks, rock concerts and construction sites. You see them everywhere -- until you don't notice them anymore, as though they were transparent, but not quite.

The ingenious but unlovely essentials haven't changed in about a century -- galvanized steel wire woven into a fabric of two-inch diamond shapes and stretched between horizontal and vertical steel poles.

The chief tenants of this new gated community will be the globalization grandees who've somehow attracted some of the biggest First World protest demonstrations in more than 30 years. Abroad, the World Bank and the IMF boss around presidents and despots, rescue economies, strive to end poverty while defending wealth. At home, they need a big fence to keep out people who doubt it is possible to end poverty while defending wealth.

Police say 100,000 demonstrators, some violent, will be on hand during the annual meeting of the bank and the IMF Sept. 29 and 30. Hence the fence. Protesters insist their numbers will be much smaller, and peaceful, so don't fence them out. (Afterward, numerical self-interest will invert; protesters will claim a big number, police a smaller one. Each will accuse the other of being more violent.)

The $2 million fence will do its thing that weekend, then come down. But erecting 14,000 linear feet of chain-link in the middle of a city is no simple thing. Fence companies are used to putting up temporary fences of comparable dimensions around rural stock car courses and monster truck pits, parking lots and political conventions. In those cases, there usually are no streets to close, no lunch crowds or commuters to discommode -- and still it takes two or three weeks to deploy that much shiny steel.

"It's very unusual to have two miles of fence in a city somewhere," Herrick says.

Not to worry. Urban civil disorder that explodes on schedule -- whenever that new world cuisine IMF-WTO-G8-FTAA-NAFTA alphabet soup is being cooked up -- is a growth market for the fence industry. And the industry can meet the challenge. Pay enough money, and a big fence can be made to surround part of a city in a week, maybe less. The Secret Service is picking up the tab for this one, and everyone figures it's willing to pay overtime.

So pretty soon, the fence guys will go to work downtown. They'll sink steel poles into concrete Jersey barriers, unload 50-foot rolls of wire mesh, speak knowingly of features like "twisted 12.5-gauge with barbs four inches on center."

The D.C. police won't reveal details -- are the 42-inch-high Jersey barriers included in the nine-foot fence height calculation? No one expects them to crown the ensemble with coils of razor or concertina wire. The pictures would be awful. Too Belfast.

And what shall we call it? Fences have traditionally gotten their names from the companies that built them -- Hurricane out West, Cyclone back East. Long Fence is bidding on this contract. Look closely at fences around town, and you'll see little name plates signifying that Long is the author of lots of them. This fence might be a Long fence, but it definitely will be a long fence.

The protesters are coming up with names, like Wall of Shame, and invoking the Berlin Wall. The analogy works for their purposes: That wall was a symbol of oppression, and it got torn down, a fate some protesters hope to visit upon this fence. "Mr. Wolfensohn, tear down this wall," they say, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan and referring to the president of the World Bank. Their lawyers are in U.S. District Court describing the fence as a violation of free-speech rights.

The authorities have a different take. The fence is a precaution, a containment strategy. They predict most protesters will be peaceful, but Mayor Anthony Williams has been muttering lately about "a cabal of maybe a thousand to two thousand anarchists or whatever they call themselves who are bent on destruction of public property or personal injury or worse." The police chief is all but promising some level of property destruction even with the fence -- thus implying actual doom without one.

Either way, a fence is not neutral, just ambiguous. This one forces us to consider whether it is necessary because of the character of the people on the outside, or the ones on the inside.

Even the fence guys, who are more comfortable with practical questions of wire gauge strength, see the symbolism in all this.

They will tell you that, in fact, a fence is not guaranteed to do what it appears designed to do, which is to keep people in or out.

Really? Even for $2 million? Yes.

In other words, at its essence, a fence is not a physical frontier at all. Its power lies elsewhere. It is not supposed to be, but to mean.

"What a fence is doing 90 percent of the time is telling someone not to go here," says Mark Davis, owner of Carlson Fence in Miami and president of the American Fence Association. "A fence will stop a pretty honest person. But anybody with a tool or ability to get in will get in."

Shake, Rattle and Roll

A Leatherman hand tool, for example, will not do. You need longer-handled shears to gain the leverage required to cut through a chain-link fence.

You figured this out quickly in Quebec City last April. Your comrades were behind you, and a line of police in riot gear was in front of you, on the other side of the fence. You could smell tear gas from confrontations elsewhere. Your friends were loud, shouting, "Take it down!" and the police were very quiet, staring through their tinted shatterproof visors.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, those law enforcement tastemakers, were the first to hit upon the idea of a big cyclone fence for a trade meeting. The Mounties and their colleagues in provincial and local police departments erected the 10-foot high, 2 1/2-mile screen around the Old Quebec section of the city. It took two weeks to build. Heads of state huddled behind the fence to discuss the FTAA, or Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Someone had the right kind of cutters. And someone else climbed on top of the fence and rode the cross-pole as if it were one of those mechanical broncos in an arcade. He started rocking the fence back and forth, and the crowd grabbed hold and made the rocking more violent. Rocking and cutting, rocking and cutting. Pretty soon, the wire mesh was rent in vertical seams, and a big section of fence flopped over.

A crowd rushed across the frontier, and was quickly repelled by the police using plenty of tear gas.

A group calling itself the Medieval Bloc brought up a catapult and lobbed stuffed teddy bears and Barney dolls over the fence. The bears were marked with red dots, signifying the ancient technique of launching plague-infected animals at enemy forces. The Barneys were dotless, just smiling as they rained purple down on police, a rejected icon suggesting maybe we're not a happy family after all.

The thing was, whatever you did with the fence, you were still doing something with it, and that had a strange effect. The fence shaped the protests.

It gave demonstrators victories: If you tore down a section, that felt huge, even if you made it only a few feet inside. You were all fired up for the next assault.

The fence also was a provocation. It raised the anger level higher than it might have been, then presented a target at which to vent that anger. The fence just about guaranteed there would be property destruction and tear gas.

"It's something designed to get you angry," says Jamie Loughner, a protester from Washington who joined the Medieval Bloc in Quebec City. "People become more outraged because they are so offended by the fence. . . . It's easy to shake your focus from what you're truly protesting."

There was a danger for the protesters that the demonstration would devolve into something that was all about the fence, not about grievances over the inequities of global capitalism. Is that what the police had in mind?

Galvanized Crowd Control

You're a sworn officer, and your job is to protect property and people, while letting the demonstrators have their say. You figure a fence can help.

For one thing, even with the 3,000 reinforcements being recruited from other departments to join about 3,600 D.C. police officers, there won't be enough men and women to cover the whole perimeter. Plus, a fence can minimize physical contact with the protesters. That's good for you, and good for them.

"It helps you control a crowd, whether it's friendly or unfriendly," says Thomas Seamon, a law enforcement consultant who was deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department. "Will demonstrators try to scale it or rip it down? Certainly."

That's when you might consider dousing them with pepper spray or another chemical, or possibly shooting rubber bullets. Later, the fence can provide evidence in court.

"It gives you a very clear boundary, that people have in fact breached the law," Seamon says. "People are going to actively either climb over it or attempt to rip it down. Then there's no question you've broken the law."

Maybe the protesters will expend all their energy against the fence.

"If you can make the fence a target so police aren't the target, or private property is not the target, or individuals are not the target, then this fence would have served its purpose," says Hubert Williams, former chief of the Newark Police Department and now president of the Police Foundation, a District-based outfit that provides research and technical support.

But handle a fence with care.

"People who will be looking at breaking the line and getting into that critical area to disrupt the police may develop counter-tactics to the fence," Williams says.

Such as?

"I don't want to give any ideas," he says.

"It's a problem if it's toppled over on police officers, used in a way to undermine police officers. . . . The biggest problem for the police is that tactics might be developed where the fence could be used against them."

Don't Fence Me In

You hear about the fence one day at home in your apartment in the York, at 532 20th St. NW. In the newspaper you check the map of the preliminary plan: Yes, you will be fenced in.

There must be hundreds of you, also counting the folks living in the Empire, the Statesman, the Letterman House.

You get out an old collection of Robert Frost you last read in college. You search for something, find it: a sly poem about mending a wall. It has the line "Good fences make good neighbors." Frost puts that sentiment in the mouth of the narrator's neighbor. What the narrator of the poem thinks is harder to tell. On the one hand, here he is rebuilding the wall, but he also thinks to himself, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

That's the way it is with you and your neighbors. You can see the point of this fence, and you can't.

It will be possible for you to worship at the United Church, shop at Tower Records and the Gap, eat lunch at the BreadLine and dinner at Kinkead's -- all inside the fence.

Wait a minute: What if you need groceries?

"I just think it's nuts," says Elizabeth Elliott, who lives and operates her design consulting business in the York. "What are they going to do -- we'll be fed through the fence?"

The police haven't said how residents will get in and out. In Quebec City, people living inside the fence were given big ID badges.

"The Metropolitan Police Department seems to have taken the strange view that they can make a preemptive strike and prevent people from demonstrating and from moving freely around the city, all because of an exaggerated fear of violence," says Mark Furstenberg, owner of the BreadLine bakery and restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue near 18th Street NW. "Making it possible for the delegates to get to the meetings, and making it possible for the demonstrators to be heard by those delegates -- that's hard. But that's what we pay them for."

Laetitia Combrinck, on the other hand, also a resident of the York, can live with the fence. "If it takes a fence to protect us, I'm for it," she says.

So your neighbors may disagree on whether the fence is necessary or proper, but they agree on a larger meaning of the fence: It says your neighborhood, Foggy Bottom, is disposable.

When it looked as though Woodley Park might suffer from the protesters and police, the meetings were shifted from there to Foggy Bottom, pronto. You think you know why: Woodley Park has more money and clout.

To be sure, the bank and the IMF are headquartered in Foggy Bottom. But still. Over the years you've watched so many residents move away as the bank, the IMF, the university and other big-foot institutions expanded. Yet you pay taxes, and they don't.

"Put 'em on a ship and put 'em out in the middle of the Atlantic," says Jack Batham, who lives in the Empire. "I'm getting tired as a citizen of the city having to be just tormented by stuff like this."

Defining Boundaries

The protesters are "beyond the pale" -- which means irrevocably unacceptable or unreasonable, says the dictionary.

That phrase derives from an old meaning of a fence. When the English conquered territory in other lands, such as Ireland, the part within English control, inside the fence, was the pale. Outside was, well, anarchy.

Now fences give off other vibes. "Assuming that D.C. and the IMF were my clients, I cannot envision saying, 'I've got a great idea to get people to like you -- put up a fence,' " says Eric Dezenhall, a specialist in damage control with Nichols-Dezenhall Communications. "But it's a great security idea."

The fence is that rarest of things in Washington, an unspinnable object. Dezenhall would recommend a counter-protest to change the subject, featuring people from poor countries who actually like the bank and IMF.

Some of the demonstrators are so happy about the fence they almost hope the lawyers fail to get it quashed on constitutional grounds. The fence is a chain-link manifestation of their claim about how the whole global capital system is undemocratic and protective only of select elites.

Others are unhappy about the fence, because they say it unfairly paints them as violent.

The fence has it both ways.

So there's a lot of debate and confusion about how to protest the bank and the IMF without getting sucked into a war with the fence. Past protests have featured radical cheerleaders, and radical stilt-walkers. Maybe radical pole vaulters this time. They could be dressed in tight black gym shorts and tank tops -- clearly not armed. When they land defenseless and hilarious among the riot squads, what will happen to them? Shift the focus off the fence and onto the police.

Loughner, of the Medieval Bloc, holds out some scrap metal. She jingles it in her hands. Look closely. The pieces are strands of shiny steel wire, neatly snipped. Souvenirs of the fence last time.

She says, "I was present and I saw them drop and I picked them up, just like anyone who was helping to break down the Berlin Wall."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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