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POLICE SHUT DOWN CONVERGENCE CENTER AT 1328 FLORIDA AVE.
by John Tarleton and Gillian Andrews
with help from Ben Erdrich
April 15, 2000
DC police and fire department officials shut down the convergence center at 1328 Florida Ave. this morning.
Plainclothes fire officials entered the center around 8:30 on a preliminary investigation, just as protesters were finishing breakfast and preparing for nonviolence training. Protesters escorted the officials in as required by law. Eyewitnesses said it appeared that officials did not know of fire hazards before they entered the building.
Officers from the city's police Emergency Response Team followed soon after. When they were asked if they had a search warrant, they did not respond. Patricia Whitewater, an organizer with Mobilization for Global Justice, was inside the convergence center when the authorities arrived. She suggested that police presence was prearranged, not simply a response to the fire department's request for aid. "It was clearly a coordinated action," she said.
Peter Lumsdaine of the California-based Resource Center for Nonviolence was inside the building helping to prepare an agenda for the afternoon's spokescouncil. He said the fire marshal made no attempt to work with organizers. After a tumultuous Friday in which peaceful protests and wailing police sirens were popping up all over the city, he wasn't surprised by the morning's police crackdown.
"Everywhere I went yesterday the city was sliding into upheaval. It had that feeling to it," he said. "They are deathly afraid of an uprising inside the capitol of the most powerful country in the world."
A Wall Of Police
Crowds of late-arriving activists who gathered outside the building were pushed back to the corner of fourteenth and Florida by a wall of police. They quietly milled around in the intersection, failing to live up to their violent reputation. Some asked police for their names and missing badge numbers.
Refugees from the Convergence Center slowly straggled out of the building, allowed to take only what they could carry in their hands. Many puppets were left behind. The Seeds of Peace bus was impounded with much of the kitchen equipment still inside. Thirty to forty bicycles assembled from scrounged-up parts were confiscated for lack of registration, according to William Thomas, a peace activist who had helped to gather the parts.
The protesters weren't the only ones banned from crossing the police line. Legal observers were stopped from re-entering the block. Press corps members from the Canadian press, Harper's Magazine, and other publications were denied access to the press conference which was held behind police lines. One Canadian reporter planted herself in front of the police lines and began to chant, "I am the press! I am the press!" Other reporters picked up the cry. Police lines only parted for the local ABC affiliate, Associated Press, and other journalists with government-issued press passes.
DC Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance Gainer alleged that the raid was a response to complaints about the building. Gainer said that the fire marshal alleged that stairways and exits in the building were blocked and that the electrical system of the building was jerry-rigged. Gainer also said that a plastic bottle with a rag in it was spotted, and that the bomb squad was being brought in. As of press time, the fire department was still continuing its inspection.
Gainer said the action was taken in good faith. "It [the building] really was a danger to the young people," he said. "The real purpose was to ensure that they didn't burn up."
Nadine Bloch, one of the key organizers of the mobilization, announced at 10:30 a.m. that the convergence was relocating to the Wilson Center at 15th St. and Irving. She urged people not to be distracted. "This isn't much, compared to repression around the world," she said. "These guys are clearly trying to throw us off. We have a lot of work to do."
Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange arrived soon after the protesters had been forced into the street. She expressed a feeling of betrayal, saying the cops were working against their agreement to cooperate to let protesters exercise their First Amendment rights. "There was no good legal reason to close this down," she said. "They're escalating the tensions, which they said they wouldn't do. I think the police [made] a really dumb move, because it changes the whole tone of things."
The Midnight Express legal team was trying to open up negotiations with the police. As of 11 a.m., there was still no word about whether the puppets had been released from custody.