KWAME HOLMAN: Today, and for most of this week, the sidewalks and streets around the headquarters of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington have been cordoned off, ringed by steel barricades and District of Columbia police. The tight security is designed to separate participants in the upcoming spring meeting of the bank and fund from thousands of protesters determined to disrupt it.
PROTESTER: We want economic justice. We want social justice.
KWAME HOLMAN: Hundreds already have participated in demonstrations this week; a warm up rally Tuesday on Capitol Hill raised concerns about the mountain of debt owed to the two international banking organizations by some of the world's poorest nations. Marchers held up crosses, each representing a country in debt and the amount it owed.
The demonstrators want those debts forgiven. Debt forgiveness, workers' rights, the environment, and trade are among the dozens of issues activists are raising this week, and the demonstrations are expected to intensify as finance ministers from around the world arrive for meetings Sunday and Monday. Callisto Madavo is vice president for Africa with the World Bank.
CALLISTO MADAVO: The meetings are discussing three or four issues that are absolutely critical to our mission of reducing poverty in the developing countries: the issue of debt relief, the issue of trade and access for exports from developing countries, and the issue HIV/AIDS.
KWAME HOLMAN: This year's spring meeting has become a target for many of the same protesters who disrupted the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in November. Police there fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters. In the end, hundreds were arrested, and there was an estimated $10 million in damage and lost revenue. Erick Brownstein participated in the Seattle protest. He's now in Washington, assisting many of some 400 groups planning action this week. Brownstein hopes demonstrators can do to the World Bank and IMF what they did to the WTO.
ERICK BROWNSTEIN: Before Seattle no one ever heard of the WTO. After Seattle, everyone knows about the WTO and it basically calls forth a bad word. They know it's caused riots, they know that it's associated with environmental destruction. So they get this sense that the WTO is something that is not good, it's powerful, its creeping into their lives. It's undermining democracy. We're hoping that that same message gets out to the world about the World Bank and the IMF.
KWAME HOLMAN: This donated warehouse not far from those downtown headquarters is serving as base camp for the activists. Signs, bumper stickers, and position papers are unpacked and distributed, and there's almost a carnival atmosphere as giant puppets are molded and painted for the protest parade.
K. RUBY: We picked the colors of red, yellow and green to represent the positive images to represent the people as opposed to the corporations and the profit that are sapping the resources of the people.
KWAME HOLMAN: Washington, D.C. police are experienced in dealing with sizable demonstrations. Nonetheless, they studied tapes of how Seattle police reacted to protesters, and say they're prepared to do better. Hundreds have been deployed at the World Bank and IMF headquarters, at dozens of intersections, and on bridges leading into the city. The atmosphere and anticipation already have had an effect on World Bank President James Wolfensohn.
JAMES WOLFENSOHN: It would be impossible not to be affected when you operate in an institution where you think that what you're doing is dealing justice and dealing with poverty.
KWAME HOLMAN: Erik Brownstein sees the work of the World Bank and IMF much differently.
ERICK BROWNSTEIN: They're incredibly powerful. They prescribe policies, economic policies that have detrimental effects, that have been proven by the U.N. reports, by independent reports, by commonsense people in the streets of these cities and countries all over the world. So people are coming here because they're fundamentally dissatisfied with the role that these institutions are playing in our world, and we're here to say enough.
KWAME HOLMAN: Protesters plan to form human chains to prevent delegates from attending Sunday's opening session. On Wednesday night, police arrested several people and confiscated 300 plastic and metal tubes that might have been used to strengthen the chains.
POLICE OFFICER: What the individual does is put the chain bracelet around the hand like this, attach a karabiner to it, and then reach inside the instrument and attach the karabiner to a bolt that's placed in here. Then the other person would also do like and they would start linking arms in a fashion like that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Demonstrations are also expected at sites away from the bank and fund headquarters. This one outside a downtown Starbucks yesterday actually was in celebration of the coffee chain's agreement to give Latin American farmers a greater share of the profits. Dozens of police responded quickly and kept demonstrators in check.
ERICK BROWNSTEIN: I believe that the police here in DC have good intentions, that they don't want to hurt people. I believe that people are going to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience.
KWAME HOLMAN: There was an example of that this morning. Two men were arrested while protesting the treatment of farm animals in developing countries. They contend the World Bank promotes intensive farming that to leads to mistreatment of animals. They dumped a load of mulch and manure on Pennsylvania Avenue and were led away quietly by police. But Erik Brownstein acknowledges some protesters may resort to violence.
ERICK BROWNSTEIN: How the police choose to react will really dictate the level of violence in the streets. Will they go after them in particular -- or will they respond to the thousands of people who are sitting peacefully, who are refusing to move, who are blocking intersections, and so on?
KWAME HOLMAN: An event last night symbolized the generational breadth of the protesters. As blue-collar steelworkers rallied, a parade of young World Bank protesters jumped in and joined the ranks. The age and cultural differences were obvious, but they shared a mission. Robin Rich of Gary, Indiana, a steelworker for 22 years, said the groups first joined forces in Seattle during the WTO protests in Seattle.
ROBIN RICH: We had no idea there would be thousands of young people that there willing to really stand out there and put their bodies on the line to stop the way that things are being run by corporations, because we don't like the way they're ruining our world.
KWAME HOLMAN: Tonight, as police prepare for protests over the next three days, they won't predict how many will do so peacefully and how many will try to carry out the vow to shut down the meetings. Police do say they're prepared to make many arrests.