December 2003

Usually, I try to give you Lowdowners a break from bad news in December, a month in which we Americans traditionally pause to enjoy our holidays, family, old friends, and gentler thoughts. My preference is to offer an upbeat issue at this time of year, and I fully meant to do so here. But then, on November 19, I went to Miami.

What I saw there shocked me (and I’ve been to the state fair twice, been involved in Texas politics, and have peered deep into the inner workings of Washington and Wall Street, so I don’t blanch easily). I was there for the citizen protests against the latest glob of globaloney that the corporate powers are trying to shove down our throats. Called the Free Trade Area of the Americas, this trade scam is NAFTA on steroids, not only allowing corporations to extend their job-busting, farm-bankrupting, environment-contaminating, sovereignty-destroying practices to more than 30 countries in this hemisphere, but also opening up all of our public services to corporate privatizers–from postal service to water, from Social Security to health care (see Lowdown, July 2003).

Trade ministers from 34 nations were gathering at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Miami to seal the FTAA deal, meeting behind closed doors with only corporate executives and lobbyists allowed to take part in the negotiations. Since We the People were being shut out by the insiders, about 8,000 to 10,000 of us decided to show up outside of the hotel where the elites were secluded. From labor unions to students against sweatshops, from Baptists to Quakers, from farmers to environmentalists, we were there as a well-organized and determinedly peaceful protest.

We had an approved location for our big gatherings (the Bayfront Park Amphitheater, within sight of the Inter-Continental), we had permits for our various marches, we had pre-negotiated agreements with the police, we had our own AFL-CIO Peace Keepers trained to deal with rowdies–in short, we were playing it by the book. In fact, we were playing it by the biggest political book of all–the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which guarantee us all the right to assemble, speak freely, and petition for the redress of our citizen grievances. It was a golden democratic moment right out of the textbook of Jefferson, Madison, and the Sons of Liberty.

But what we quickly learned is that, for this week at least, Miami was not America. We were shocked to find that, as Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, put it, “a massive police state was created” to intimidate us, deny us our most cherished rights–and attack us again and again. The Powers That Be, obviously fearful of people actually trying to practice democracy, amassed an unprecedented force armed to the teeth and commanded to treat law-abiding citizens as the enemy.

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Is this America?

Even delegations that had joined us from Latin America, including many who have long endured military autocracies, were stunned that this was happening in the Land of the Free.

Forty different police agencies–federal, state, county, and city–deployed more than 2,500 heavily armed troops against us in about a two-square-mile section of downtown. Phalanxes of police stormed down the streets in full combat uniform, with most of the police covered head to toe in all-black riot gear, eyes hidden behind Plexiglas face shields. Intersection after intersection was blocked by a solid wall of 50 to 100 of these troops, all wielding three-foot truncheons, high-voltage stun guns, concussion bombs, rifles loaded with skin-piercing hard rubber bullets, tear-gas guns, blinding pepper spray, and other weaponry.

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They were everywhere–on rooftops peering through binoculars, in surveillance boats along the bayfront, in vans and cars that rushed in screeching convoys from place to place, in helicopters that constantly chopped the air above us. At the amphitheater, where I emceed Wednesday night’s People’s Gala and spoke Thursday morning to a rally of retirees, the presence was overwhelming, and menacing–everyone had to pass through a gauntlet of 50 or so armed and scowling troops to enter the place (which was completely enclosed by a chain-link fence), and there was a brand-new, ready-for-action military attack vehicle parked ominously just outside the amphitheater’s entrance, complete with a black-clad trooper standing atop it in a “Terminator” pose.

It was such a ridiculous and wasteful use of police authority that at first we laughed about it. As I opened the event Wednesday night, with troops surrounding us and four helicopters circling above, I got a rousing cheer by thanking taxpayers for their generosity in providing this unexpected police escort for our protests. I also noted that this would be a good night to rob a 7-Eleven, since every cop in the state was at the amphitheater watching us.

The authorities had been planning this assault for months:
# $8.5 million was quietly taken from that $87 billion that Congress gave to Bush this summer for his actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, siphoning it off for the Miami police to use in this FTAA “war front”;
# A number of absurd (and unconstitutional) ordinances were rammed through the City Council, including requiring a permit for any gathering of more than six people for longer than 29 minutes and prohibiting the use of wooden stilts (all passed at the last minute so they would not be overturned in court before the protest was over);
# Fire trucks were readied for use as water cannons by Miami Police Chief John Timoney, who is notoriously thuggish toward citizen protestors daring to challenge the ruling elites (he had been chief in Philadelphia for the 2000 Republican National Convention, where he cracked the heads and wildly violated the Constitutional rights of lawful demonstrators–95% of his arrests were later thrown out of court–and he routinely calls protestors “punks,” “knuckleheads,” and assorted four-letter epithets).

Attack!

In an intentional lie, Timoney and other officials proclaimed that their extravagant brandishment of shock- and-awe military power was necessary because as many as 100,000 “Seattle-style” demonstrators, scruffy anarchists, and “avowed troublemakers” were “coming to terrorize and vandalize our city.” There was no choice, they asserted, but to do everything they could think of to protect Miami’s downtown businesses, property owners, the 34 trade ministers, and the attending corporate executives from an imminent threat of massive protestor violence.

Hogwash. No more than a tenth of that number of protestors was coming, there was no violence intended, and sure enough, there were no outbursts by protestors–not a single incident of property damage, not the storming of the barricades around the Inter-Continental, not even the breaking of a Starbucks window.

But there damned sure were outbursts of violence. By the authorities.

Union leaders, in particular, were astonished by the rampaging abuse they experienced and saw at the hands of Timoney’s troops. Far from being scruffy or anarchistic, these men and women tend to be flag-waving, police-respecting patriots who’ve spent their lives playing by the rules–and they felt totally betrayed by the Ashcroftian America they saw in Miami. In a terse, one-page memo entitled “Police Repression,” the AFL-CIO noted that it had “negotiated for months with local police so that our members’ Constitutional rights to peaceful protest would be respected, [but] the police broke nearly every promise.”

It began with senseless harassment. The retiree rally, for example, started late and had a sparse crowd, because Timoney’s troops broke an agreement to let 25 busloads of seniors be dropped off at the amphitheater.

More than half of the buses were not allowed to enter the area at all, meaning that hundreds of totally unthreatening old folks (many of them war veterans from the “greatest generation,” and some of whom had traveled more than a thousand miles) were unceremoniously stripped of their First Amendment rights of assembly and free speech. Most of the other buses were stopped well short of the event–an act of autocratic disrespect that forced 70-, 80-, and 90-year-olds to walk up to two miles to an approved event, most of which they missed. One of the retiree leaders, a proud Miami resident, addressed Timoney and the mayor through a press conference: “You had the opportunity to make our beautiful city a shining star in the eyes of the country, and instead your department looks like a bunch of stormtroopers.”

Then came the storm. Among the experiences itemized in the AFL-CIO memo were police “verbally abusing those seeking access to the March,” “pointing guns at the heads of AFL-CIO staff and others seeking information,” “advancing on groups of peaceful protestors without provocation and deploying tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on these protestors without a warning to disperse or provision of a safe route,” “arresting retirees, union members, and other peaceful protestors on false charges and with unnecessary violence,” and “mistreating those arrested.”

Here are just a few of the stories of people caught up in what became known as “Miami Vise”:

Bently Killmon, a 71-year-old retired airline pilot from Fort Myers, told the Miami Herald that he and other members of the Alliance for Retired Americans were trying to get to their buses late Thursday. “We ran into a line of brown shirts [the uniforms of Dade County police]. They were very rude. They would not let us pass and they sent us down the railroad tracks. That’s when we saw the black shirts coming at us [the uniforms of Miami police]. They were pointing their guns at us. I was just incredibly frightened. Everyone in our group was knocked to the ground and handcuffed. I had my hands cuffed behind my back for seven and a half hours. I still don’t know what it was I did.” After spending the night in jail, the trumped-up charges against him were dismissed by a judge. “Miami was a police state,” Killmon said in dismay.

Rubber bullets were whizzing at 120 miles an hour. A reporter for commondreams.org told of an assault by police marching in a long column at several hundred protestors, firing indiscriminately at the crowd.

“One woman had part of her ear blown off. Another was shot in the forehead. I got shot twice, once in the back.”

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A columnist for the St. Petersburg Times reported that a young woman was shot three times, including taking a bullet in the butt at point-blank range when she stooped to pick up a banana she dropped. The officer had kicked her banana away before shooting her. A friend was shot seven times trying to help her up. The woman was then shot in the back while trying to leave the area.

The wife of a retired steelworker from Utah complained to police who were roughing up some students at the entrance to Friday’s AFL-CIO rally. She was slammed to the ground face-down and the police put a gun to the back of her head. Her entire body was literally vibrating with fear, and she had to be taken to the hospital for the wounds she suffered.

John Heckenlively, a reporter with indymedia.org, got caught in the crosscurrents of chaos during a pepper-spray, tear-gas, and rubber-bullet assault on protestors in mid-town. Trying to leave the area, he and six others came face to face with a cordon of hundreds of police that filled an entire block from edge to edge. An officer told them to get out, and John replied that that’s exactly what they were trying to do. Instantly, they were all arrested, and John spent more than four days in jail. Charged with disorderly conduct, his arrest form had the wrong time and place of his brief encounter with the police and falsely said that he “became violent and had to be placed under arrest.” John says that “many others in our group had similar fairy tales on their booking sheets.”

You didn’t even have to be a protestor to get caught in the vise. There was the lemonade guy, for example–a young Minnesotan fire-fighter who was on vacation and pulled off the interstate for a lemonade. Coming out of the store, he was greeted by a huge covey of cops. He asked which direction to go to get out of their way and, when he tried to do as he was told, was arrested. He was treated to a free 24-hour stay in the Miami jail. Likewise, a Miami couple casually went out for a visit to a friend’s apartment. The lobby of the building was filled with police, who told them to leave. They did–and were promptly arrested. In jail, the guy asked his cellmates to explain the FTAA to him, saying: “If I’m going to be arrested for something, I at least want to know what it’s about.”

Undercover

There were also a few widely televised instances of anarchist-looking rowdies skirmishing with the riot police–but the skirmishers turned out to be undercover cops! Tom Hayden, reporting on the FTAA for AlterNet.org, tells of one bloody encounter apparently sparked by a couple of protestors. Then he saw the “protestors” metamorphose: “I watched through a nearby hotel window as two undercover officers disguised as ‘anarchists,’ thinking they were invisible, hugged each other. They excitedly pulled Tasers and other weapons out of their camouflage pants, and slipped away in an unmarked police van.”

Where was the establishment media? Why did they not cover this astonishing paramilitary assault for what it was? Because they largely went undercover, too, willingly abandoning any pretense of journalistic objectivity and gullibly swallowing the establishment-concocted claptrap that Miami was under siege by havoc-wreaking protestors. Rather than cover the FTAA issue or the truly interesting phenomenon of a broad coalition of citizens standing up to the FTAA’s power grab, both national and local media focused breathlessly on the spoon-fed details of police preparation and combat-style movements to “defend” against the invading hordes.

What I personally witnessed in Miami, versus the news reports I saw and read, were two different worlds. The coverage was so superficial and unskeptical that it was embarrassingly silly, not only missing the story but devolving into rank propaganda. Hayden caught a typical instance of the media’s attitude when the local ABC affiliate ran a clip of a young woman, her fingers aloft in a V-sign, being shot at point-blank range: “The local ABC commentator said without the slightest evidence, ‘She took a rubber bullet in the stomach, she must have done something. You wanna play, you gotta pay.’”

The media literally went undercover–not with the citizens who were facing the power establishment, but with the establishment’s troops.

Just like in Iraq, dozens of so-called journalists allowed themselves to be “embedded” within (as in “get in bed with”) the police.

In one case where the police cornered and were beating about 30 protestors, Ana Nogueira of the feisty Democracy Now show stood staunchly videotaping the scene, her press pass clearly visible. When police began handcuffing everyone in sight, Ana informed them verbally that she was a journalist, but an officer shouted out, “She’s not with us, she’s not with us.” She was arrested, forced to strip naked in front of male officers, and thrown in jail, charged with “failure to disperse.”

Your city, too

Lest you think that this was a Miami aberration and nothing that will affect you, this abhorrent, un-American strategy of intimidating and assaulting anyone who actually dares to use their rights in a mass demonstration against the establishment’s elitist policies was done with the participation of the Justice Department and the White House, using funds authorized by Congress. Miami Mayor Manny Diaz exulted that what happened there was “a model for homeland defense,” and many cities sent law-enforcement observers to study what is now called “The Miami Model.”

A model for what? For using the police to protect corporate and governmental elites from unarmed peaceful protests–i.e., from us. As I said at the People’s Gala, they’ve got it exactly backwards. We’re the ones who need protection from the power-grabbers inside the Inter-Continental.

Yet, despite their backwardness, we’re winning the fight against corporate globalization. Because of grassroots opposition here and throughout Latin America, governments are rebelling against the U.S. model of global corporate domination, and the FTAA talks fell apart in Miami, with the ministers essentially agreeing only to disagree and going home a day early. As Leo Gerard said at the gala, bringing the crowd to its feet: “Maybe they can stop our buses, and maybe they can try to intimidate us with their riot gear and their weapons, but they can’t stop us from winning economic and social justice for the working people of the Americas.”

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