Police State 

Last week In Miami, the battle was the story.

MIAMI — Last Thursday morning, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz was standing quietly near a golf cart on Biscayne Boulevard, one of the prettiest stretches of asphalt in a city that is among the poorest in the nation. With his coiffed hair and pressed Cuban shirt, he was a picture of casual elegance. At one point, he leaned over and lit a cigarette, cupping the lighter against a breeze strong enough to billow his shirt but not near enough to cool down the army of cops spread up and down this block.

And they were everywhere, the police. They were on towers, scanning the growing crowd along Biscayne. They were in the air, circling the skies in helicopters. They were on boats, plying the waters of Biscayne Bay. They were lined up at a dozen intersections in downtown Miami, standing shoulder to shoulder, their eyes covered with Plexiglas shields, their legs with shin guards, their torsos with body armor.

Some stood at water cannons, some held high-voltage stun guns, a few carried rifles loaded with plastic bullets. Most wielded batons. All told, something like 2,600 cops, their overtime and outfits paid for with $8.5 million from the federal government, stood ready for battle, ready to protect the property and citizenry of Miami from those who would disrupt the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting going on inside the Intercontinental Hotel, a hundred yards south from where Diaz stood smoking his cigarette.

On Tuesday, he had boasted to the Miami Herald that the deployment "should be a model for homeland defense." Now, just minutes after I'd asked him how he thought things were going so far, some protesters spied him.

"That's the mayor of Miami," one said. A TV camera crew swept in, and within seconds six microphones were in Diaz's face. But he couldn't hear the questions, because the marchers had closed in. "Fuck your police state!" yelled one protester. "What's your cut, Mr. Mayor?" shouted another.

Diaz moved to a black Expedition nearby and climbed in. They drove off and disappeared around a corner. His departure was convenient. Within minutes, not 100 feet from where he'd been standing, Diaz's model for homeland defense drew first blood on the sunny streets of Miami.

Two days earlier, Brian Holland, Natalie Foster and I had made the 10-hour trip from Atlanta. Foster was representing the Sierra Club, where she works as an associate regional representative in the Appalachian region. At 24, Foster is just two years out of college but discusses the arcana of political policy like a young (but liberal) Mary Matalin. A tireless networker, Foster is a true extrovert — the type who leaves a party having met everyone in the room.

Like Foster, Holland also seems older than his years. A 22-year-old senior at the University of Georgia, Holland's critique of free trade agreements contains references to Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz And like Foster, Holland knows how to stay on message, crystallizing his arguments in pithy terms. On the ride to Miami, we spoke at length about the FTAA, a portion of which is intended to increase foreign investment in Latin American nations. "If you depend on multinational corporations for investment," Holland said, "then you have to attract them. So you'll suppress any labor movements. So 34 nations will be competing for the investment and the country with the worst labor standards will win."In fact, the elements of the Free Trade Area of the Americas proposal are so complex they defy soundbites, and yet the mainstream press continues to boil down an entire school of thought's objections into a single sentence, such as what appeared in a New York Times magazine profile of a protester that ran two Sundays ago. According to critics, the story said, the FTAA is a "corporate land grab created by a nondemocratic institution that is stamping out indigenous culture and threatening the environment as it goes."

Such simplistic explanations, while correct in essence, frustrate activists such as Foster and Holland, who point to the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 as evidence that a similar agreement such as the FTAA -- stretched over North and South America, except for Cuba -- will further widen the gulf between the hemisphere's haves and have-nots.

As it turned out, on the very day we were driving to Miami, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an independent Washington think tank, released a report that concluded NAFTA has been a disappointment. In the U.S., NAFTA has had a "minuscule" effect on jobs, the report concluded. But Mexico revealed far less ambiguity. There, manufacturing jobs went up by 500,000, but 1.3 million agricultural jobs were lost. What's more, real wages in Mexico are actually lower than when NAFTA took effect.

"Mexico's most vulnerable citizens," the report says, "have faced a mael-strom of change beyond their capacity, or that of their government, to control."

But once we arrived in Miami, the big story on local TV news was, of course, not trade policy but the police preparation for violence in the streets. Never mind the schedule of events over and above the inevitable confrontation. Indeed, the entire week was a policy wonk's dream, with workshops and seminars held in hotels, churches and schools all across downtown Miami. Steelworkers sponsored a forum on corporate responsibility. Teamsters led a meeting to discuss how the FTAA would impact a local government's ability to hire hometown companies for projects. Many of the seminars were standing room only. As it turned out, one of the most compelling was sparsely attended. Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He spoke on the "false promises of trade," and in 30 minutes effectively cut U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick's free trade arguments off at the knees.

"There is no economic argument that can be made that the policies of the last 20 to 25 years have been a success on economic grounds," Weisbrot said. "The people promoting these [trade] agreements are arguing that they're promoting economic growth and when you look at the record, that's exactly where their biggest failure has been."

Weisbrot cited a basic economic yardstick -- income per capita. "Latin America went from growing 80 percent per person from 1960 to 1979 to growing 11 percent over the next 20 years from 1980 to 1999. That is a drastic change.

"For 25 years now in Latin America, there's been very, very little growth. The 1980s is called the lost decade in Latin America be-cause income actually shrunk, which is a very rare thing over a 10-year period in the history of capitalism. It almost never happens."

What exacerbated the problem in Central and South America were the harsh fiscal policies pushed on countries during times of economic crisis in the 1990s by the International Monetary Fund, which is basically an arm of the Treasury Department and Wall Street. As Stiglitz told CL recently, the IMF made Latin American countries impose austerity measures in exchange for loans, basically stripping them of sovereignty, and required those countries to keep large cash reserves. That prevented the countries from re-investing wealth in infrastructure or the education of their own people. So it's no surprise that per capita wealth has stagnated.

And things don't appear to be getting any better, Weisbrot said. "The first decade of the 21st century is going to look like another lost decade, just based on the first five years. Because the first five show only 1 percent growth for all five years. That's taking the International Monetary Fund's optimistic projections, which are almost always high.

"This is an economic disaster. I guarantee you, if the press and everybody who was talking about the FTAA knew this, nobody would assume that the FTAA would bring any benefits to Latin America."

Standing in front of the convergence center on the 2300 block of North Miami Avenue on Wednesday afternoon, it was hard to believe that the $8.5 million in security expenses, the six months of police training, the breathless coverage leading up to the FTAA talks in Miami -- all of that was for a few hundred kids passing around trail mix in what looked like an old machine shop.But according to the police chief, the mayor and the media, not to mention the White House and Congress, there was no more prudent way imaginable to spend $8.5 million.

The front doors to this den of anarchy were blocked off; entrance was through a chain link gate out back. A sentry stood guard, presumably to keep out cops and reporters, but didn't pay much attention to me. Homemade signs covered the fence: "The new global currency is love" was one.

Inside, the mix of humanity was what you might expect -- a few hundred people milling around, mostly white, mostly in their 20s, their bodies in various stages of hygienic decay. A dog snoozed in a corner. Leaflets lay scattered over tables. The air was stifling. Cardboard covered the cinderblock walls -- one sign matched up rides and riders to Ft. Benning for the following weekend's School of the Americas protest; another broke down each day's action plans. A scroll on the wall read, "If your heart is strong, the ground you stand on is liberated." Outside, volunteers served up bowls of rice and vegetables.

When Holland and I arrived, three leaders stood just outside the unisex bathroom, their bodies, like the 50 seated on the cement floor around them, sheened in sweat. The subject was what to do if you're arrested.

The advisers suggested that protesters leave identification behind, and refuse to identify themselves once arrested. "The goal is to provide solidarity."

At the convergence center, meetings were conducted by consensus, not democratically. If one person had strong objections to a plan of action, the plan would be amended enough to draw him back into the fold. Affirmation was given not by vote, or by yeas, but by "twinkles" -- a fluttering of the fingers in the air.

But as much as the movement had abandoned traditional hierarchical methods, it had also apparently adopted the corporate world's media management techniques. When I brought out my camera to take some pictures, the leader immediately saw me and asked the group who could vouch for me. Holland, who had come with me, was nowhere around. Within minutes, an activist asked who I was. I told him I was from the alternative press. He explained that pictures were not allowed inside, as many of these people would be putting themselves on the line the next day.

He escorted me out and introduced me to Tracy Lerman, who served as a media liaison for the convergence center. With a bored look, she listened to my pitch -- that if I couldn't take pictures, I'd like to just observe the movement from the inside, both literally and figuratively. But no, I couldn't go back inside. She handed me a position paper outlining the "Top Ten Reasons to Oppose the Free Trade Area of the Americas." I glanced at it -- the list was a soundbite on paper, talking about the FTAA undermining labor rights and increasing poverty -- and shoved it in my pocket.

That same evening, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney dropped by the convergence center and finalized a unique agreement with demonstrators. With thousands of union workers coming in, including retired and elderly members, Sweeney was worried a confrontation between young activists and police could leave innocent bystanders injured. It was agreed the demonstrators would hold a separate march, early in the morning. By 2 p.m., when the permitted march was under way, all the tear gas should have long cleared out.

That was the plan, anyway.

Later that evening, we turned on the TV news and learned that police had raided an abandoned mansion and arrested a half-dozen anarchists. The police gave the cameras a tour of the booty -- there were bicycle inner tubes (for slingshots, we were told) and a few cans of Sterno. The breathless tone of the anchor was common; across Miami, reporters were "embedded" with police, and dutifully parroted whatever claptrap the cops told them.

Thursday was the day. We awoke before dawn to meet at the Government Center downtown. From there, we'd march down Flagler Street to the water, where it was thought the confrontation with police would begin.

At the Government Center, police in riot gear were waiting. It would be a typical sight over the next two days.

By 8 a.m., a parade of about 1,000 or so protesters was moving east on 1st Street, then south onto 2nd Avenue, then, finally, east onto Flagler. A block from Biscayne Boulevard, a wall of police stretched across the intersection. Frank Fernandez, a deputy police chief, came out and said that as long as the march stayed peaceful, police would allow it. "The minute you break the law, we'll put a stop to it."

That was at 8:35 a.m. Less than a half-hour later, police inexplicably opened up the path to Biscayne Boulevard. Once marchers had funneled onto Biscayne, police re-formed the line, again blocking marchers who were now on a street much wider than Flagler. That's when I found Manny Diaz standing quietly below the huge palm trees along Biscayne. "If everyone stays in the spirit of cooperation, it'll be great," he said. Soon after that, he left. That's when the fun began.

At this point, things were quiet, considering. Some protesters faced off in front of the line of police, but there was enough space between the two rows for the hordes of media, themselves looking ridiculous in helmets and gas masks, to get the pictures that would wind up on wire services and in newspapers across the nation. Everywhere was the smell of vinegar, which demonstrators used to soak bandannas that would ward off tear gas.

Then an officer announced to anyone who could hear him -- about 20 of us -- that our march was unauthorized. He asked us to disperse. The line facing the cops strengthened, with protesters linking arms.

"More links! More links!" they shouted. From behind us, there was the sudden blast of a concussion grenade. Then a tear gas canister landed nearby. A protester picked it up and hurled it over the fence toward the Intercontinental. The police moved in. They marched forward, pushing the line back. Some gripped their batons in both hands, forcing the protesters back. Twenty-two-year-old Dave Phillips of North Carolina was among the first to go down, when he caught a baton to his forehead. He was dragged to the side by friends. Blood covered his hands. Medics from the convergence center brought him to a storefront, where they shone a penlight in his eyes. "My fingers are tingling," Phillips said. "Is that bad?" One medic took him to a medical center a few blocks away. By the end of the day, the center would treat more than 100 protesters injured by police in the demonstrations. A few required hospitalization.

From what I could tell, there were no police injuries. (On alternet.org, famous radical Tom Hayden writes of seeing undercover police among protesters provoking confrontation.)

On Sunday, two days after the march, the Herald ran a story about John Timoney, Miami's police chief, who had been hired from Philadelphia partly because of his unfettered use of brutality there. (At the Republican National Convention in 2000, police had arrested some 400 protesters, only to have 95 percent of the cases thrown out of court.) The Herald recounted: "Timoney, the man who headed the policing of last week's protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit, wasn't sitting in an air-conditioned office. He was displaying bravado on the streets of Miami, riding a bicycle to get around, forgoing steel-tipped boots, a gas mask and body armor in favor of a plastic bike helmet, a polo shirt and shorts."

In the story, he was heard to say "fuck you" to one protester. He was also quoted as saying, on the eve of the protest, that if demonstrators "don't do anything by tomorrow night, pardon the expression, but they look like p------."

I assume that means pussies.

On Thursday night, a group of us walked to Tobacco Road, the oldest bar in Miami. Over beers and nachos, we debriefed. No attempt had been made to take down the fence around the Intercontinental Hotel. No intersections were locked down by protesters. And yet the police still had managed to arrest some 150 protesters, who were now in jail awaiting a bond hearing in the morning. (Sixty more would be arrested the next day when they went to demonstrate at the jail where their comrades were held.) It seemed as if the protesters never gained momentum. Police had heavily outnumbered those demonstrators who had taken direct action. To Holland, that had figured into what many considered to be an anti-climactic rally.

"The ratio [of police to activists] is a big factor -- to feel like you don't have enough people," he said. "I would have liked to have seen more labor involved."

At no point did the demonstrators have the upper hand, which, even if it's an illusion, is important symbolically. "The protesters need to feel like they have control in a situation," Holland said. "That's important for empowering people."

Across the bar, a group of union members were drinking beer. They represented the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. I spoke with Buck Jones, 62, who had worked 26 years in a sugar factory in Crookston, Minn., where the land is so flat, he said, "you can see your dog running away for three days." Up there, he said, "sugar is king." Yet NAFTA is hurting them. The factory sells a pound of refined sugar for 23 cents a pound. NAFTA will soon force them to drop that price by 3 cents. That could be the death knell for this co-operative group of farmers and factory workers in Minnesota, Jones said. Never mind what the FTAA would do.

The next day, on the long drive back to Atlanta, Foster declared the week a success. After all, ministers had gone home a day earlier than expected; reports indicated that, because officials couldn't agree on a package for all countries, they would pursue separate, bilateral agreements or just opt out of conditions that they didn't like. Pundits were calling it FTAA-Lite. But, I wondered, how did the protests figure in?

"These mass mobilizations are the time to add your voice to the chorus," Foster said. "It's great to know that there are academics and economists thinking about these things. But I still think there's something that's incredible about people leaving their jobs, leaving their kids with the babysitter, getting in their cars and coming to the streets. It's the only way we really have. When the media's not reporting it, when our politicians aren't listening to us, when corporations have no reason or accountability to us, the only thing you really have is strength of numbers. That's a really old tactic and one that will never go away."

But back in Athens, Holland had harsh words for the police. "Basically, I think you had cops down there with a lot of equipment just dying to use it. I heard case after case of peaceful protesters, who were non-confrontational, just getting brutalized with these weapons. It has a chilling effect on protests, for one thing. It definitely sends a message that you can protest, but if you do, you can expect to face some pretty serious consequences."

steve.fennessy@creativeloafing.com

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