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Stifling dissent 

Editor's note: Kelly Benjamin, a Tampa political activist and writer, was more than a witness to the violence that erupted in Miami Nov. 20. He has the wound from a rubber bullet to prove it. Here is his report:

Last Thursday began pleasantly enough for me, with an empanada and a cup of Cuban coffee, as I watched the sun rise over America's poorest city. I stood outside the Independent Media Center in the industrial slum of Overtown, as demonstrators scurried about gathering signs and puppets in preparation for the largest day of resistance in a week of protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

The Indy Media Center was created to publish up-to-the-minute accurate eyewitness reports from the streets, to counter the distorted stories that the TV and newspapers routinely provide. I registered as an independent reporter upon arrival, an embedded civilian journalist with a borrowed DVD camera covering the various displays of resistance taking place across the city.

There was an air of optimism as the 400 activists I was with took to the streets at 7 a.m. We marched downtown to join thousands of others who were assembling at the 10-foot barricaded fence behind which the trade talks were taking place. The idea was to stage a peaceful, festive march with enough colorful puppets, drumming, dancing and merrymaking that the legion of riot police would feel so silly, armed to the teeth with space-age weaponry, that they wouldn't dare attack us.

We had the freedom of assembly on our side, we thought.

Boy, were we wrong.

By mid-afternoon, after a series of small skirmishes with protesters, the police declared a small gathering of peaceful protesters on Biscayne Boulevard an "illegal assembly" when a plastic water bottle flew over the line of armored riot police. Seconds later, the cops unleashed a torrent of tear gas and rubber bullets, just as the AFL-CIO rally attended by thousands of people was letting out right across the street.

The result was all hell breaking loose. Elderly union workers, members of the media and legal observers all got caught in the melee of advancing police and panicking demonstrators. People stampeded past me falling all over each other.

I had just reached out to grab the hand of a person who had fallen directly in front of me, when I felt a sharp sting in my left leg.

I took cover behind a palm tree and tried to pull up my pant leg to see where I'd been hit, but my eyes wouldn't stop tearing. There was smoke and mist all around me. I was inhaling tear gas. A man stumbled past me with blood pouring out of his temple. I wanted to run but my leg wouldn't work, and with all the smoke I couldn't see which way to go.

I heard people yelling, "We're dispersing! We're dispersing!" But the gunshots didn't stop. I yelled for a medic, and a few seconds later two tattooed kids with medical bags were bandaging my leg as another barrage of concussion grenades and rubber bullets whizzed past.

The scene was insane. It was the worst case of police brutality I have ever witnessed.

That evening as I sat in bed a few miles outside the city, I watched in disbelief as the television news attributed the violence to "anarchist protesters." From where I stood, the incident that supposedly provoked the onslaught from police was far from incendiary and could have been handled without placing hundreds of people in extreme danger.

The use of such repressive tactics and the subsequent distortion of the facts in the media sends a clear message to those who are hopeful enough to believe we still live in a democracy. The powers that be do not want the voices of the masses of demonstrators to get out and are willing to resort to extreme violent measures to make sure it won't.

Last week in Miami, the police attacked innocent people in the streets, simply for expressing their constitutional rights. These are not signs of a healthy democracy by and for the people.

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