Steve's Big Miami Adventure

Posted by Mitchell - November 25, 2003 (entry 117)

(1) The USA Today has an article from a journalism professor on how the media will soon be a Vast Wasteland (if it isn't one already).

(2) CMA member Steve Macek wrote up a report (posted below) of his first-hand account in Miami for the FTAA protests.

On Wednesday November 19, I boarded the 6:45 a.m. flight for Miami from Midway airport and was pleasantly surprised to find the plane loaded with 100s of steelworkers and other trade unionists on their way to protest outside the FTAA meeting. Spirits were high. People were joking, laughing, talking politics and swapping tips on what to do if you got arrested. I even ran into an organizer for the hotel workers (HERE Local 17) that I'd known in Minneapolis years ago. What none of us knew at time was that we were flying into a virtual police state.

I was staying in Miami Beach and so, early on Thursday morning, I got on a city bus headed to Bayfront Park, where the big AFL-CIO-organized rally and march was going to take place. The only problem was all the city buses had been re-routed to the edges of downtown, so I was forced to walk close to two miles to get where I wanted to go.

Walking into downtown Miami that day was like walking into a combat zone. The streets for blocks around the downtown were completely deserted. Sirens wailed constantly. Overhead several helicopters hovered. When I finally got to Biscayne Boulevard, the main through-street that goes to the park, I encountered a line of 20 or so brown-shirted police officers clad head to toe in riot gear, brandishing long truncheons and weird looking guns that we later learned--fired plastic bullets and pepper-spray pellets.

The cops said nothing, just gestured silently for me to walk to the west. After getting the same treatment from several other groups of cops I eventually found my way to the one road (3rd st.) that would take me east to the park. When I came out onto the section of Biscayne blvd. that fronts the park, I knew we were in for trouble. There were phalanxes of armor-clad cops (some in brown shirts, some in black--no, I'm not making this up) blocking off Biscayne to the north and south. The entrance to the amphitheater where the rally was to take place was also blocked by the Miami PD's "troops." All told there must have been four or five hundred officers. There were at least two tank-like vehicles with mounted water cannons on top stationed near the park. There were also a number of TV cameras, all clustered together in a fenced off area across the street from the park.

Since I had lots of time to kill, I decided to walk down to check out the small direct action demonstration just beyond the south end of the park in front of the tall chain link fence that had been erected around the four or five blocks where the FTAA ministers were meeting. There, some seven or eight hundred demonstrators stood facing down the police. They were mostly black bloc folks, chanting, beating drums, holding puppets, yelling obscenities at the cops. A few of the masked anarchist types were running around trying to rip down the flimsy plastic fencing that had been put up around the grass on the medians along Biscayne and a couple were rattling the big chain-link affair. Then, all of a sudden I heard two explosions and saw a cloud of tear gas (or some kind of gas) envelop the crowd. Shortly after, everyone started running north and, as I ran, I was passed by a couple people who were bleeding badly from their heads. Turns out the cops had started clubbing people for allegedly trying to tear down the main fence. But the police lines didn't advance and only a few people were arrested in that initial clash.

After that bit of action, I tried to stay close to the park in hopes of somehow getting into the amphitheater. More and more people were filing into the so-called "free speech" area and with the crowds came a sense of security. Then at around 11 a.m., an hour before the rally was to start, the cops guarding the amphitheater started to advance in formation on those of us hanging out in the park, forcing us out onto the street. (One particularly outrageous detail of this little "clearing operation": a few people using the row of porta-pottys that had been set up for the rally were dragged out by the cops, often with their pants half down.)

At roughly around the same time as the cops cleared the park, various union delegates started to arrive. The steelworkers were the most impressive, wearing white t-shirts and carrying blue flags with the USW logo. After them came groups from AFSCME and SEUI. There was a huge multi-union contingent from Minnesota, all wearing green "Wellstone Lives" t-shirts. There were even a few Teamsters. The cops allowed the union folks to enter the amphitheater but kept us unruly rabble out. ( I was a bit disappointed, frankly, that the union members didn't show more solidarity and insist that we be allowed in as well).

As the unions were marching into the park, I noticed Free Press' "Our Media Our Not for Sale" banner and went over to say hello. Two Free Press organizers, Jordon and Sasha, were there as was a guy from the Richmond, VA Indy Media center and guy with a Democracy Now sign. We decided to take the banner around the crowd and position it behind every TV crew we could find trying to do a report. We succeeded in getting into a number of shots and passed out several Free Press fliers. Sasha, who speaks fluent Spanish, did an interview with a Spanish language TV station about media democracy and global trade.

As we milled around we kept encountering people who wanted to talk with us about the impact of FTAA on media ownership in the Americas. And Sasha video-taped interviews with people from Mexico and Brazil who introduced themselves to us because of the banner.

Unfortunately, the march itself was somewhat anti-climactic. Some 15,000 of us marched and chanted along a parade route that was dictated by the police lines and the chain link fences. Other than the cops and the TV camera crews, we had the downtown entirely to ourselves. It was unsettling to glance down the cross streets we passed and not see traffic or pedestrians, just empty space for as far as the eye could see. We shouted, we waved our fists, we demanded democratic accountability from the ministers at the trade summit, but there were no citizens around to hear our cries or to see our anger. The city's heavy-handed management and policing of the march, in other words, had rendered our attempt at free expression almost meaningless.

By the end of the march, I was feeling slightly dejected but what happened afterward plunged me into full on depression.

Once we got back to the park, people stood around for about half an hour waiting for the rest of the marchers to arrive, chatting amongst themselves. There were no other big scheduled events and many of the union folks were starting to disperse. Some of the marchers, many of them affiliated with the black bloc, then started gathering back at the fence. Without the protective cover of the union's thousands of bodies, though, they were sitting ducks. Without warning, the police attacked anyone and everyone lingering south of the park. They swung their truncheons at the demonstrators. They fired pepper spray. They started grabbing people and throwing them violently to the ground. I witnessed a woman get hit in the back of the head with a plastic bullet. Some of the black bloc folks started fighting back, throwing rocks and trying to "un-arrest" comrades who'd been captured but I personally didn't see very many instances of even reactive protester violence. Perhaps the most disturbing thing I saw was the mass arrest of a group of retired union workers who'd been waiting patiently for their bus to pick them up at the park.

It was about at this point that I decided to flee the scene. I felt I couldn't get arrested because I was attending a conference the next day and had a paper to deliver. Besides, I'm not sure getting arrested would've served any constructive purpose. Hours later, back in my hotel room, I sat mesmerized by the images of cops raging through the streets, indiscriminately harassing, beating and arresting demonstrators long into the night. By the end of the day Thursday, 75 people had been arrested and countless more injured. By the time the protests wrapped up on Saturday more than 230 people had been arrested and who knows how many people were hurt in what can only be called a police riot.

The AFL-CIO and the ACLU are already working on lawsuits against the city of Miami related to the cop^

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