The Massacre in Miami

With photographs by Diane Greene Lent 

Miami is not Seattle. Both cities are beacons of the future, yet they light the way on different economic paths. Seattle, the Emerald City, the city of the new economy, high expectations, high technology and “high-road” capitalism. Miami, the Gateway to the Americas, a labor camp teeming with the refugees of imperialism, the poorest city in America. It’s fitting that trade summits in each city should produce such different results.

In November 1999 the World Trade Organization met in Seattle. Four years later, the ministers of the Free Trade Area of the Americas met in Miami. Several hundred Wisconsinites traveled to both ministerial meetings in protest. We went to speak for our own interests as farmers, workers, students, business owners and citizens, united in our conviction that corporations must not be handed the reins to the global economy.

Our experiences in each city were poles apart. Had we gone to Miami prepared to win, ready to derail the FTAA negotiations, as we had done with the WTO in 1999, the story you are about to read likely would have unfolded differently. As it is, the Miami story is one of defeat. The media dubbed Seattle a “battle,” which the WTO opponents won. But Miami could best be called a “massacre,” in which an overwhelming and disciplined police force wiped the streets of disorganized demonstrators.

Last Thursday over 22,000 people marched in Miami’s streets against the FTAA. The message of the demonstration was clear: No to closed-door trade meetings. No to corporation-made law. No to the race to the bottom. In sum: No to the FTAA.

For a little over two hours, contingents of unionists, civil rights groups, community organizations, farmers, students, Mexicans, Manito- bans and Miamians, and countless others passed parade-like on a roundabout route beginning and ending at Bayfront Park.

As the clock neared 4, the tail of the march reached the corner of Biscayne and 3rd, near the park. Some stood and faced the police lines. Others attended a free concert in the park itself. Still others began to leave for home. The police bullhorn broadcast to the thousands still on hand that, “So long as the demonstration remains peaceful, it will continue. If it is not peaceful, it will not continue.” One person shouted in reply, “Does that include police violence?”

Within minutes, they had their answer. Without any apparent provocation, the police attacked. First, with batons and tear gas. Then with rubber bullets, pepper spray and concussion grenades. Marchers began to run, and then, keeping our senses, to quickly walk, away from the police and toward safety. Those attending the concert in the park were trapped behind police lines, and gassed.

They chased us through Miami. This was not a police free for all as was the case with Seattle. This was military precision. Forty police forces-federal, state, local and military-were under a central command. Over three hours they forced us back, block after block, with little resistance, miles from Bayfront Park. They divided us from each other at each intersection, splitting us, and splitting us again, into small groups, each a fraction of the size of the one before it. They had clearly made a decision to suppress the protest, and this they did with the violence necessary to do the job.

Medics working with the protest reported more than 125 civilians suffered serious injuries. The Miami Activist Defense estimated that over 250 people were arrested for protesting the FTAA, including seven Wisconsinites.

If there is a lesson from Miami, it is this: Retreat usually leads to defeat.

In Seattle, the police ran amok. They lost the battle for legitimacy to the moral force of non-violence, and they lost control of the streets to the effective use of civil disobedience tactics.

In Miami, the police ran the protests out of town. They not only controlled the streets, but also often the media. Police commanders appeared on local television channels as “on-site commentators,” in many cases displacing the channels’ own journalists as reporters of the news.

In Seattle, the movement for global justice was new, creative and hungry for a major reversal of the consolidation of corporate power. The chief proponent of global corporatization was President Clinton, and it was Clinton who called up the National Guard in a futile attempt to insulate the WTO ministerial from criticism. We had no illusions, no saviors; our faith was in democracy, and movements from the streets.

In Miami, the movement was obviously in retreat. In some respects, the events in Miami represent the relative weakness of progressive politics in the post Sept. 11 era. Our actions were motivated by fears of the immediate threat, in one case the police, in the other, the Bush administration, rather than guided by an organized strategy for winning the day.

After congressional authorization of the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and passage of the PATRIOT Act, we should have had no illusions that leadership remains within the political establishment to stop the FTAA. Yet our actions in Miami indicated that we were still operating under exactly those kinds of illusions. We looked for leaders to emerge who we could follow, rather than taking leadership ourselves.

However, not all is lost. Because of the leadership of the people of Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and other nations, the ministerial meeting produced no real movement toward the enactment of the FTAA. We have a reprieve, and it is up to the people of the United States to use it.

Attending the protests of the FTAA ministerial meeting was Delegate Leonardo Alvarez, a Green member of the Mexican Congress. As we said goodbye on Friday, Leonardo took hold of my arm, and did not let go. He told me, “We are counting on you. You must be aggressive. You are leaders. You will succeed, I know you will.”

After Miami, we had better.

I visited Miami for the first time in November of 2003 to photograph demonstrations against FTAA, Free Trade Area of the Americas. With thousands of police clad in latest riot gear fashion and all downtown businesses closed, it was anything but welcoming. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney along with several union presidents led 15,000 union members in a march through downtown streets to protest the FTAA meetings which were taking place in a fortressed hotel. Several hundred farmworkers and their supporters marched from Ft. Lauderdale and joined the protests. Miami police were reinforced by officers from 40 Florida cities to keep protesters away from the hotel. A non-violent direct action held on Thursday morning, November 20, was met with tear gas, pepper spray, tazer guns, rubber bullets and impenetrable lines of police who advanced on the crowd with batons and guns. Over 150 protesters were arrested over a 3-day period; many claimed maltreatment at the hands of Miami police. Some retired union members complained of being held in a van for 12 hours without water. One elderly woman was thrown on the ground and a gun put to her head. Demonstrators who created provocative situations within the protests were seen retreating behind police lines. Steelworkers did their part to “rescue” protesters by encircling and confronting the police. At one point the hotel where I was staying was locked down. I don’t know when if ever I will visit Miami again.

Diane Greene Lent

 

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