Miami police state actions condemned

MIAMI – Calling it a “military operation,” Stop the Free Trade Area of the Americas organizers condemned the “unprecedented, unnecessary and unprovoked” police use of force here Nov. 20 against law-abiding, peaceful protesters.

Police in 21st century “robo-cop” gear attacked protesters with tear gas, stun guns and rubber bullets, creating terror and panic. Demonstrators suffered stinging eyes and throats, welts, bruises and bleeding.

Some 25,000 workers, students, environmentalists, religious activists, artists, farmers, immigrants and retirees had come from around the country and hemisphere, to voice opposition to the FTAA, the proposed hemispheric (except for Cuba) “free trade” agreement. The demonstrators say the FTAA would give too much power to corporations, sacrificing jobs, workers’ rights, wages, the environment, agriculture, democracy and local community control throughout the Americas.

Participants were listening to post-march speeches at the Bayside amphitheater and relaxing on the street, some dancing in front of police lines, when the police, without warning, fired tear gas and rubber bullets at them. Thousands, including retirees, were forced to run for cover. Many were trapped by lines of advancing police.

Biscayne Boulevard, Miami’s main downtown strip, looked like a war zone during the two-hour police riot. Demonstrators holed up at a nearby hotel watched the scene in horror. Police and embedded reporters wore gas masks while an armored personnel carrier patrolled the streets. Hundreds of people were trapped on one side of the street with nowhere to go. Those on the other side were forced to flee into nearby neighborhoods.

Thea Lee, the AFL-CIO’s chief international economist, who stands just over five feet, told a press conference Nov. 21, that she had encountered a group of senior citizens trying to find their bus. They were trapped between two advancing police lines. “Our senior citizens were absolutely terrified, as was I,” Lee said. She approached the police, identifying herself as an AFL-CIO staff member. “I was screamed at, yelled at and forced backwards,” she said. After she begged them not to use tear gas, the police eventually retreated.

“We are ashamed of the city of Miami,” Lee said.

Brandon Slattery, 22, part of the 50-member Young Communist League/Communist Party contingent, was forced to flee with others to nearby neighborhoods. “No one wanted to be in any confrontation. We were peaceful the whole time. But the police chased us, including with a tank, shooting rubber bullets at all of us. When people tried to exercise their rights, the police got more violent.”

Over a two-day period, Nov. 20-21, over 250 people were arrested. Among them was 70-year-old airline pilot and union member Ben Killmon, from Florida, and several union presidents from other countries. Representatives from the hundreds of organizations involved in the protests called the police violence and arrests an attack on constitutional, democratic and human rights.

Lawyer Brenna Bell, of the Miami Activist Defense Collective, told a Nov. 21 press conference here that the Miami police violence was “a microcosm for what is happening to protests around the country and world: ever-increasing repression of people who are just trying to get their voice and their ideas out.”

As police helicopters hovered overhead, Bell predicted that the unprecedented violation of rights would trigger many civil lawsuits. “This is not over,” she said.

“The mayor of Miami said this was a blueprint for Homeland Security,” Bell said. “Well, I don’t feel very secure.” Later that day Bell and 60 others were arrested in a police sweep of a peaceful jailhouse solidarity demonstration.

Union leaders strongly rebuffed attempts to split the anti-FTAA coalition of labor unions and “affinity groups.” AFL-CIO spokesperson Ron Judd told reporters, “The AFL-CIO stands in solidarity with the sisters and brothers at the [anti-FTAA] Welcome Center.” The history of the labor movement, Judd said, is to “protect those that are under assault.”

Citing “countless instances of humiliating repression in which the Miami police force disgraced itself,” United Steelworkers of America President Leo Gerard has called for a congressional investigation into the “massive police state” unleashed against the protest, in part with federal funds.

“It is doubly condemnable that $9 million of federal funds designated for the reconstruction of Iraq were used toward this despicable purpose,” Gerard said in a statement issued by the Steelworkers, “How can we hope to build democracy in Iraq while using massive force to dismantle it here at home?”

Gerard said Miami Police Chief John Timoney should be fired, and all charges against peaceful demonstrators should be dropped.

AFL-CIO organizers said they had negotiated with police for 3-1/2 months prior to the demonstration, and the police totally reneged on all agreements. “Clearly the police took orders from authorities in Miami and either reneged on agreements or it was total incompetence – you pick it,” Fred Azcarate, executive director of Jobs with Justice, told reporters.

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org.