UNITED STATES: 'Massive police state' attacks right to protest

Wednesday, December 3, 2003 - 11:00

BY BERNIE WUNSCH

MIAMI — The protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) ministerial meeting climaxed on November 20 with a large and peaceful march by more than 30,000 people opposed to corporate globalisation. However, the riot police violently dispersed protesters later that day. The demonstration was organised by the peak US trade union body, the AFL-CIO, which represents more than 13 million workers.

A huge coalition of groups came together to protest against the likely effects of the FTAA. Environmental groups, labour movement organisations, student groups, community groups and left-wing organisations attended.

However, fewer people traveled to Miami from other North American cities compared to the 1999 anti-World Trade Organisation (WTO) demonstration in Seattle.

The Miami protests focused on Canada's and the United States' exploitation of Central and South America. The necessity for cross-border solidarity and protests to defeat the FTAA was stressed both by leading trade unionists, such as AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, and activists from Central and South American countries, who described the appalling consequences of neoliberalism in their countries.

More than 8000 police were mobilised to ensure that protesters were unable to employ the tactic of blockades. Florida governor Jeb Bush reportedly spent more than US$8 million to "police" the event. The cops used high-tech surveillance equipment, five constantly swooping helicopters, new armoured-plated riot gear and the erection of kilometres of steel fencing, as well as infiltrating undercover agents into organising meetings, to try to stymie the demonstrators.

Protesters were constantly followed, photographed, stopped, searched and, on occasions, arrested without provocation during the week preceding the FTAA meeting. People suspected of being in town to protest were grabbed, seemingly at random, in "snatch operations" conducted by police in unmarked vehicles.

Businesses in downtown Miami were forced to close on police orders, schools were closed, public transport was shut down and a fence constructed for three blocks around the Intercontinental Hotel conference venue.

A large "People's Gala" featuring musicians Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, hip-hop outfit Dead Prez and Tom Morello (formerly of the Rage Against the Machine rock band) was held on November 19, largely without police harassment.

On November 20, a planned 7am march and blockade by students, environmentalists and young people was prevented by roving riot police assisted by helicopters. Five-hundred "Black Bloc" anarchist youth were pushed back 20 blocks by police. Those who made it to the protest were chased by riot cops firing concussion grenades.

The AFL-CIO rally, which was mostly ignored by the world's media, attracted many busloads of retired workers and trade unionists (including 10,000 steelworkers), as well as thousands of students, young people and community activists. Many others were kept away after police cordoned off the area. More than 160 buses filled with trade unionists were stopped by police and only allowed into Miami when the march was due to start.

The march was peaceful, despite police provocations. The permitted march route was changed at the last minute by the police. AFL-CIO organisers complied with police demands that they use marshals and enforce the "illegal ordnance" rule: that anything carried by marchers that was not made of paper or cloth had to be less than 5mm thick.

Even though the march permit did not expire until 6pm, at 4pm police dispersed the remaining demonstrators with tear gas rounds, pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades and "bean-bag" projectiles. The crowd, about 10,000-strong and still containing unionists and senior citizens, was forced to either hide in Bayside Park or flee from the police descending on them. Defensive resistance by youth, students and anarchists did little to slow the march of the police as they forced protesters out of the city. Police prevented medics from treating the injured.

In the aftermath, hundreds of people had been arrested and dozens hurt, including several who were hospitalised.

On November 24, the United Steelworkers of America's international president Leo Gerard called for a congressional investigation into the "massive police state" created by Jeb Bush during the FTAA meeting "to intimidate protesters in Miami and limit their rights". Citing "countless instances of humiliating repression in which the Miami police disgraced itself, Gerard called for the sacking of Miami police chief John Timoney. He called for all charges against peaceful demonstrators to be dropped.

As US President George Bush was proclaiming in London that he had brought "democracy" and the right to protest to Iraq, his brother ensured that the right to protest was squashed in Miami.

From Green Left Weekly, December 3, 2003.

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From GLW issue 564