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Militarization in Miami: Threatening the Right to Protest

With more than $10 million in special funding (including $8.5 million from the federal government's Iraq appropriations bill), 2,500 officers -- many clad in full body armor and backed up by armored vehicles -- turned Miami into a veritable police state.

Police used wildly excessive force to deal with protesters. They launched unprovoked attacks against people who were doing nothing illegal. They sprayed tear gas and pepper spray at protesters -- including retirees -- and shot many with rubber bullets or taser guns. They knocked down peaceful protesters and held guns to their heads, and blocked thousands of retirees and union members on buses from joining a rally and march for which all required permits had been obtained. They attacked journalists viewed as hostile.
Published on Wednesday, November 26, 2003 by CommonDreams.org

Militarization in Miami: Threatening the Right to Protest

by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

There was a real threat to the social order on the streets of Miami last week, during the Ministerial Meeting of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

It wasn't protesters, not even those calling themselves anarchists or even those dressed in black.

No, the threat came from the Miami police, Florida state troopers and the other police and military forces patrolling the city.

With more than $10 million in special funding (including an $8.5 million allocation in the federal government's Iraq appropriations bill), 2,500 or so officers -- many clad in full body armor and backed up by armored vehicles -- turned Miami into a veritable police state.

As was almost inevitable, the police used wildly excessive force to deal with protesters. They launched unprovoked attacks against people who were doing nothing illegal. They sprayed tear gas and pepper spray at protesters -- including retirees -- and shot many with rubber bullets. They used taser guns. They knocked down peaceful protesters and held guns to their heads. They blocked thousands of retirees and union members on buses from joining a rally and march for which all required permits had been obtained. They attacked journalists viewed as hostile. They arrested approximately 250 persons, according to the best estimates, with little or no rationale. Credible reports have emerged of brutality and sexual harassment against several of those jailed.

At least as serious, the police deterred thousands from even considering joining the FTAA protests -- and protests into the future.

In sunny Miami, it was a dark week for the First Amendment, for civil liberties and for the right to dissent.

A South African activist told us how deeply frightened she was walking down the streets of Miami. Even before the police violence erupted, marching in the streets amidst thousands of armored police sent chills down her spine, she said.

Last week's outrages had their roots in months of planning led by Miami Police Chief John Timoney. He whipped the city and the police force into a frenzy. The absurdist invocation of an anarchist threat convinced the local media (especially television reporters) and much of the local population that downtown would be a riot zone. That was enough to empty the downtown, and scare many local Miamians from joining any of the protests, no matter how tame.

We had first-hand experience with this problem. We had been involved in a planning a small demonstration on Tuesday -- two days before the main protests. We had obtained all requisite permits from the police. With agreement from their schools, more than 100 high school students were eager to join our small action highlighting how the FTAA and trade agreements interfere with anti-smoking and other public health measures. But no school could feel comfortable sending students to a militarized downtown, and so the students were not able to demonstrate. We turned our rally into a news conference.

This was a small incident. Our demonstration wasn't going to change the world. (We do, however, intend to win on our demand to exclude tobacco products from all trade agreements.) But as an illustrative example, it is incredibly important, for it shows how police overdeployment, scare tactics and militarization intimidates people from marching in the streets and opposing corporate- and state-approved policy.

It wasn't just the public and media that Timoney managed to frighten. There's little doubt that the police themselves buy the propaganda. After months of excessive training and hearing about the dangers posed by protesters, and empowered by new body armor, shields, batons and other equipment, the police were, to say the least, overeager to lunge at protesters. (Said one of a group of 10 cops on bikes as they crossed the street to assess the scene at our news conference, and with one of us standing right next to them, "Let's go fuck 'em up.")

By the time of the main demonstrations on Thursday, the police couldn't hold themselves back.

In different circumstances, it would have been funny to see the police outnumbering the direct action protesters, or the comically attired "undercover" agents who were a bit too well built to credibly seem part of the ranks of the slight direct action protesters -- many of whom are vegans.

But it wasn't funny.

Not when the police -- responding to the smallest provocations, such as a couple small fires lit in trashcans -- went berserk and attacked large crowds of protesters. Not when credible reports say some of those undercover agents may have been provocateurs, and when several of them emerged as some of the most brutal in attacking protesters.

There is immediate need now to support those who were jailed and mistreated, and force the city to drop trumped up charges against protesters.

You can help by sending a fax to Miami Mayor Manuel Diaz protesting the violation of constitutional rights. Public Citizen has established a free fax site at:  http://www.citizen.org/fax/background.cfm?ID=245&source=19

Those who are facing charges will need legal help. You can donate to support them by going to:  http://stopftaa.org/article.php?list=type&type=42 or to  http://www.unitedforpeace.org/ftaadonate

Activists, the National Lawyers Guild, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties standard bearers must do all they can and will do to oppose the rising repression evidenced in Miami. But that's not enough.

There will, undoubtedly, be civil lawsuits down the road, and, if there is any justice, they will succeed. But that's not enough, either. As important as such litigation is, it is clear from recent crackdown on protests around the United States that police forces are willing to absorb the costs of these suits.

The present cycle is that the media and political establishment applaud the police for running scare campaigns, militarizing cities, directing violence against protesters and blatantly violating civil liberties. Often, as details emerge, criticism emerges from those same pillars of society.

This must change. The establishment must speak out now, immediately after the abuses occurred. They are apparent to anyone who cares to know about them.

In the future, the establishment -- we mean newspaper editors, political leaders of all parties, lawyers, even corporate executives -- must insist on appropriate police tactics in advance of large-scale protests, and they must make clear that regular police and top officers alike will be held personally accountable for abuses. If they fail to pursue this course, the consequences for the right to protest will be grim indeed.

~ ~ ~

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter  http://www.corporatecrimereporter.com/ Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor  http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/ They are co-authors of' Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy'  http://www.corporatepredators.org/ (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press).

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