Defying the Police State in Miami

“Welcome to the police state of Miami.” That’s Florida AFL-CIO President Cynthia Hall’s greeting to thousands of union members gathering in the city’s Bayfront Park Amphitheater on November 20, as we prepare to march against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) summit.

Lines of cops are aiming rifles loaded with plastic bullets at the heads of union members. They’ve roughed up and arrested several unionists already–including retirees–and they will prevent thousands from even entering the arena.

Along with the injuries come plenty of calculated insults–like the police helicopter buzzing the amphitheater as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney begins to speak. By the time the last protest is over, nearly 200 arrests will take place, with dozens of protesters injured, many seriously. And AFL-CIO leaders, protest organizers and civil liberties groups will join forces to denounce the authorities’ countless violations of civil rights.

This highly militarized–and systematically brutal–show of force by 40 law enforcement agencies won’t prevent the FTAA negotiations from unraveling behind the fortified fence that surrounds the meetings at the exclusive Inter-Continental Hotel, however. And despite police use of concussion grenades, rubber and plastic bullets, pepper spray balls, Taser stun-guns, tanks, helicopters and more, the global justice movement is reviving on the streets of Miami, with an estimated 25,000 prepared to protest.

In rallies, marches, teach-ins and one-on-one discussions, global-justice activists, labor union members, direct-action protesters, Latin American labor and social movement leaders, and antiwar movement organizers renew old alliances made during the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle–and forge new ones.

* * *

Seattle made a much bigger splash, but Miami may ultimately prove to be more meaningful for the global justice movement in the U.S. The lineup at the November 18 “spokescouncil”–a meeting of affinity groups allied for the direct-action protests at the FTAA–shows why.

Among the participants is Ron Judd, the Western regional director of the AFL-CIO, who has been assigned by the labor federation to work out an agreement with direct-action protesters who plan to challenge Miami’s martial law-style ordinances restricting protests and the fortified fence surrounding the FTAA meetings. As president of the King County Federation of Labor in Seattle in 1999, Judd helped organize the 50,000-strong march against the World Trade Organization summit, and was instrumental in organizing the protests against police abuse afterward.

At the meeting space–a welcome center organized at a rented warehouse–different organizations of protesters known as affinity groups report their names, political focus and the number of participants expected. Protesters have arrived from across the country. Some have worked together for years on particular issues–environmentalism or feminism, for example–while others have formed alliances with like-minded activists that they’ve met online or in Miami.

When Judd’s turn comes, he announces that he’s with the AFL-CIO–“an affinity group of 15,000 to 20,000 members”–to loud cheers. Also on hand is Fred Frost, president of the South Florida AFL-CIO, who says, “You aren’t getting a lot of officials who are welcoming you here, so I’d like to extend a sincere welcome,” adding that “I can’t tell you the feeling of community that I’ve experienced here.”

Several international guests are present as well. Among them is Blanca Chancoso of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (known as CONAIE by its initials in Spanish), the organizations that mobilized last year’s protest against the FTAA summit in that country.

The Ecuadorian protests defied police repression to march on the summit–and forced their way into the meeting for a face-to-face confrontation with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick. No one expects a repeat of that experience in Miami.

But protesters are determined to challenge the repressive laws and overwhelming show of force organized by Miami Police Chief John Timoney. The question on the floor is how to handle the direct-action protests so that they don’t give police a pretext to clamp down on the permitted labor march set for November 20.

After a long discussion, direct-action organizers and union leaders meet separately to map out a block-by-block plan. Chancoso joins them. While the approaches are different, the unity is genuine–and the commitment is reinforced when AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the federation’s secretary-treasurer, Rich Trumka, visit the welcome center the following day.

For the first time since the September 11 attacks led to the cancellation of the protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the fall of 2001, the global justice movement is gaining momentum.

* * *

The first big show of police force comes that same night. As about 2,500 marchers from a coalition of South Florida social movement groups known as Root Cause complete their three-day, 34-mile march from Fort Lauderdale to Miami to highlight global justice issues, hundreds of riot police surround them–tear gas, pepper spray and plastic bullets at the ready.

If the police firepower is absurdly out of proportion to the size of the protest, it’s because Chief Timoney has a wider agenda. Already notorious for ordering pre-emptive arrests and police raids on activists at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, where he was police chief, Timoney has become an ambitious national player in law enforcement and private-sector security.

After leaving Philadelphia, he served as consultant for the World Economic Forum meeting in New York in 2002, the Iraqi police in Kirkuk–and next year’s Democratic National Convention in Boston. For Timoney, the FTAA protests offer a chance to run a multi-agency operation–local jurisdiction, state troopers, FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and more–and build his resume for a top job in the federal Department of Homeland Security.

For Miami cops, the operation brings good public relations after a series of corruption scandals and a long history of racist brutality directed at the city’s African-American and Haitian populations.

And from their standpoint, the Feds see an opportunity to nationalize local law enforcement to curb protest. Thus, $8 million in funding for policing protests at the FTAA protests turned up in the $87 billion Iraq occupation funding bill–and judging by a look at the new police equipment, Timoney spent every penny.

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What’s different in Miami isn’t just the scale of the police operation, but who it’s aimed at. And members of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) have a gut feeling that they just might be targets, too.

At a steelworkers’ forum on Tuesday, November 20, USWA President Leo Gerard announces that the union will be distributing bandanas, advising the 1,500 union members at a hotel ballroom that if they dunk the cloth in vinegar, it will protect their lungs from tear gas. He adds with a grin, “Not that I have any experience with this shit, but that’s what they tell me”–to howls of laughter and cheers from workers who know Gerard’s reputation for mixing it up with police on picket lines as a leader of the USWA’s Canada division.

The USWA’s first run-in with the cops comes the following day–not in an organized demonstration, but in a spontaneous protest that comes close to a fight between union members and police. A few minutes before the scheduled start of an AFL-CIO-sponsored forum on the FTAA in downtown Miami, police grab several young people and push them against a riot gate of one of the many shops closed for the week.

Suddenly, the cops are themselves surrounded by more than a hundred angry steelworkers, whose shouts of “They didn’t do anything!” quickly turned into chants of “Let them go! Let them go!” The police call in scores of reinforcements to push the workers back, and marshals from the USWA and AFL-CIO hustle workers inside.

The police allow the young people to move on. But workers’ outrage over the heavy-handed police tactics keeps smoldering–and when the USWA member on the panel, Allen Long, denounces the cops’ “Gestapo tactics,” he gets a standing ovation.

* * *

The forum event, titled “Giving Voice to Workers of the Americas,” features workers from the U.S., Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Nicaragua in a dialogue hosted by AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson. The exchanges are moving–from the story of Salvador Estrada, a member of UNITE at the closed Pillowtex textile plant in Kannapolis, N.C., to the account of Francisca Acuna Hernandez, a worker in the maquiladora factories of Reynosa, Mexico, who was fired as an organizer by the <U.S.-based> Delphi auto parts company. “Work there is like slavery,” she says.

One of the most powerful testimonies comes from Dave Brevard, a worker at the Maytag plant in Galesburg, Ill., which will soon close and move its production to a plant in Reynosa. Looking at Hernandez, Brevard–president of International Association of Machinists Local Lodge 2063–says that “free trade isn’t the fault of workers in these other countries” to a resounding cheer from the audience.

Instead, he says, workers should focus their anger on corporations that will cut labor costs by moving production abroad, but won’t lower the prices of their products. Maytag, he points out, got millions in tax breaks to locate in Galesburg, and the plant’s closure will devastate the small city of 34,000.

He adds that members of the local in the military in Iraq will return to find that “the way of life they left behind will be gone.” The USWA’s Long also makes a reference to the war, pointing out that the U.S. has spent billions on Iraq “supposedly fighting for peace and democracy.” He’s answered by boos and cries of “Bullshit!”–directed not at him, but at George W. Bush.

All this is a long way from the ties between the U.S. labor movement and the U.S. State Department during the Cold War that led opponents of American wars abroad to refer to the federation as the “AFL-CIA”–because of union leaders’ record of helping Washington undermine democratic and militant unions in Latin America.

Contradictions remain. The AFL-CIO maintains ties with the Venezuelan trade union federation, the FTV, whose top leaders lined up with the attempted right-wing coup in that country in 2002. And the USWA itself remains committed to steel tariffs that have hurt their brothers and sisters in Brazil and other countries.

Moreover, a day before the workers’ forum, union president Gerard had invited CEO Wilbur Ross of the International Steel Group to Miami to make common cause with workers on protectionism. Gephardt for President buttons and stickers are everywhere, indicating the union’s political priorities.

But there’s no doubting the spirit of international solidarity at the workers’ forum. After describing his visit with steelworkers in Brazil, the USWA’s Long–who lost his pension after 30 years at Bethlehem Steel when the plant went bankrupt– sums it up. “We should be the Steelworkers of the Americas,” he says, “not the United Steelworkers of America.”

* * *

Internationalism dominates the People’s Gala at the Bayfront Park Amphitheater later that evening. Several thousand union members and young activists gather for a mixture of politics from union leaders like Richard Trumka and fiery anti-imperialist speeches from Blanca Chancoso of Ecuador and Bolivian union leader Oscar Olivera. Olivera describes the mass movement that overthrew that country’s president over his attempt to export Bolivia’s natural gas.

U.S. global justice activists like Njoki Njehu–of 50 Years is Enough, the anti-IMF and World Bank group–and members of United Students Against Sweatshops also address the crowd. Music from entertainers like Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, Lester Chambers and others please both young activists and older workers alike.

In the back of the arena, workers and young activists crowd literature tables on a range of political issues. The Jobs with Justice booth is overwhelmed, as workers snap up literature and sign up to get involved. Elsewhere, rank-and-file steelworkers are in long discussions with members of the International Socialist Organization.

Some of the biggest cheers are for Camille Chalmers, a leader of Haiti’s Platform for the Advocacy of Alternative Development, who revs up the crowd by recalling how the Haitian Revolution defeated the armies of France and Britain two centuries ago. “With this energy, we will overthrow the FTAA,” Chalmers declares, adding, “We say no to imperialism.”

Later on, Fred Frost of the South Florida AFL-CIO joins with a direct action protester to announce that union members who wish to join a march to the gate following the next day’s rally should meet at 5 <p.m.–a> public statement about the unity negotiated earlier. The scene–red-shirted members of UNITE, blue-shirted USWA members and militant young activists–recalls the World Social Forum in Brazil, where tens of thousands have gathered for the last three years to discuss alternatives to free-market policies.

The official AFL-CIO slogan for the FTAA protest–the words “Good Jobs” superimposed on the globe–doesn’t even begin to capture the mood. The feeling is much more in tune with the theme of the social forum movement: Another World Is Possible.

* * *

The next morning, some of the obstacles to that new world are on display in all their ugliness. The planned direct action protests are undermined at the outset when police prevent several hundred protesters from marching from the welcome center to the downtown meeting point, where a march to the fence is planned, starting at 7 a.m.

After several attempts to get to the fence, protesters are herded by police into an area near the fence–just down the street from where union members are expected to march. A cop announces that the protesters will be permitted to stay in the area as long as they don’t move forward–but the cops themselves advance a few minutes later, tossing concussion grenades and shooting plastic bullets, pepper spray and tear gas.

This gives the police the pretext to tighten security around the Bayfront Park Amphitheater, preventing thousands of workers from even entering the event. Inside, top labor leaders–including UNITE President Bruce Raynor and Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)–denounce the police, as does Sweeney. “The cops have broken every single agreement they’ve made with us,” shouts a furious Ron Judd, who suddenly has to improvise a new march route.

Incredibly, the workers assemble–organized, purposeful and increasingly angry with police. The Steelworkers, decked out in brand-new “FTAA Sucks” T-shirts, lead the way. They’re followed by unions rarely seen in political marches, such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Several thousand global justice demonstrators–most barred by police from entering the amphitheater–join as well, with the total turnout reaching about 25,000. The march is scheduled to end with another rally, but with police once again restricting access, most choose to leave instead.

As the crowd shrinks, the police make another, far more aggressive move–this time swinging clubs and shooting plastic bullets at point blank range. Among the injured are Vicky Hartman, an artist shot in the head while meditating in front of police lines; Rex Blazer, a visitor from Alaska in town to arrange medical treatment for his child, who was shot in the lip; and Jennifer Waltz, who was clubbed in the head by a cop and Tasered on her arm and breast while trying to talk to a reporter near police lines.

The cops keep pursuing protesters, scattering them into the African American neighborhood of Overtown. A 42-year-old man, a lifelong resident of the area, says he’s never seen a police presence like this–not even during the 1989 riots on the eve of that year’s Super Bowl, when a police killing of a Black man sparked a neighborhood rebellion.

A police helicopter circles constantly over the protesters’ welcome center, and at a nearby staging area, police prepare for a raid that could come at any minute. A press pass is no guarantee of avoiding police brutality. Several Latino reporters–including those with cameras, microphones and the like–are struck, pepper-sprayed or beaten by police.

Local TV news coverage casts the cops as heroes who saved Miami from destruction. When word comes that the FTAA talks have ended early, news anchors parrot the line that the talks are a “success”–even though the U.S. has been forced to swallow its demands for new rules on trade and investment.

* * *

The next day, November 21, nearly 200 activists protest this brutality by staging a peaceful sit-in outside the jail, where some activists are processed and released, while others face trumped-up felony charges with bail as high as $10,000. Word is passed that the police will allow the protest to continue until 5 p.m. But well before then, the cops move in, shooting pepper spray and roughing up about 60 more people.

Downtown, the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and the American Civil Liberties Union call a press conference to denounce the police crackdown and announce that they’re exploring legal action against the police. By Saturday, November 22, most out-of town protesters have returned home, but the fallout over the police attacks on the demonstrations continues.

The Miami police are unrepentant. “The AFL-CIO should look inward and question the wisdom of inviting avowed troublemakers to participate in a rally,” the department says in a statement written for the Miami Herald. The message is clear enough: In the view of those assigned to defend the interests of Corporate America, organized labor isn’t made up of respectable citizens, but troublemakers who have to be taught a lesson.

The lesson for the global justice movement, however, is a different one. The global justice movement will continue to be full of differences and debate–over the 2004 elections, steel tariffs and much more.

But Miami showed that a movement for global justice can be built in the U.S.–one that can not only withstand police repression, but put forward an alternative based on internationalism, solidarity and struggle. Another world is possible–and the protests in Miami marked a revival of the movement in the U.S. to make that world a reality.

LEE SUSTAR writes for the Socialist Worker, where this essay originally appeared. He can be reached at:


LEE SUSTAR is the labor editor of Socialist Worker