You Have the Right to Remain Silent

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On Nov. 20, I was among thousands of
people gathered in Miami, Florida to
protest negotiations for the Free Trade
Area of the Americas (FTAA). Estimates
range from 5,000 to 20,000, but it is clear
that however many people were there, the
police presence was shockingly disproportionate
(according to the St. Petersburg Times, there were
2,500 police on duty [Nov. 30, 2003]) In the downtown
area, police clad in riot gear were visible on nearly every
corner all week. Helicopters were audible 24 hours a day.
Driving into town on Wednesday night, we were greeted by
a helicopter slowing overhead as its spotlight shined on
our car. A line of 20 to 30 police dressed in full riot gear
stood guarding a McDonalds – the priorities of Miami
officials could hardly be clearer. Each morning as I left the
hotel, I grew used to feeling hunted. “Be aware of everything
around you, don’t get separated from your group,
and don’t let our group get separated from a group too
large to be thrown into a paddy wagon at once,” I thought.
Above all, “Don’t get snatched.” I felt like I had to watch
what I said whenever I was outside the hotel room (no
cries of “smash the state” – joking or otherwise – outside
the safety of the walls of our room), and I felt that I had to
be suspicious of everybody I didn’t know personally.
Perhaps you think I sound paranoid. I once thought
that a lot of this was activist paranoia or the fears of those
who had done something wrong. But planning to attend a
protest isn’t illegal, is it? I did not plan to do anything illegal,
and there I was faced with lines of police officers standing
at attention.
In Miami, the status of our right to protest was thrown
into stark relief. There is a lot of coverage about the extreme
limitations being placed on our first amendment rights
these days, but we seldom realize the extent to which the
very terms of the debate have put us on the defensive. The
corporate media proclaims most protestors to be peaceful
but then focuses on a small group of “violent anarchists.”
Most people are left wondering why anyone would want to
put themselves in the protestors’ position, often condemning
those who do attend as instigators.What we don’t often
ask is, why are the police there in the first place?
The major form of direct action that took place in
Miami was an “unpermitted” march. The very concept of
obtaining a permit from those one is targeting seems
absurd. Most of the “extreme” direct action tactics in
Miami were centered around destroying the fence that separated
citizens from the hotel where the FTAA Ministerial
meetings were taking place. It surrounded several blocks of
downtown Miami, keeping everyone but the police and, I
presume, certain approved people away from the trade
ministers. The fence was not an important piece of city
property targeted by anarchists as a symbol of their desire
to smash the state but rather a piece of equipment
designed to create an effective no protest zone. The constitutionality
of such zones is dubious. The fence was not
meant to keep anyone safe; its sole purpose was to keep
voices from being heard. Had protestors managed to
destroy the fence instead of being preemptively harassed,
no one would have been harmed by its loss. If we had been
allowed to walk up to the doors of the Intercontinental
Hotel, would it have been more dangerous than allowing
people to walk down the streets freely on any other day?
Instead, it was citizens who were harmed. We were
shoved back violently time and time again for coming within
a four or five block radius of the hotel; we were attacked
with rubber bullets, bean bags, paintballs filled with pepper
spray, and tear gas for not dispersing quickly enough. And
when we asked police officers how to comply with their
orders we were refused an answer but were instead forced to
keep running ahead of the police line. Dozens if not hundreds
of people were injured.And what had we done? Gathered
in the streets armed with our voices and opinions.
When there’s no choice left at the polls that doesn’t serve
corporate interests over human interests, what are our
options? Stay at home and wait for the corporate media
(Disney or Rupert Murdoch, take your pick) to tell us about
the new hemispheric trade agreement that’s already been
signed – if it even makes the news at all? But even the right
to stand in the street and disagree, a right so crucial to education
and democracy, is being steadily taken away.
If the worst things that happened in Miami were property
destruction (which was minimal, see the Miami Herald,
Nov. 21, 2003) and people throwing rocks, what were
the undercover cops there to prevent? Rocks can be dangerous,
but I’m not sure that police equipped with full
body padding, shields, helmets, and facemasks are at a lot
of risk from hand-thrown rocks. Perhaps as a society we
need to re-evaluate the danger of property destruction and
the actual impact upon the owner and the public. Who
suffered as a result of damage to a fence protecting no one?
It was the decision to build the fence, and then to protect it
at all costs that caused the suffering – of taxpayers who
funded the enterprise, of protestors who merely asked to
be heard, and of rank and file police officers who were
placed in an artificially tense situation.
There were several reports of undercover police officers
and, I suspect, many more undercover officers who did not
reveal themselves. I witnessed a group arresting a man from
the middle of a peaceful crowd. During the lull late Thursday
morning, between a semi-spontaneous, “unpermitted”
march that morning and the AFL-CIO led rally, many of us
who were relaxing along Biscayne Ave witnessed what
looked very much like an undercover snatch arrest. I heard
a scuffle behind me and, as I started looking around, a small
group of people struggling with one another came around
in front of me. It was a group of about ten people all in
casual clothing moving jerkily toward the police line. As it
became clear that one group was trying to drag a young
man with them and one group was trying to stop them,
others from the crowd ran up to assist this man. A large
intimidating figure dressed in unconvincing protestor
clothing emerged and boomed “Get back!” at those of us
rushing up to the scuffle. People were temporarily stunned,
but soon someone yelled, “Help him!” and we began rushing
forward again. A woman dressed in black clothing but
with her face uncovered jumped in front of the group and
shot a tazer gun into the air repeatedly while yelling at us all
to stay back. I didn’t realize until that moment that we were
watching an undercover arrest and an attempted “unarrest.”
At this point the man was being dragged by his feet with his
shoulders and head scraping the ground. I assume that he,
and perhaps some of those participating in the “unarrest”
were taken to jail.
One wonders what crime the man could have been
committing without attracting wider notice in the crowd
until his arrest. This type of behavior on the part of the
Miami authorities creates a climate of fear. I am left to
assume that the man was arrested for something he said in
the presence of undercover police officers.
There have also been several reports of undercover or
ski-masked police officers violently picking people up off
the street. One woman reported that she had seen several
men dressed in black with bandannas covering their faces
jump out of a vehicle and attack two protestors leaving the
demonstration on Thursday. She reported that the two
were beaten and then thrown into the vehicle. One of these
people was a legal observer wearing a bright green hat that
said “Legal Observer.” There are other reports of legal
observers being especially targeted by such squads of
police officers.
The implications of these incidents run deep. The chilling
effect on dissent is more profound than the scars of
police abuse or the danger of allowing unnamed police
officers (who are nearly impossible to hold accountable) to
make sweeping arrests. Surveillance criminalizes dissent by
making people feel as though they can be whisked off to
jail or placed on a “watch” list by taking one false step or
expressing their opinions too frankly. These lists can be
used to restrict access to jobs, travel, scholarships, and
many other things, to say nothing of the absolute powerlessness
that accompanies a trip to jail.
Placing undercover agents among community groups
leaves the door open for agents provocateur.With 8.5 million
federal dollars pledged for security in Miami, what
happens if there is no reason to arrest anyone? Can John
Timoney, the police chief in Miami, afford that risk? Isn’t it
at least possible that Timoney, in true Foucauldian fashion,
used his power to ensure that the Miami Police Department
and the other forces on duty had at least a small
excuse to use their new security toys? Furthermore, it’s a
felony to point out a federal agent while they’re on duty
even if they are committing a seemingly illegal act like
throwing a rock. Those of us who are targeted by such surveillance
are left with very few tactics to combat it and even
fewer to enforce any kind of legal checks on this system.
How are we to build strong communities of resistance
when so many people are afraid of having their faces recognized
and their legal names known?
It’s easy for the scuffle in the streets to overshadow the
issues at hand. In fact, I’m not so sure that this isn’t intentional
on the part of the powers that be. Either way, it makes
sense to examine the relationship between protesting and
putting a stop to the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Most protestors have very personal reasons for attending
a demonstration like the one in Miami, but I think one
common reason would be to draw attention to the larger
political issue. As pointed out in The Nation by Sarah
Anderson and John Cavanagh (Dec. 1, 2003), nine years
ago trade ministers from all over Latin America were able
to move freely throughout Miami at one of the first meetings
to shape the FTAA. Nine years ago, who ever heard of
the FTAA? What about the World Bank, the IMF, or the
WTO? I will not claim that today these institutions can
compete with Michael Jackson for television news coverage,
nor will I say that a significant proportion of the American population understands the neoliberal agenda
and what it stands for. I will, however, point out that many
more people have at least now heard these terms and a significant
number of them are interested in why the WTO
might be important to them.
Attending protests not only draws media coverage to
the event, it forces everyone you know to ask why you are
going. I know at least ten people who know a lot more
about the FTAA than they did before because of my participation
in the protests.
Several folks I talked to in Miami felt that the best thing
that came out of the two days was the solidarity between
union members and anti-capitalists. One woman told me a
story about how she and her friends had been stopped by
an intimidating man in a pickup truck, only to be offered
food and a ride back to their hotel in appreciation of their
role as protestors. I appreciated the exposure to a lot of different
people and worldviews. Being in Miami gave me a
sense of what an alternative model might look like.
Whether it was because of us or not, it is certain that the
outcome of the meeting was not the result of the United
States throwing its weight around. The United States did
not get its way, and by most accounts the meeting was a
failure due to lack of enthusiasm for continuing economic
liberalization in South America. Most notably, it’s been
rumored that the FTAA will not contain a provision like
Chapter 11 of NAFTA, the infamous clause that allows corporations
to sue regional governments for infringing upon
their ability to make a profit.
This is all good news, but I think it’s fair to say that protestors
were able to accomplish surprisingly little. I recognize
that not everyone has the time, money, or privilege to
be able to attend an anti-corporate globalization protest,
but more of us who do need to show up. The more of us
there are in the street, the stronger we are, the safer we are,
and the more we can accomplish. If 100,000 people had
come to Miami, we would have been able to make our own
decisions instead of having the police department make
them for us.
The legacy of Miami won’t be understood until the last
cases are working their way through the courts. A lot of
tragic things happened that week; there are allegations that
people of color were targeted for torture in jail as a way to
manipulate a group into cooperating with the system,
some evidence that transgendered people suffered sexual
abuse at the hands of authorities so that they could be categorized
as either male or female, and countless people
who were doused in pepper spray as they were being
arrested for failure to disperse.
But it wasn’t all bad. At the Really, Really Free Market
we bartered our skills and showed off our talents. At the
convergence center, we learned to take care of each other
and to listen to each other. As IMCstas, we learned to value
our mission more than ever. In some minds, the FTAA
protests in Miami were just another in a series of pointless
conflicts between activists and the police. Personally, I
came back from Miami stronger, wiser, more confident,
and more convinced than ever of what needs to be done.
And that’s what we need to become a healthier society.

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