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Thursday, Dec. 18, 2003 02:20 pm

Bad Boys

A longtime Springfield activist headed south to protest a free-trade agreement. She expected trouble, but had no idea how hot things would get.

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Cover photograph by Jonathan Postal (Miami New Times)

Going to an anti-globalization protest combines the experience of a high-quality graduate seminar and a really cool international celebration with the experience of being tear-gassed.

In other words, it's full of contradictions.

I went to Miami for the Nov. 19-21 protests because it is absolutely necessary to stop the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). This agreement affects 800 million people and involves trillions of dollars in trade. And the first contradiction was that nobody I talked to on the plane knew about it.

Why is FTAA so bad? Because it's based on a one-size-fits-all economic theory, some have dubbed the "Washington Consensus," that hurts people. Since the early 1980s, the U.S. and other Western industrial powers have pressed developing countries to turn publicly owned enterprises over to private control, deregulate energy and communications, and open their borders to a flood of imports and foreign investment. In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did the same for the U.S. and its neighbors, Canada and Mexico.

Critics contend NAFTA cost the U.S. 766,000 jobs; proponents argue just as many jobs have been created. But focusing on jobs alone oversimplifies the issue. Under NAFTA, working people in all three countries have lost: Wages have gone down and unions weakened. The U.S. has forfeited a good part of its industrial base; Mexico has lost its ability to feed itself. Mexico has gained jobs in low-wage maquiladoras, the assembly plants just south of its border with the U.S., but the maquiladoras depend on tax breaks, pollute the environment, and now are moving to China. The only real NAFTA winners are multinational corporations and smaller companies that can find a small, probably short-lived lead in the race to ever-lower prices and wages. FTAA would extend NAFTA to all the countries in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba. It would also expand key NAFTA regulations to the service sector, which makes up between 70 and 80 percent of the U.S. economy.

I also went to Miami because I believed there would be trouble. Witnesses were needed. Youthful protesters are often stereotyped as violent anarchists and targeted for abuse by the police. Challenging the economic/financial status quo is dangerous. This has been the case since 1999 when protests closed down the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. At that time the police response could be attributed to surprise and panic. Since then, huge shows of police force, preemptive arrests and varying degrees of police violence have been the rule.

However, I was stunned to learn on arriving in Miami that in order to defend the city, theBush administration had diverted to Miami and Dade County law enforcement some $8.5 million from appropriations for the war in Iraq. Surely this money could have been spent better.

Iwent to Miami with members of the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America. A nonprofit organization made up of religious congregations, church leaders and individuals, CRLN lobbies Congress on issues affecting Latin America, takes part in social-justice delegations, sponsors Latin American speakers and sometimes engages in nonviolent civil disobedience. Our 15-member group consisted of people of faith whose lives and politics have been changed by our government's policies in Latin America, many of us shocked into awareness in the 1980s by the U.S.-sponsored violence in Central America. Elaine Martinez, 73, is an example. She had gone to Costa Rica and Nicaragua in 1986 and to Guatemala and El Salvador in 1989. In March 2003 she was in Baghdad with Voices in the Wilderness to protest the impending war and to be with Iraq civilians.

The contradictions just kept coming. On Wednesday, Nov. 19, making our way through a closed-down city, we attended workshops on the FTAA. You have to understand that the people who went to these workshops and listened intently for hours trying to understand the fine print of trade agreements are those same young, "dangerous anarchists" that Miami was arming itself against.

You can learn a lot at these seminars. The first one was about effects of the FTAA's expanded rules, which might include a whole range of public services and define laws to protect consumers and the environment as trade barriers. Nobody knew exactly what is in these rules because negotiations have been limited to the trade ministers themselves -- who get their information from the corporate sector. All other sectors have been excluded.

A doctor from El Salvador told us that in 2002 when his government tried to privatize health care, doctors and nurses led the entire country in a successful general strike. "We weren't asking for benefits," she told us, "just for no privatization." The FTAA would allow multinationals to take over health care, she said. And when that happens, "those who can't pay die." A Canadian speaker from the Polaris Institute, a democratic strategy group based in Ottawa, worried that FTAA would open Canada's universal health care system to privatization and undermine efforts in the U.S. to create a similar system. A Jamaican told how nurses in her country are contracted by private companies to work for low wages in U.S. hospitals. Jamaican hospitals are in crisis, the emigrating nurses are exploited, wages go down in the U.S. The main beneficiaries are the contractors. Disturbing news. I wondered why the press wasn't there.

Luis Aldofo Cardona, an Afro-Colombian union leader who now lives in Chicago, spoke at another session. A member of the Colombian Food and Beverage Workers Union, he was forced to flee his country because of death threats. Coca-Cola bottling companies in Colombia are accused of hiring rightwing paramilitaries to kill union leaders. Paramilitaries have also tortured and killed union leaders at Colombia's notorious Drummond Coal Mine.

Jaime Castillo, a leader of Mexico's peasant farmers, told us that by opening Mexico to subsidized grains from Canada and U.S., NAFTA has driven hundreds of thousands of Mexican peasant farmers from their land. He said that his country, once food self-sufficient, now imports chicken from Tyson -- some of which, Castillo alleged, is rotten and not fit to eat. He was joined by a family farmer from Wisconsin who runs a small organic farm. Together they laid out some alternatives to the "free trade or isolationism" choice being offered to us now -- alternatives that could provide farmers all over the world with a decent living and eliminate the subsidies that mostly feed Cargill and other multinationals.

The biggest contradiction on Wednesday was that we learned that the FTAA talks had, well, failed. Brazil's corporate farmers demanded access to our citrus, meat and soybean markets, and didn't back down when the U.S. negotiator would not budge. You don't mess with Brazil anymore: It's now one of the world's top 10 economies. Nor did Argentina and Venezuela think much of what our country was proposing. So, the FTAA is finished, eh? No need for protests? The Latin American ministers did it for us. They knew their people would kick them out of office if they signed such a lopsided agreement.

Not so fast. The Brazilians proposed and everyone adopted what they call FTAA Lite. It lets countries choose what areas they want to agree on and what they don't. Then they can make smaller, bilateral agreements and maybe continue the larger talks (though no one is setting any dates) and maybe meet the great 2005 deadline to put the FTAA in place.

Although the FTAA talks had hit a bump, we didn't pack up and go home. Instead, we hurried to an unprecedented meeting. The coalition of unions, environmental, human rights and social justice organizations sponsoring the protests had invited the trade ministers to leave the heavily guarded Inter-Continental Hotel where the FTAA talks were being held and come on over to a Methodist church to visit with us. Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela sent representatives. They were not speaking to us as individuals but addressing us as U.S. civil society! The Brazilian representative said agreeing to disagree would buy time for people all over the Americas -- including us sitting right there in those church pews -- to reform the FTAA. The Venezuelan didn't think the FTAA could be reformed; instead, she called for new premises and new policies. Then an Ecuadoran woman rose from the audience: "We are the indigenous, the people of America. We are starving. We do not want the FTAA."

I was deeply moved. We were being invited to be a part of this huge social movement to reshape the way people in the Western Hemisphere live and work. We were being asked to help create new economic communities that are humane, sustainable, and democratic. It was obvious we had to be here in Miami just to listen to these people.

But where was the press? Why weren't they taking notes on all this?

The last contradiction is the biggest. If it was "FTAA Lite" inside the Inter-Continental on Thursday, Nov. 20, it was -- to use Noami Klein's name for it in The Globe and Mail of Toronto -- "War Lite" for protesters outside. Well, what do you expect when you've got millions to spend on personnel and hardware and Miami Police Commissioner John Timoney saying: "These are outsiders coming in to terrorize and vandalize our city."

On that Thursday, there were attacks by violent anarchists, just as the FBI and police had been predicting. During two demonstrations on Biscayne Avenue near the Inter-Continental, some members of "a radical Black Bloc group" threw rocks and bottles at the police and also bags containing white paint, vinegar, and possibly urine, according to the Miami Herald. I am afraid of violence. I am afraid of violent protesters. These agitators, if the accounts are accurate, deserved to be arrested and punished. But I also have to tell you that the Herald described the anarchist attacks as "modest assaults." They were met with pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades and tear gas and quickly defeated -- with considerable collateral damage to nonviolent protesters.

The initial count, reported by the Herald, was "at least 12 activists treated at Jackson Memorial Hospital for minor injuries," 125 people seeking help at an "activist medical center" for various injuries, and three police officers "treated for minor injuries." Seems like a more restrained police response could have done a better job of protecting public safety and civil rights.

A young woman named Victoria Welle was at the first of those Biscayne Avenue demonstrations. She was introduced to me on Wednesday by Allison Paul, a member of our CRLN group. Paul helped bring Students Against Sweatshops to Loyola University in Chicago in 1999. Welle was a volunteer legal observer for the protests. She gave us a list of our rights and a phone number to call if we were arrested. It turned out she was the one we should have been worried about. Here's her account:

"Two protesters had been wrestled to the ground, one had blood dripping from his head. I was trying to get information on who the protesters were, what they were being charged with, etc., when a man wearing a plaid shirt with a United Students Against Sweatships button yelled at me to get the hell out of the way. At first glance I thought he might be one of the USAS allies in organized labor, perhaps being overprotective and trying to keep more protesters from being arrested . . ." He turned out to be an undercover cop. Before Welle could explain who she was, he had threatened to arrest her.

I did not witness the clashes on Biscayne Avenue, but I did see the police attack at Bayside Park. It began on that same day at approximately 4 p.m. A permitted march of some 10,000 people had just reached its destination in front of the Bayside Park amphitheater. It was a high-spirited march under a bright blue sky. We were such a diverse group of people that just looking at each other was a lesson in a new kind of globalism.

We knew that this march was making history. We also knew that we had been had. The AFL-CIO had a permit and had negotiated the route with the Miami police. The march was to go past the Inter-Continental and to be seen by at least some real, live Miami residents. At the last minute, Commissioner Timoney truncated the route. We marched through a deserted downtown. Our audience was hundreds of police officers blocking every side street. At some intersections, they were backed by officers on motorcycles, bicycles or in cars. Six helicopters flew overhead. The Herald described the show of force as "unprecedented" with "more than 2,500 officers from at least 40 agencies."

After the march, we rested under a tree and debated what to do. We had heard that at some unspecified site several blocks away, a group of protesters were planning to engage in a nonviolent "direct action," risking arrest. We felt we should be there. All that turned out to be moot.

At the foot of the grassy slope rising to the amphitheater, a large crowd was gathering. They were facing a line of police. Some people in the crowd were yelling at the police; most were merely watching. We decided to do our witnessing right there.

I stood near the police line with Frank Schneider, a retired lawyer from Chicago. The police were dressed in padded tan outfits with black body armor that made them look like Ninja Turtles. They had big black helmets and clear plastic shields. They began beating on their shields with their batons. Then further down the line they fired tear gas canisters at the crowd. We couldn't see what was happening.

Schneider said to one of the police officers, "We have a right to be standing here." The officer didn't answer. He just moved forward with the others, beating his shield. Schneider and I began to walk away slowly. The officer shoved Schneider in the back with his shield and told him to "lift his feet." We walked faster. I saw greenish clouds of tear gas and people running away from it. I heard sharp pops. Rubber bullets? I couldn't believe they would do that. We took refuge with many others on the grassy slope. Above us in the amphitheater, people got a bird's-eye view. Melinda St. Louis of Witness for Peace said the police began moving forward "almost as though they were responding to a military order."

Schneider and I were luckier than Dick Heidkamp, a 72-year-old CRLN board member, and Leah Niezwaag, 22, who is serving as CRLN's secretary under a Lutheran volunteer program. This was Leah's first demonstration. "The police were coming across the lawn like a lawnmower," she told us. Trying to defuse the situation, Dick approached an officer and said, "We are trying to disperse. Where can we go?" The policeman's response was to pepper spray both of them in the eyes.

I talked to two people who had been hit by rubber bullets. A woman had been in hit in the breast. The wound was ugly, a purple and yellow bruise and bleeding, broken skin. A young man obviously in pain had been hit in the crotch. Street medics had assured him that he would be all right. "I'm okay, but my friends left," he kept telling us. "We were going to a poetry reading on the South Beach tonight. I can't find my friends." Before we could offer him any help, he was gone. Below us another young man knelt on the ground, covering his face with his hands. People ran over with their water bottles to rinse out his eyes. The crowd yelled, "Shame, shame."

A young Latino man, slight in build, faced the police line. He was wearing blue jeans, a white shirt and had a red bandana tied around his neck. He had a piece of torn cardboard with "NO to the FTAA" written on it in black magic marker, which he held out at arm's length, as if offering it to the police for their perusal. People yelled and ran. Tear gas drifted around him -- sometimes making it hard to see him. The police threatened and beat their shields. He remained absolutely still. This continued for time-stopping minutes, as we watched in awe. Then the police surged forward again. I don't know what happened to him.

That's what I saw at Bayside Park on Nov. 20.

On Friday afternoon, a worried Allison Paul got through to Victoria Welle on a cell phone. "Are you all right?" The reply was, "I can't talk long. I'm in the paddy wagon." In her capacity as legal observer, Victoria had been with a group of about 150 people gathered in front of the Miami jail to demand the release of the FTAA prisoners. It was a nonviolent protest on public property. The police surrounded the protesters and told them they had three minutes to disperse. A few protesters sat on the ground. The rest, chanting, "We are dispersing," began to leave. The police closed in with pepper spray and arrested over 60 people. Among them was a reporter for a progressive paper. When the police saw her press credentials, they asked if she was "one of ours." (Yes, the police had "embedded" reporters just like in the war against Iraq.) In the police station, the reporter was forced to take off her pepper-sprayed clothes in front of male policemen. Other women have complained of the same treatment. Welle was released on Sunday after she and about 50 others pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and failure to obey a lawful order and are now awaiting trial.

By Friday night, the arrest estimate rose to 250. Of these, 130 were still in jail on Saturday. This was a matter of concern because people who called from jail or had been released already were reporting that guards were abusing prisoners.

Melinda St. Louis verified that Luis Aldofo Cardona, the Colombian labor activist, was arrested and burned with electric prods on his ankles and legs. He told the four U.S. steelworkers who were arrested with him, "Back in Colombia, they chased me and tried to kill me, but they never put me in prison. Here in the United States, I go to jail!"

Since the protests, Amnesty International has called for an independent investigation of charges that jailed protesters were mistreated. The United Steelworkers has called for a congressional investigation, alleging its members were "systematically intimidated" by police. John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, has accused the police of violating "virtually every agreement made with the union in advance of the protests."

What happened in Miami was about suppressing dissent, not protecting public safety. The police, with the tacit approval of the Bush administration and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, crossed a new line here. We had better take care. If we don't wake up and start acting like we live in a democracy, we will find ourselves in a corporate/military state.

Also from Peggy Sower Knoepfle

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