The future was being modeled on both sides of the massive steel fence erected around the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami last Thursday. Inside, delegates from every nation in the western hemisphere but Cuba watered down some portions of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement and postponed deciding on others in an attempt to prevent a failure as stark as that of the World Trade Organization ministerial in Cancun two months before. Outside, an army of 2,500 police in full armor used a broad arsenal of weapons against thousands of demonstrators and their constitutional rights. “Not every day do you get tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, and hit in the face,” said Starhawk, a prominent figure in the global anticapitalism movement,, who experienced all three Thursday.
Since the Seattle surprise of 1999, it has become standard procedure to erect a miniature police state around globalization summits, and it’s hard not to read these rights-free zones as prefigurations of what full-blown corporate globalization might bring. After all, this form of globalization would essentially suspend local, regional, and national rights of self-determination over labor, environmental, and agricultural conditions in the name of the dubious benefits of the free market, benefits that would be enforced by unaccountable transnational authorities acting primarily to protect the rights of capital. At a labor forum held the day before the major actions, Dave Bevard, a laid-off union metalworker, referred to this new world order as “government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations.”
The corporate agenda of NAFTA and related globalization treaties is demonstrated most famously by the case of MTBE, a gasoline additive that causes severe damage to human health and the environment. When California phased it out, the Canadian corporation Methanex filed a lawsuit demanding nearly a billion dollars in compensation from the US government for profit lost because of the ban. Under NAFTA rules, corporations have an absolute right to profit with which local laws must not interfere. Poisoning the well is no longer a crime; stopping the free flow of poison is.
The FTAA, modeled after NAFTA, was originally intended to create a borderless trade zone that would encompass the whole hemisphere (except, of course, for Cuba). That globalization is an economic disaster for many existing industries is so apparent that, while paying lip service to a borderless economy, both Presidents Clinton and Bush have attempted to protect the US steel industry from cheap foreign imports, though neither has done anything about the export of former union jobs to the maquilladoras of Mexico (and now those jobs are fleeing Mexico for yet cheaper venues in the infamous “race to the bottom,” while more and more white-collar US jobs, from programming to data processing, are also being exported).
And it’s the fact that even the richest nations — the United States and the European Union — won’t live up to their own rhetoric of capitalism without borders that trips up the globalization agendas they pursue. Both maintain high agricultural subsidies that undermine the ability of poorer nations to generate export-crop income or in some cases — as with corn in Mexico — even to compete successfully domestically. NAFTA, which will be a decade old this New Year’s, devastated hundreds of thousands of Mexican subsistence farmers. Florida‘s citrus industry would be devastated by tariff-free Brazilian imports, and small Kentucky tobacco farmers are going out of business because of developing-world imports of the crop. The question now is not whether globalized commodities are profitable but who profits, and the answer is usually the already rich, while the rest get poorer.
The Clinton administration genuinely believed in the corporate internationalism that the word â€˜globalization’ stands for, and the FTAA talks were first launched by Clinton nine years ago. If there’s one thing to be grateful to the Bush junta for, it’s their commitment to a narrowly defined national self-interest that makes their pursuit of globalization pretty indistinguishable from old-fashioned colonialism: you open your borders to our products and principles, perhaps after a little arm-twisting, and then we’ll pretty much do whatever we want. This is much the same screw-the-world-community policy that made Bush and Co. disregard the UN Security Council and world opinion to pursue the current war in Iraq with only a few allies. The solution to the collapse in Cancun and stalemate in Miami will be pursuit of a similarly splintering agenda — bilateral trade agreements, mostly with nations the US can bully. As the WTO was collapsing, the US was already turning to the FTAA, and as it becomes evident that the FTAA would flop, the US has stepped up its pursuit of bilateral trade agreements with Latin American, southern African and other nations.
Cancun was a watershed victory because more than twenty nations in the global south, led by Brazil, stood up to the US and the EU, urged on by the activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which were part of the continuum of conversation there. In Miami there was no such continuum and no exhilarating victory, but there is room enough for those who oppose corporate globalization to continue resisting it. The FTAA conference dissolved a day early, having only achieved what has been dubbed “FTAA lite.” This version allows member nations to withdraw from specific aspects of the FTAA agreement and otherwise weakens its impact. Brazil, the economic giant in the south, had objected to two provisions: protection of foreign investment and intellectual property rules; FTAA lite let Brazil win on those fronts. As Lori Wallach of the NGO Public Citizen put it, “All that was agreed was to scale back the FTAA’s scope and punt all of the hard decisions to an undefined future venue so as to not make Miami the Waterloo of the FTAA.”
The war at home
It’s popular to say that corporate globalization is war by other means, but what went down in Miami during the FTAA skipped the part about other means. And though it was most directly — thanks to clubs, pellet guns, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and other weapons — an assault on the bodies of protestors, it was first an assault against the right of the people peaceably to assemble and other first amendment rights, a dramatic example of how hallowed American rights are being dismantled in the name of the war on terrorism.
For months beforehand, Police Chief John Timoney — engineer of the coup against constitutional rights at the 2000 Republican National Convention when he headed Philadelphia‘s police force — had portrayed protestors as terrorists and the gathering in Miami as a siege of the city. Much of the money for militarizing Miami came, appropriately enough, from an $8.5 million rider tacked onto the $87 million spending bill for the war in Iraq. Miami will pay directly, however, both in revenue lost from shutting the city down and, presumably, for activists’ police brutality and civil-rights-violation lawsuits.
Perhaps the silliest example of the paranoiac reaction to the arrival of protestors was the removal of all coconuts from downtown Miami palm trees, lest activists throw them at the authorities — whether after first shaking or scaling the trees was not made clear. Every outdoor trash can had also apparently been removed from downtown; second-guessing terrorists is an exercise whose creativity knows no bounds.
One of the most explicit ways the FTAA policing was modeled after “the war on terror” abroad was the police decision to “embed” reporters. While a number of reporters — looking dorky in their borrowed helmets — joined the Miami cops, protestors invited the press to join the other side as well, and many did. (Some got tear-gassed, and reported on it.)
Many activists in the streets said that one of the functions of this Miami police mobilization was to adjust the American public to the militarization of public space and public life, to a John-Ashcroft-style America. It may also have been an attempt to condition police to functioning as a military force against the civil society they’re supposed to serve. The city of Miami and a few nearby communities passed emergency laws banning basic civil liberties such as the right of assembly, laws that could easily be challenged — but not before the FTAA was over. Activists were already talking about what kind of police state will take hold of Manhattan during the Republican Convention next year. And civil libertarians are taking note of the way dissent of every kind is being reconfigured as terrorism.
The war of the possible worlds
Thursday, November 20, was like a day out of the science fiction movies I grew up on, the ones where the world we know is in ruins and guerrilla war rages in the rubble. Central Miami had been totally shut down. Stores and offices were closed, nothing was being bought or sold, no one was driving, the Metromover elevated rail system was locked up, few went to work that day. The FTAA negotiators from the 34 nations of the western hemisphere were sequestered in the tower of the Intercontinental Hotel, and occasionally I’d see some of the hotel people, tiny on the roof of that skyscraper, watching the turbulence below. We must have looked like ants. Helicopters droned overhead, reportedly using high-tech surveillance equipment to pinpoint activists for arrest or assault by ground forces.
Thursday morning the city was abandoned but for those 2,500 cops and an approximately equivalent number of activists. We’ve seen the world Miami was that day in movies that range from The Terminator to Tank Girl to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Maybe the earliest and most somber version can be found in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, in which humanity has diverged into two species: the bestial subterranean Morlocks who prey on the pretty lamblike Eloi. We had moments of being Tank Girl and moments of being lambs to the slaughter. Friday afternoon, Eddie Yuen, who’s written about the antiglobalization movement since Seattle, commented to me that at these antiglobalization summits, “There are laboratories of dissent and laboratories of repression, and right now the laboratories of repression are dominant.”
The police — except for a squadron of bare-kneed bicycle cops — were in full riot gear: black helmets with visors, black body armor that protected limbs, crotches and torso, combat boots. All seemed to carry long wooden clubs and many had the rifles that fire “sublethal” rubber bullets, beanbags and other projectiles capable of causing severe injury — and even death. Four years before, in Seattle, I had seen the dystopian future: it was a Darth Vader cop guarding the ruins of a shattered Starbucks; now there were 2,500 of them and they weren’t guarding, they were marching. As Starhawk commented, “It wasn’t the worst I’ve ever seen, compared to Israel and Palestine, and Genoa [where Italian police engaged in bloody assault and torture against 300,000 activists come to protest the G8 summit in the summer of 2001]. But there was a quality of sheer brute calculated fascism that’s hard to equal.”
Some activists were picked off or hassled long before they got to the site of the early-morning demonstration. More police were waiting for us when we got there, ranks of cops, two or three thick, blocking off streets, clubs clutched ready for action. Periodically they would move in and herd us in yet another direction, and they never let us get near the steel fence that steelworkers shouting against the FTAA had marched past the afternoon before. Sometimes they would come out clubbing and shooting. Local television claimed that activists threw smoke bombs at the police, but what they videotaped was activists lobbing back the tear-gas canisters that had been fired at us.
At midmorning, when it looked like they might surround us and engage in wholesale arrests, I escorted a noncitizen out of the last possible exit from the scene. Another member of our group, a professor with a bandage around his head — he’d been clubbed from behind and bled profusely — joined us, and we stayed on the sidelines until the permitted march of perhaps 10,000 union members came by at noon on its way through the abandoned city and then back to the safety zone of a rented arena.
As the unions dispersed, the violence resurfaced. Puffs of tear-gas rose up from the crowd in the distance. The helicopters roared overhead, the only machine sound on that day when cars had been shut out of the central city but for the occasional police vans and buses bringing reinforcements or hauling away the arrested. What looked like an amphibious tank rolled around in front of the steel fence. Snatch squads moved into the crowd to seize individuals. A few vultures had circled the skyscrapers in the morning, and by mid-afternoon there must have been fifty of them, a flock of black carrion-eaters soaring sometimes above, sometimes below the level of the helicopters.
The police rushed the crowd again, becoming so violent that the activists splintered into small groups fleeing north into Overtown, an African-American neighborhood of lush vacant lots, boarded-up buildings, affable people out on the streets, and evident destitution. Sirens screamed past us and small groups were pounced upon or hunted further from downtown. My group was carrying a number of huge puppets that had been used in the morning’s procession and, weary, we came to stop under a row of street trees where we wouldn’t be so visible to the helicopters hovering low for surveillance. Just this kind of hiding and being hunted made it clear that what was going on was warfare of a sort. This day, more than a hundred would be injured, twelve hospitalized, and more than 200 arrested.
Later that night people would be pulled out of their cars at gunpoint or stopped on the street for no particular reason — not just the young but ministers, middle-aged NGO workers, anyone and everyone. And the next day, more than fifty more activists were arrested in a peaceful vigil outside the jail, where many of the previously arrested languished. “They were surrounded by riot police and ordered to disperse,” reported organizers. “As they did, police opened fire and blocked the streets preventing many from leaving. We are now receiving reports from people being released or calling from jail that there is excessive brutality, sexual assault and torture going on inside. People of color, queer and transgender prisoners are particularly being targeted.” Sunday many of those arrested were released.
The visionary slogan of the antiglobalization movement is “Another world is possible.” This time around some of the steelworkers had the slogan emblazoned across the backs of their royal-blue union t-shirts. What we don’t talk about so much is that many worlds are possible, and some of them are hell.
Seattle in 1999 has become a genesis story in which the revolution began as Eden. There were tens of thousands of us blockading the WTO, the story goes, and we were all as one: “turtles and teamsters,” is the clichÃ©. Actually, there were about fifty thousand in the big labor-organized parade, and ten thousand or less — few union members among them — shut down the streets around the WTO meeting on November 30, 1999. The various groups coexisted nicely but few articulated a profound common ground for us all (though the globalization issue has pushed activists from labor to the Sierra Club to develop a broader, more encompassing analysis and to reach for broader coalitions).
After the Black Bloc of young anarchist activists first made its presence known by smashing up the windows of Niketown, Starbucks and a few other downtown Seattle corporate entities, some of those who supported the blockade sparked internal squabbles when they decried the property destruction. The Seattle police were brutal, attacking activists, passersby, nearby neighborhoods, and even an older woman on the way to her chemotherapy appointment. Seattle was no Eden but a miracle all the same, and a huge surprise for the world — both that direct action could be so effective and that globalization was not going to go forward unimpeded. Four years later the tank of corporate capitalism that seemed to be inexorably advancing on the world is idling its engines or going in circles, and it could yet end up in a ditch.
Cancun was another miracle, notable for the fluid circulation of passion and politics between the developing nations that stood up to the United States and the European Union, the NGO activists who were both inside at the Ministerial and outside in the streets, and the street activists, who included Yucatan and Korean farmers and a fair representation of the rest of the world from Canada to Africa. As in Seattle, the activists stiffened the resolve of the poor nations, and the poor nations stood up for themselves against the agendas of the rich ones.
The street activists in Miami were overwhelmingly white Americans, and there was no such porousness: the Intercontinental Hotel was for all intents and purposes hermetically sealed. NGOs had no role in the FTAA talks or even access to the hotel. AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney went to visit the Convergence Center, the warehouse north of downtown where the direct action was organized and decried the police violence (which never targeted the union people). But the protests felt fragmentary: beforehand, the direct action contingent had had to negotiate long and hard even to get the unions to consent to letting them — as if they owned the day — demonstrate on the same day. Though we joined the labor march, they didn’t join us, and the teach-ins held at the Doubletree Hotel and other venues around town seemed to separate out more circumspect activists from the stuff in the street.
Uprisings, protest, civil disobedience — the stuff in the street — still matter, even though they don’t change the world every time. Sometimes it’s just an exercise of democracy and bravado, exercise in the sense of maintaining the strength and ability to intervene at a time when it will count. A month ago, Bolivians in the streets and roads of their own nation forced the resignation of their millionaire president, who was trying to export the impoverished nation’s resources. An insurgent spirit and direct action are radicalizing Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela. The surprise in Miami isn’t that so little was agreed to but, with the revolt against neoliberalism well underway in South America, that anything was.
Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book is River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, though her 1994 Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West has the most civil disobedience in it.
Copyright C2003 Rebecca Solnit
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]