Next Steps in the US Global Justice Movement

Miami isn’t just a place name anymore. Like Seattle and Cancun, it’s a moment when the free trade juggernaut tipped over on the side of the road. After Miami, the ideal corporate trade treaty — one sweeping set of rules that binds all countries forever — lies splintered into dozens of country-to-country agreements and a face-saving “FTAA lite.” Business leaders admit they aren’t happy.


There’s little evidence that the protests in Miami had anything to do with it. The deal that diluted the FTAA was cut a week beforehand, mostly between Washington and Brasilia. The FTAA meeting itself lasted one day.  Protesters and negotiators had no contact. This time, no Third World delegates crossed police lines to say, “You gave us backbone.”


The Miami police made sure they didn’t. “We were Iraqued,” writes Starhawk in ‘Miami: A Dangerous Victory.’ “[T]hat is, we were attacked not for anything we’d done but for someone’s inflated fears of what we might do; shot, gassed, beaten and arrested for weapons of destruction we did not have; targeted for who we are and what we stand for, not for acts we had committed…. Miami was the Bush policy of pre-emptive bullying brought home.”


Everyone agrees the conditions were harsh. That means we must adapt.  If this is the future of protest in the USA, let’s not just try to roll it back, let’s revise our targets and strategy.  We can’t set ourselves up needlessly for more beatings on the streets, sexual assaults in jail, millions of dollars in legal fees and years of trials. Some direct activists are now saying: next time we go into one of these, let’s know better what we’re trying to accomplish. 





For those who weren’t in Miami, let’s start with the schedule. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, November 16-18, were warm-up days: direct action planning and the Root Cause march. Wednesday was for skirmishes and a pre-action concert. On Thursday the FTAA talks officially started while police and protesters played cat and mouse with the fence surrounding the talks. Police harassed a labor-led rally and shortened their march, and then nursed a street riot into footage for the five o’clock news. On Friday police arrested more people including dozens protesting outside the jail.


More important than this schedule was the society where it took place.


Miami is a very poor city where the elite is well organized and the grassroots aren’t. Immigrants from across the Caribbean and Latin America, people of African and Latino descent, work minimal-wage jobs and stay out of Immigration’s way. There are service agencies but few groups organizing for power at the base, and they don’t work much with organized labor.


These splits permeated the protest preparation. Divisions between base-building organizations, labor, and direct action folks gave the police their best weapon. A united movement in Miami could have put forward its own image. With FTAA opponents divided, police had a free year to claim that a “hundred thousand” black-masked “street thugs” would invade Miami, throw “bags of acid and urine” at cops, trash stores and riot in the streets.


Local realities shape global protests. In Seattle in 1999, a city with a labor-activist history rose up after two days of police riots and forced the authorities to repeal martial law. In Quebec in 2001, a population simmering under English rule for three centuries opened its doors to anti-FTAA protesters.


In Philadelphia in 2000, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union took an unpermitted march almost to the Republican National Convention hall and avoided arrest. They had public sympathy on their side. The next day, direct activists tried to block afternoon traffic. The public was pissed, the police moved in, and Police Commissioner John Timoney had his first crack at the Seattle movement.


He hasn’t forgotten the lesson: Public opinion matters. If protesters have it on their side, they can take their actions farther than they expected. If police have it on their side, they will do whatever they want.



Snowbirds and Steelworkers


The AFL-CIO and its industrial unions spent months building toward Miami. Their ballot campaign, working off of the Brazilian model, collected almost half a million “no FTAA” pledges and educated unions about the threat the FTAA posed to organized labor.  They hosted U.S. conference calls that brought together an anti-FTAA coalition.  AFL-CIO coordinators felt their goals were largely met before and during Miami:


  • Slow the momentum of the FTAA

  • Deliver a clear, solid message for good jobs and global justice

  • Strengthen labor’s relationships with local, national, and international allies and help build the global justice movement

  • Strengthen Florida‘s labor movement and support local organizing

  • Build political opposition to the FTAA in the run-up to the 2004 elections


About half of the protesters in Miami came with the AFL-CIO. Many were Florida retirees and industrial workers bused in from far away. South Florida’s mainly service and building trades unions had little experience with globalization and less with the direct action movement. So when the local Labor Council and Jobs with Justice (JwJ) coalition started mobilizing against the FTAA early in 2003 they worried: Would local labor be blamed if street protests escalated to window-smashing and confrontation with the cops?


To make sure they wouldn’t, the Labor Council and JwJ insisted that all actions be “family-friendly”.  Accordingly, they negotiated their own permit with the police. Anyone who wanted to do more was out in the wilderness. Miami police had months to create their own image of those dangerous Others.


In October the national AFL-CIO sent in old Seattle hands and labor worked arduously to build genuine solidarity. Labor spokespeople shocked police by saying ‘we’re with the direct action people.’ AFL-CIO president John Sweeney visited the direct action convergence center. These efforts, though, couldn’t match the other side’s “information warfare.” (For a first-rate article see  “Lessons from Miami: Information Warfare in the Age of Empire,” Ilyse Hogue and Patrick Reinsborough,


When the meetings began, the months of scare stories kept everyone away from downtown Miami except cops and protesters. The police harassed people during the labor rally and trimmed the AFL-CIO march route. Their carefully crafted police-protester confrontation came just before the 5 o’clock news and reduced the march to a five-second clip. Local newspapers offered a bit more visibility, but few saw the protest except protesters.



Here was the color in Miami


A few days earlier, every TV owner in southeast Florida saw community organizers and direct activists pounding the 34 miles of pavement from Fort Lauderdale to downtown Miami. Led by African-American public housing tenants and Latino farmworkers, the Root Cause march said, “Here’s what the FTAA will do to our communities.” In a city that is 60% foreign-born and 80% of color, the message resonated.


Because the alliance — composed of Miami Workers Center, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and Power U. — organized the action on a shoestring, they had to do everything right. They timed the march before the meeting started, using months of media hype that pinned the public to its television sets. The number of marchers was modest, never exceeding 300 on the first two days. The visibility was massive, though, as newspaper reporters trudged along for segments of the march, and each day ended with three or four live news vans taking interviews from marchers. The publicity fueled a powerful finale when the march crossed into Miami with over 500 people in tow.


With its rhythmic chants, colorful signs, and impassioned speeches in three languages, the march brought residents out of their homes and workplaces to watch and listen. An apartment dweller hung a bedsheet from a seventh-story window with ‘NO FTAA’ scrawled in red ink. A man walking his Chihuahua placed a pizza box on the dog reading ‘No New World Order.’ Marchers saw many more thumbs than fingers, though they heard run-of-the-mill, ‘go back to your country’ shouts from frustrated drivers.


The march peaked when the march turned down a side street to scream at the Krome Detention Center, which holds Haitians detained for trying to enter the country. After Marleine Bastien, director of the Haitian Women’s Organization (FAMN), blasted Homeland Security, Nora Candelone, a Mexican immigrant representing POWER, a community organization based in San Francisco, followed with her own fury and eloquence. “As an immigrant, I say stop to these INS raids. We are here to say that we won’t take this corporate exploitation, exploitation like we’re workers raiding the country. For all the people who are united here, I say that in this world there are no borders, there are no flags, that this is our world. We will not let the FTAA pass, we will bring it down. We’ve been marching for three days, and we’ll keep marching till we reach justice.”


The march made two other protest pit stops that final day. Across a busy street from a Taco Bell, tomato pickers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers picked up megaphones and announced their ongoing boycott against the fast food giant, demanding an increase in long-stagnant wages. And Denise Perry of Power U. stopped the march again at the Miami-Dade School Board building to denounce Governor Jeb Bush, who is trying to privatize Miami‘s schools.


Then organizers took the march to the fence. With their chants echoing off empty buildings, undocumented farmworkers and youthful puppeteers walked through a gauntlet of police… and out the other side. Reporters mobbed police officials: “Haven’t you overreacted? This march was completely peaceful. Why have you run everyone out of downtown?”


Two days later, the AFL-CIO couldn’t get to the fence, and when direct activists attacked it, police created a made-for-video battle to justify the overkill.


Because they couldn’t afford to make mistakes, Root Cause had to be exact about their goals:


  • Give their members a safe platform to speak out against the FTAA

  • Challenge and change the media narrative, from the ” anarchist threat” to covering the issues from the perspectives of local people most affected by free trade

  • Bolster their base-building organizing campaigns, internally through leadership development and externally through exposure and alliance-building


In reaching these goals, Root Cause displayed a local precision that the global justice movement often lacks. In spite of an overcharged, oversized police force, they pulled off a direct action because they had established relationships with police through years of local work, and knew how hard to push while negotiating their march route. They found churches willing to host the marchers at night and earned enough trust so that pastors withstood the police, who tried to bully their churches into revoking the invitations.


Root Cause also called grassroots sister organizations across the country, which sent delegations — Community Voices Heard and Domestic Workers United from New York City, Southwest Workers Union from San Antonio, SWOP from Albuquerque, POWER from the Bay Area. They invited direct activists while making it clear that community organizations were in charge. The mantra of Root Cause was unity and there was clarity in the message because of it. The FTAA content on their leaflets was trivial, but that didn’t matter — the marchers were the message that reached Miami.



Dangerous, yes; Victory ?


Direct activists proved their courage and logistical ability in Miami‘s hostile setting. They confronted brute power and put themselves at risk; set up a convergence center on very short time; and reached across a huge social gulf to Miami‘s communities. Counterbalancing these admirable traits were serious shortcomings.


The direct action in Miami had unclear goals, no shared plan, and little impact on the public. Organizers did not realistically assess the police, public, or power structure in Miami. Many are suffering because of it. Direct activists are facing jail time, million-dollar legal costs, and scars from police assaults. Others who weren’t there will face the “Miami model” of preemptive policing at national party conventions this summer. 


Direct action doesn’t have to be this way. When it has clear goals, it can organize focused, disciplined, extremely effective actions. Seattle is the example. Before it came a quarter-century of actions, learning, and refinement starting in the anti-nuclear movement. In preparation for it, Northwest activists built affinity groups and did community education for a year. The myth that Seattle was a spontaneous coming-together is one of the most destructive myths among many in direct action circles. 


What is keeping us from organizing more effective actions? Are there lessons we can learn from Root Cause’s organizing success? These may be a few.


First, our summit-hopping movement is too focused on itself and on ‘movement maintenance’ without examining who is inside the movement, who is not joining, and whether we can win what we want by continuing as we are. Often we don’t even talk about winning, we talk about ‘resisting’ or ‘speaking truth to power.’ Those are noble sentiments but not organizing strategies.


Second, solidarity is a two-way street.  It means asking for help as well as giving it. Organized labor and the environmental justice movement are creating excellent models for this “self-interested solidarity.” The global justice movement has just as many opportunities to stitch together interests, values, and peoples.


Third, we suffer from a lack of a defined base to which we are accountable. Some of us have seen every summit as an apocalyptic event to be resisted at all costs, as an opportunity for our own models of direct action, for our own play on the stage of global negotiations. Against the day-to-day realities many communities face because of corporate globalization,  this is no longer enough.


In “Miami: A Dangerous Victory,” Starhawk says that “[J]ust about every interaction we had with ordinary Miami folks was positive…. They told us stories of water privatization in their home countries, of 16 hour a day workshifts on cruise ships that unions couldn’t organize because they are registered in other countries, of their daily struggle to survive on the streets, of the ongoing police brutality faced by the homeless and the poor.”


This is indeed the base in Miami and it is the one that Root Cause has so effectively started to organize. Some direct activists are trying to work with those bases in cities where we live — where we can follow up and support their “daily struggle to survive,” not just take it and wave it as a banner of injustice.



The movement we need


Though the Miami protest didn’t much affect the outside world, the “movement payoffs” are real. Organized labor is working with others to defend the right to protest. Some direct activists are questioning summit-hopping. People of color took leadership, raised their profile, and started to cultivate a US global justice movement that is representative.


All of these constituencies need each other. Root Cause made itself the media story, but there wouldn’t have been a story if labor and direct activists weren’t bringing thousands of protesters to Miami. Without each other, we aren’t a movement.


We think the movement can build on some important lessons from Miami.


The people most affected need to be part of the leadership.  If they aren’t, the movement’s solutions won’t solve the problems; if they are, more most-affected people will join and the message will resonate. 


All actions are local. Even when they seem to be national or global, it’s local groups that shape them, ground them, and create the possibilities for success or failure.


Public opinion matters. If we have it on our side, our actions can go farther than we expected. 



What are your lessons?






Root Cause

“Mobilizing Miami,” Manuel Pastor and Tony LoPresti,


Direct Action

Miami: A Dangerous Victory,” Starhawk,

“Lessons from Miami, One Month Out,” Doyle Canning, December 23, 2003, then go to VisionStrategy


Popular Education


The next step in the FTAA campaign

cafta coalition folks


Police and Military

“Lessons from Miami: Information Warfare in the Age of Empire,” Ilyse Hogue and Patrick Reinsborough,

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