The Miami Model
were loading our video equipment into the trunk of our car when
a fleet of bicycle cops sped up and formed a semi-circle around
us. The lead cop was Miami police chief John Timoney. The former
police commissioner of Philadelphia, Timoney, has a reputation for
brutality and hatred of protesters of any kind. He calls them “punks,”
“knuckleheads,” and a whole slew of expletives. He coordinated
the brutal police response to the mass protests at the Republican
National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000. After a brief stint
in the private sector, Timoney took the post of Miami police chief
as part of Mayor Manny Diaz’s efforts to “clean up the
had watched him the night before on the local news in Miami praising
his “men” for the restraint they had shown in the face
of “violent anarchists” intent on destroying the city.
In reality, the tens of thousands who gathered in Miami in November
2003 to protest the ministerial meetings of the Free Trade Area
of the Americas summit were seeking to peacefully demonstrate against
what they consider to be a deadly expansion of NAFTA and U.S.-led
policies of free trade. There were environmental groups, labor unions,
indigenous activists, church groups, grassroots organizations, students,
and many others in the streets.
they encountered as they assembled outside the gates to the building
housing the FTAA talks was nothing short of a police riot. It only
took a few hours on Thursday, November 20 before downtown Miami
looked like a city under martial law.
the news, Chief Timoney spoke in sober tones about the tear gas
that demonstrators fired at his officers. No, that is not a typo.
Timoney said the protesters were the ones launching the tear gas.
He also said the demonstrators had hurled “missiles” at
the police. “I got a lot of tear gas,” Timoney said. “We
all got gassed. They were loaded to the hilt. A lot of missiles,
bottles, rocks, tear gas from the radicals.”
at our car, Timoney hopped off his bike as a police cameraperson
recorded his every move. It felt like an episode of “COPS.”
He demanded the license and registration for the car. Norm Stockwell
of community radio station WORT in Madison, Wisconsin gave him his
license and we informed him we were journalists. One of the police
grabbed Stockwell’s press pass, looking it over as though it
was fake. They looked at all of us with nasty stares before getting
back on their bikes to further “protect” Miami.
Timoney was talking with his cops, one of the police approached
us with a notepad. “Can I have your names?” he asked.
I thought he was a police officer preparing a report. He had on
a Miami police polo shirt, just like Timoney’s. He had a Miami
police bike helmet, just like Timoney’s. He had a bike, just
like Timoney’s. There was only one small detail that separated
him from Timoney—a small badge around his neck identifying
him as a reporter with the
reporter was one of dozens embedded with the Miami forces. In another
incident, we saw a
photographer who had somehow
gotten pushed onto the “protesters’ side” of a standoff
with the police. He was behind a line of young kids who had locked
arms to try and prevent the police from advancing and attacking
the crowds outside of the Inter-Continental Hotel. He was shouting
at the kids to move so he could get back to the “safe”
side. The protesters ignored him and continued their blockade.
grew angrier and angrier before he began hitting one of the young
kids on the line. He punched him in the back of the head before
other journalists grabbed him and calmed him down. His colleagues
seemed shocked at the conduct. He was a big guy wearing a bulletproof
vest and a police-issue riot helmet, but I really think he was scared
of the skinny, dreadlocked, bandana-clad protesters.
the embedded journalists on Miami TV was quite entertaining. They
spoke of venturing into “Protesterland” as though they
were entering secret al Qaeda headquarters in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Interviews with protest leaders were sort of like the secret bin
Laden tapes. There was something risqué, even sexy about having
the courage to venture over to the convergence space (the epicenter
of protest organizing at the FTAA) and the Independent Media Center
(IMC). Several reporters told of brushes they had with “the
protesters.” One reporter was quite shaken after a group of
“anarchists” slashed her news van’s tires and wrote
the word “propaganda” across the side door. She feared
for the life of her cameraperson, she somberly told the anchor back
in the studio. The anchor warned her to “be careful out there.”
“dangerous” was the scene that the overwhelming majority
of the images on TV were from helicopter shots, where very little
could be seen except that there was a confrontation between police
and “the protesters.” This gave cover for Timoney and
other officials to make their outrageous and false statements. Timoney
spun his tales of “hard-core anarchists” rampaging through
the streets of Miami; “outsiders coming to terrorize and vandalize
our city.” He painted a picture of friendly, restrained police
enduring constant attacks from rocks, paint, gas canisters, smoke
bombs, and fruit. “We are very proud of the police officers
and their restraint. Lots of objects were thrown at the police officers,”
Timoney said. “If we didn’t act when we did, it would
have been much worse.” It was much worse.
the Miami protests, no one should call what Timoney runs in Miami
a police force. It’s a paramilitary group—thousands of
soldiers, dressed in khaki uniforms with full black body armor and
gas masks, marching in unison through the streets, banging batons
against their shields, chanting, “back… back… back.”
There were armored personnel carriers and helicopters.
forces fired indiscriminately into crowds of unarmed protesters.
Scores of people were hit with skin-piercing rubber bullets; thousands
were gassed with an array of chemicals. On several occasions, police
fired loud concussion grenades into the crowds. Police shocked people
with electric tazers. Demonstrators were shot in the back as they
retreated. One young person’s apparent crime was holding his
fingers in a peace sign in front of the troops. They shot him multiple
times, including once in the stomach at point blank range.
colleagues and I spent several days in the streets, going from conflict
to conflict. We saw no attempts by any protesters to attack a business
or corporation. With the exception of some graffiti and an occasional
garbage can set on fire, there was very little in the way of action
not aimed directly at the site of the FTAA meetings. Even the Black
Bloc youth, who have a reputation for wanting to smash everything
up, were incredibly restrained and focused.
any event, there was no need for any demonstrator to hurl anything
at the forces to spark police violence. It was clear from the jump
that Timoney’s forces came prepared to crack heads. After receiving
$8.5 million in federal funds from the $87 billion Iraq spending
bill, Miami needed to have a major combat operation. It didn’t
matter if it was “warranted.”
Mayor Manny Diaz called the police actions a model for homeland
security. FTAA officials called it extraordinary. Several cities
sent law enforcement observers to the protests to study what some
are now referring to as the “Miami Model.” This model
also included the embedding of undercover police with the protesters.
At one point during a standoff with police, it appeared as though
a group of protesters had gotten into a brawl among themselves.
But as others moved in to break up the melee, two of them pulled
out electric tazers and shocked protesters, before being “liberated”
back behind police lines. These people, clearly undercover agents,
were dressed like any other protester. One had a sticker on his
backpack that read: “FTAA No Way.” The IMC has since published
pictures of people dressed like Black Bloc kids—ski masks and
all—walking with uniformed police behind police lines.
only pause in the heavy police violence in Miami came on Thursday
afternoon when the major labor unions held their mass-rally and
march. Led by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, the march had a legal
permit and was carefully coordinated with the police. Many of the
union guys applauded the police as they marched past columns of
body-armored officers on a break from gassing and shooting unarmed
as soon as the unions and their permits began to disperse, the police
seized the moment to escalate the violence against the other protesters.
Fresh from their break during the union rally, Timoney’s forces
ordered the protesters to clear the area in front of the Inter-Continental.
Some of the demonstrators shouted back that they had a right to
peaceably protest the FTAA. Then concussion grenades started flying.
Tear gas was sprayed. Rubber bullets were fired. Batons were swinging.
police methodically marched in a long column directly at the several
hundred protesters who believed they had a right to protest. They
fired indiscriminately at the crowds. One person had part of her
ear blown off. Another was shot in the forehead. I got shot twice,
once in the back, another time in the leg. John Hamilton from the
Workers Independent News Service, was shot in the neck by a pepper-spray
pellet—a small ball that explodes into a white powder. After
a few moments, he began complaining that his neck was burning from
the powder. We doused him in water, but the burning continued. When
I tried to ask the police what the powder was, they told me to “mind
the police forced the dissipating group of protesters into one of
the poorest sections of Miami, surrounding them on all sides. We
stood there in the streets with the eerie feeling of a high-noon
showdown. Except there were hundreds of them with guns and dozens
of us with cameras and banners. They fired gas and rubber bullets
at us as they moved in. All of us realized we had nothing to do
but run. We scattered down side streets and alleys, ducking as we
fled. Eventually, we made it out.
next day, we went to a midday rally outside the Dade County Jail
where more than 150 people were being held prisoner. It was a peaceful
assembly of about 300 people. The crowd sang “We all live in
a failed democracy” to the tune of “We all live in a yellow
submarine.” They chanted “Free the Prisoners, Not Free
Trade” and “Take off your riot gear, there ain’t
no riot here.”
of the protesters met with police officials at the scene. The activists
said they would agree to remain in a parking lot across the street
from the jail if the police would call off the swelling presence
of the riot police. They reached an agreement, or so the police
said. As the demonstration continued, the numbers of fully armed
troops grew. They announced that people had three minutes to disperse
from the “unlawful assembly.” Even though the police violated
their agreement, the protesters complied. A group of five activists
led by Puppetista David Solnit informed the police they would not
leave. The police began arresting them.
that was not enough. The police then attacked the dispersing crowd,
chasing about 30 people into a corner. They shoved them to the ground
and beat them. They gassed them at close range. Ana Nogueira from
“Democracy Now!,” and I got separated in the mayhem. I
was lucky to end up on the “safe” side of the street.
Noguiera was in the melee. As she did her job—videotaping the
action—Nogueira was wearing her press credentials in plain
sight. When the police began handcuffing people, Nogueira told them
she was a journalist. One of the officers said, “She’s
not with us, she’s not with us,” meaning that she was
not embedded with the police and therefore had to be arrested.
police custody, the authorities made Nogueira remove her clothes
in front of male officers because they were soaked with pepper spray.
Despite calls from “Democracy Now!,” the ACLU, lawyers,
and others protesting Nogueira’s arrest and detention, she
was held in a cockroach-filled jail cell until 3:30 AM. She was
only released after I posted a $500 bond. Other independent journalists
remained locked up for much longer and face serious charges, some
of them felonies. In the end, Nogueira was charged with “failure
to disperse,” but the real crime seems to be “failure
is what democracy looks like—thousands of soldiers, calling
themselves police, deployed in U.S. cities to protect the power
brokers from the masses. Vigilantes like John Timoney roam from
city to city, organizing militias to hunt the dangerous radicals
who threaten the good order. Damned be the journalist who dares
to say it—or film it—like it is.
is a producer and correspondent for the nationally syndicated radio
and TV program “Democracy Now!” (www.democracynow.org ).