Lessons From Miami, One Month Out

Upon emerging from the clouds of tear gas and showers of less-lethal projectiles in the streets of Miami, global justice activists across the country are evaluating the events of November 20th 2003, and how the her-storic unfolding of events in Miami informs our ongoing work for peace and global justice inside the US Empire.

It has been one month since the Mobilization to Stop the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) converged on Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami with banners, drums, flags and signs proclaiming opposition to corporate rule for the western hemisphere in the form of an expanded NAFTA agreement. It’s been one month since we were met in the streets with the vulgar violence of post-PATRIOT Act America. Since we were driven out of downtown by tanks and storm troopers and hid in the working class Overtown neighborhood. Since our convergence center was surrounded and we plead on live TV for the citizens of Miami to come to bear witness to the imminent raid. It’s been one month since the loss of Jordon Feder, a medic who helped us with food, water, and first aid, and who died of meningitis after the demonstration. It’s been one month since the nightsticks, the tear gas, the mass arrests, the beatings, and the torture of global justice political prisoners. Since we washed the pepper spray from our eyes and tried to see clearly what the hell was happening in Jeb Bush’s Sunshine Security State.

Much has been written over the last month about this her-storic mobilization. Thousands of people-steel workers, students, peace activists, environmentalists, farmers, farm workers, and concerned folks from all walks of life-came together in Miami from November 19-21 in a creative show of resistance to the FTAA. These movements gathered to trumpet the emergence of another world that is not only possible, but that is necessary, and is happening everywhere. The palpable solidarity-across the lines of tactical diversity, and across the myriad issues at stake in the FTAA negotiations-was as intoxicating as it was extraordinary.

The Eco Bloc and the Earth Cluster planted cherry trees in Overtown. The Free Carnival Area of the Americas constructed giant puppets and marched 34 miles with the Root Cause Coalition, a local effort led by the Miami Workers Center, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Power U, and working class communities of color. AFL CIO President John Sweeney stopped by the Convergence Center on November 19th to express solidarity from organized labor to the decentralized direct action wing of the Mobilization. The Steelworkers, the AFL, the Root Cause and Jobs with Justice, among others, sent liaisons to the direct action spokes councils and press conferences. The nation’s largest peace coalition umbrella, United For Peace and Justice, issued a call to action to derail the FTAA with nonviolent direct action, and was an anchor to the direct action as a whole-forging important alliances between the peace movement and the global justice movement.

November 21st’s celebratory “Really Really Free Market” was an attempt to manifest a solidarity economy in the face of corporate rule. Food Not Bombs served up free food. Medics gave free health care to wounded protestors and homeless passers by. A giant free box contained all kinds of gifts collected at the convergence center. People played music, shared stories, gave workshops on the FTAA and its alternatives, and exchanged goods and services in the spirit of mutual aid.

Solidarity in Practice:

Through the process of regional consulta meetings across the United States, from New Haven to San Francisco, and via the “virtual spokes council” organizing phone calls, a consensus was built around a working document called “Solidarity in Practice.” This document emerged from work by the RANT collective in 2002, and was amended for Miami to build a spirit of unity amongst the various wings of the Mobilization.

The document proscribed some concrete steps to manifesting a praxis of solidarity in Miami and beyond, including 1) the personal (“Listen without getting defensive. Be open in thinking, not rigid in positions. Don’t make assumptions no matter what a person looks like or what groups they belong to. Don’t assume tactics are the only way to measure militancy or radical ness”); 2) the street level (“Do not intentionally put people at risk who have not chosen it. Do not turn people over to the police. Do not let people within our own groups interfere with other groups. Respect the work of all medics, legal observers, and independent media people. Share food, water, medical and other supplies. Support everyone who is hurt, gassed, shot or beaten.); and 3) the media, (“Do not denounce other demonstrators. Talk about your strategy, not others. Acknowledge other groups’ existence and role they play in creating change. Acknowledge that we sometimes disagree about strategy and tactics. Avoid using the word violence. Condemn police repression and brutality.”)

In addition to this street level solidarity in Miami, a solidarity statement was issued by the School of the Americas Watch Movement, the Mobilization to Stop the FTAA, and the Stop the War Coalition in the UK, who were mobilizing a hundred thousand people or more against Bush’s visit to London on November 20th.

“The invasion and occupation of Iraq, the training of soldiers in counterinsurgency at the School of the Americas, and the expansion of so-called “free-trade” agreements like the Free Trade Area of the Americas, are strategies in the building of an empire based on greed, violence and power… We do not want war for empire.  We do not want training camps where soldiers are taught to torture and assassinate their own people.  We do not want economic globalization that serves elite interests to the detriment of the rest of the world…We are united in building a world in which the values of justice, cooperation, respect for the earth, and genuine democracy are upheld.”

The Wedge of Information Warfare and the Militarization of the Media

Taking their plays from the Iraq Invasion experience, the power holders were calculated in their assault on our alliances, in the streets and in the media. The city of Miami, Police Chief John Timmony, and the architects of the FTAA employed a sophisticated public relations strategy that was not only about discrediting demonstrators. It was about crushing our movement and severing our solidarity.

The riot squads used chemical weapons, plastic bullets, tazers and concussion grenades on demonstrators-Midwestern steelworkers and militant students alike. The FBI harassed organizers. Police showed up at teach-ins to flex their muscles, and “raided” NGO office spaces.   Undercover agents pulled tazer guns on indymedia videographers and took their cameras, and scores of cops surrounded puppeteers with rifles drawn. Trade unionists, local residents, legal observers, medics, students-all were met with intimidation, harassment, detention or arrest for setting foot on Miami’s sidewalks that week. Transgender, Queer, and Activists of color were targeted, assaulted, and tortured. The helicopters roared overhead and the nightsticks and fists flew in our faces.

And, as the SmartMeme Project and others have explained, the “embedded” journalists were telling the world it was OK. Speaking in the royal “We” for the police and the ruling class, an anchor pronounced,  “We are winning!” as protestors fled a hail of plastic bullets and tear gas.

The PR campaign waged against the protestors in Miami was not just the usual “globe-o-phobe” nonsense. It was an attempt to dis-inform the public, and to use the media to drive a wedge between the direct actors and the permitted marchers.

According to the embedded media, the Good protestors were “organized,” “peaceful” and had a “message.” The Good protestors were the majority.

The Bad protestors (the “suspected anarchists”) were “disorganized” and “violent,” and had “no message.” According to Timmony, the Bad protestors were “knuckleheads,” “punks,” and “2%” of the protestors as a whole. And he vowed to hunt us “like a hawk.”

While in reality, there was a tangible solidarity between permitted and unpermitted events in Miami, between the labor movement and the affinity groups at the convergence center, the actions by law enforcement and the lies in their media were designed to divide us, and targeted everyone. It is very dangerous when the labor movement-where the rubber meets the road in America-flirts with a direct action movement that has elements of revolutionary praxis. As her-story reminds us, solidarity is our greatest strength. And the power brokers use every means at their disposal to try to sever it.

Life After Cancun:

After the “Victory” of Cancun-the stalemate of negotiations at the World Trade Organization in September-many global justice campaigners, this one included, thought Miami would be a cake walk of sorts. In many ways, the FTAA is an even more ambitious agreement than those at the WTO, and many of the “group of 33” Southern nations who stood up to Uncle Sam in Cancun are Latin American nations. We reckoned the unraveling FTAA negotiations would fall apart completely in Miami, especially under the weight of popular mobilizations of millions of people across the Americas opposed to the agreement.

But US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and the White House spin team were one step ahead of us. Zoellick announced that the US would be pursuing bi-lateral negotiations with Latin American nations and expanding the CAFTA agreement in Central America, that the US and Brazil would work out their disputes, and that the plan was now a so-called “FTAA Lite.” End of Story.

The delegates were seen leaving the Intercontinental Hotel by motorcade at 6 PM on November 20th. The Bush team would have no “collapse of talks” in Miami. The meetings ended a day early, but the world was told it was because there was nothing more to discuss, not because the FTAA was an agreement that only serves the rich and would kill farmers in Latin America. There was no trumpet of failure for free trade. There were no call in shows about US agribusiness subsides or how the collapse of talks affects Americans, as we had heard post-Cancun.

And as the trade ministers boarded their planes to go back home, the concussion grenades burst above the heads of frightened demonstrators who were being chased out of downtown Miami by riot squads. And with the end of the summit, the FTAA ministerial media cycle was over.

Beating Bilaterals:

In a meeting the next morning, activists tried to craft a strategy for publicly condemning police brutality and declaring victory because of the roll back of the US’s position on FTAA. A local Colombian-American organizer made it very clear that a US-Colombia bi-lateral agreement was no victory for the people of Colombia. (And that the kind of brutality displayed by Timmony’s police force was fairly routine in working class communities of color in Miami.)

Bilateral trade and investment agreements are often more ambitious than the multilateral deals, and there are no flashy international summits to protest at. Many times these negotiations go unnoticed by global justice activists, let alone Middle America. These agreements set the benchmarks for the multilateral process, and weave a complicated web of economic integration [see Bilateral Trade and Investment Deals by Aziz Choudry in Zmag December 2003]. Bilaterals are the piece-by-piece road to the multilateral deals. The recent US-Chile agreement is a precursor to the post-Miami bid for US-Colombia, US-Peru, etc. to get FTAA by other means.

In some ways the assuredness of Victory in Cancun set us up. Even though we knew the talks were failing in Miami, the political space was yanked out from under us. We had no cogent language to contest FTAA-Lite and Bush’s bilaterals as STILL very much a problem for democracy, people, and the planet. The global justice movement has got to get smarter about bilaterals and embrace the contestation of corporate rule writ large: of colonialism, of neoliberalism, of Empire. Of capitalism.

The tactical limitations of the fence:

Inspired by the stories of the women, farmers, and Korean workers dismantling the giant fence in Cancun, and the tear down of the fence at Quebec City in 2001, many activists were inspired to take this sort of action in Miami. The logic was that to stop the FTAA with direct action, direct actors could disrupt the meeting by literally rattling the cages of the Empire-by tearing down the fence.

The fence is a powerful symbol of the exclusionary premise of meetings like the FTAA. We see these fences as the manifestation of ‘free trade’ polices that tear down boarders for corporations while erecting fences to stop the free movement of people.

The tactical focus on the Fence however, left us with a big vacuum when it didn’t work out, and little ‘idea space’ for contesting the entire process of corporate globalization while projecting a compelling vision of another world. With the thousands of heavily armed riot police on the street, it was difficult for activists to move in large groups, and nearly impossible to get very close to the concrete, steel, and barbed wire barricade. The use of an army of plain clothes law enforcement agents-dressed as steel workers, peace protestors, and as ‘black bloc’ alike-meant snatch squad arrests, disruptions, and outbreaks of violence (tazer attacks and fist fights) in amongst the crowd of demonstrators.

Perhaps a more decentralized deployment approach, or a protest in another equally symbolic location entirely, could have allowed for more creativity and mobility. Maybe not. It would have been appropriate to spotlight the American Business Forum (ABF) meetings earlier in the week, where Zoellick was cutting deals on CAFTA and schmoozing it up with corporate lobbyists. But the momentum was for mass action at the Fence on the 20th. 

And it was important that the direct actors marched with the labor movement, seniors and others on the Big March. It was indeed powerful to have 15,000 or so folks in the streets on November 20th. But it is clear now that the Quebec City go-for-the-fence scenario didn’t work the same way in Miami; just like the Seattle-shut-down scenario didn’t work the same way in Washington, DC on a16. These times call upon us to be more creative, more spontaneous, and more imaginative than we’ve ever been-to define and project a vision of a better world that is compelling enough to bring folks at home along next time.

Moving Forward: Stronger than Greed or Fear!

The corporate elite and the Bush team have no mandate for pursuing the FTAA. Literally millions of people across the hemisphere have voted No on FTAA and taken to the streets to oppose this corporate highjack of our jobs, food, water, health care, and schools. The internal divisions amongst the trade negotiators have led to a melt down for NAFTA-on-steroids and left them with a luke warm FTAA-lite. We are winning-and that forces the elite to greet us with the brutish violence of what direct action organizer Starhawk referred to as “the New American Fascism.”

On the heals of Miami, an impressive coalition has launched the Save Our Civil Liberties campaign [http://www.saveourcivilliberties.org]. This campaign is calling for a congressional investigation of the security operation in Miami (paid for out of the $87 billion Iraq appropriations bill), and the resignation of Miami Police Chief John Timmony. The campaign is also connecting the dots of an increasing government crackdown on dissent: from the passage of anti-protest ordinances in Sacramento and Miami, to spying on the Fresno California peace group, to the raid of the Critical Resistance office in New York, to the “new” COINTELPRO exposed by the New York Times last month.

To meet the challenges that lie ahead in the year to come-and 2004 is indeed a critical year for resisting the Empire-the peace and global justice movements must move towards a culture of strategy, skill sharing, and movement building. We’ve got to build strong affinity groups with strong alliances-rooted in grassroots community organizing, emboldened by our solidarity in struggle, and driven by our vision of freedom, democracy and change. We’ve got to have rigorous conversations about race, gender, and class, and how oppression and repression are used by the powerful to divide us with fear and violence.

While security and intelligence agencies have been working to disrupt and silence resistance movements for a long long time-particularly in indigenous struggles and communities of color-it is clear from these events that the ‘other super power’ of today’s grassroots movements for peace and global justice are indeed rattling the cage of the Empire-at the fence in Miami and in local organizing meetings across this country. Moving forward from Miami, we can draw strength from our solidarity, and tap the courage we hold in our hearts to stand up to the Empire for the Earth, for our communities, for dignity, and for democracy.  Showdowns at the World Bank, G8, and Republican National Convention, among other venues in 2004, will surely demand this of us. And show us that we are still stronger than greed or fear.

Doyle Canning is the Organizing Director at the Institute for Social Ecology Biotechnology Project [http://www.neRAGE.org]. She worked with the stopFTAA media team in Miami, and now she is in New Hampshire working on the People’s Primary [http://www.peoplesprimary.org], a grassroots organizing project to resist Empire in 2004 by mobilizing for democracy beyond the ballot box.


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