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Miami Vice

The FTAA summit began with a paranoid police force attacking peaceful demonstrators. A sudden decision to end the event a day early has averted a possibly bloodier ending.
 
 
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Editor's Note: Tom Hayden, reporting for AlterNet from the Free Trade Area of the Americas conference in Miami, filed this update Thursday evening. The original story follows the update.

UPDATE. MIAMI. 10:30 EST, Thursday An ugly and bloodier ending to the Miami FTAA meeting was averted by a sudden decision tonight to end the closed official events one day early. FTAA co-chairs from the US and Brazil both described the summit as a step forward though it was widely understood that the agreement was far less than the American business community and the White House originally hoped for.

At 5:30 pm, besieged protestors at the convergence center, threatened by the spectre of mass arrests, put out a televised appeal for public solidarity. At virtually the same moment, word came from within the FTAA meeting that an agreement had been reached. At 6:45, the agreement was announced at a press conference of all the trade ministers, and shortly afterwards the police encirclement of the convergence center seemed to be lifted.

"They finished early because there was nothing to be gained from another day of bad publicity from the streets, and there was nothing to negotiate beyond an agreement to keep negotiating in the future," said Washington-based trade expert Mark Weisbrot. A perplexed Wall Street Journal reporter asked FTAA officials whether "after nine years you've agreed to keep moving forward but with lesser goals than before." Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim, carefully choosing a word in English said only that the agreement was "enabling."

Enabling what? The beginning of "NAFTA on steroids" for the whole hemisphere, as global justice advocates fear? Or the further retreat of the Bush Administration from its pretensions to empire as American public opinion begins to swing against unilateralism in trade and war. That is the big question the global justice movement now confronts.


Earlier in the day

MIAMI -- Protestors seemed to skirmish with heavily armored Miami police outside the Riande Hotel Thursday morning, but nothing is at it seems this week. These "anarchists" were undercover police officers whose mission was to provoke a confrontation.

The crowd predictably panicked, television cameras moved in, the police lines parted, and I watched through a nearby hotel window as two undercover officers disguised as "anarchists," thinking they were invisible, hugged each other. They excitedly pulled tasers and other weapons out of their camouflage cargo pants, and slipped away in an unmarked police van.

On the other side of the impenetrable police barricade, a young woman with a video camera was bent over, vomiting from pepper spray. The nonviolent revolutionary Starhawk stood blinded for 10 minutes as friends washed her eyes. Others knelt paralyzed on the street.

A few hours later, hundreds of peaceful protestors -- and a few shocked reporters -- sitting quietly in Bayfront Park on Biscayne Boulevard were sprayed like unwanted pests by officers who described themselves as Robo-Cops.

So began a day that could be explained as a planned overreaction by the City of Miami, the Governor of Florida and his supportive brother in the White House. Within a few hours, the massive police force was firing pepper gas and rubber bullets at 120 miles an hour against a small crowd of surrounded resisters who could have been easily contained.

"Jeb Bush would love to see a riot over FTAA," lamented Fred Morris, Florida director of the National Council of Churches, when I interviewed him the day before. It seemed a little paranoid at the moment, but Rev. Morris spoke from experience. "They've been bringing in riot units from all over Florida to patrol streets when nothing was going on. My wife and I were stopped twice by police this week and they were very hostile. I can handle that, but somebody younger and more impatient might get shovy."

We were standing on a downtown street corner where the local ACLU, Catholic activists and Unitarians held a press conference condemning First Amendment abuses. Under a newly adopted ordinance, groups of seven or more people are forbidden to stop on a sidewalk for longer than 29 minutes without a permit. The Miami City Council decided not to criminalize puppets but banned materials such as stilts "more than three quarters inch in its thickest dimension" and "containers of any kind."

Hundreds of downtown businessmen, hearing that "Seattle-type anarchists" were descending on Miami, lost hundreds of thousands of dollars by closing their doors for the past week. The few who remained open -- camera stores, small shops, taco stands -- did brisk business without a single incident of property damage (as of 6:00 p.m. Thursday).

A few days ago, police shattered a parked car at Florida State University when they noticed a "suspicious container" that turned out to be gray paint for a photo gallery.

Next, the entire downtown was shut down by hundreds of officers in response to the arrival of a nonviolent march by 200 farm worker supporters from Ft. Lauderdale, 34 miles away.

Then on Wednesday, police uncovered a nest of alleged "anarchists" in an abandoned Miami mansion, and led television crews to a cache of weapons including newly minted chain and bright new gasoline cans. The evidence smelled, and not of gasoline, but not a single reporter questioned the incident. The anarchist stash was not exactly weapons of mass destruction, but enough to justify the police buildup on the eve of the protests.

With $8.5 million provided from the taxpayer funds meant for Iraq, the Miami police have splurged on "non-lethal" weapons, including CS-gas sprays. Gleaming new desert-colored armored personnel carriers and bright green water-cannon trucks backed the police presence on the streets.

Newscasters embedded Iraq-style among the police provided a complementary narrative rationalizing the show of force. For example, when a young white woman holding her fingers in a V-sign was shot point blank with a rubber bullet, the local ABC commentator said without the slightest evidence, "She took a rubber bullet in the stomach, she must have done something. You wanna play, you gotta pay."

A local NBC commentator seemed to speak for official Miami when she proudly declared that, despite a few incidents, Miami "was nothing like Seattle in 1999."

No authority or pundit questioned why the protestor turnout was less than 15,000 after months of official "intelligence" warning that 20,000 to 100,000 might blight the city's blissful reputation. Here in Miami, the AFL-CIO turnout was perhaps 5,000, including steelworkers wearing T-shirts declaring "FTAA Sucks."

Two hundred forty trade unionists wearing "Wellstone Lives" T-shirts journeyed all the way from Minnesota. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney attacked the FTAA fiercely and paid a visit to the protestors' convergence center. But a comparison with Seattle four years ago, where 50,000 trade unionists marched, was never planned or considered realistic by the protest coalition.

It may be hard for most Americans to believe this was all a hoax, and of course the Miami events are not over yet. But the telling comparison that should be made is not with Seattle 1999, but with the anti-WTO protests in Cancun, Mexico, just two months ago. There a Mexican police force with a long record of human rights abuses protected the WTO Ministerial with no offensive force, no gassing, no beatings and virtually no arrests. Protestors outside the fences in Cancun were far more aggressive than in Miami today. It was the first significant de-escalation of state violence in the history of anti-globalization protests. Miami and U.S. police officials were there as observers, but chose not to repeat the non-violent peacekeeping example of Cancun.

Miami Mayor Manny Diaz called the police presence "a model for homeland defense." Two weeks ago, Miami chief John Timoney was quoted as saying his strategy would be "a failure" if tear gas was used. Tonight he actually claimed on CBS that the demonstrators and not the police used the tear gas. Anyway, he continued, it was not tear gas but "pepper spray with a capsule formula."

As to protests scheduled for Friday, "if they engage in lawful activity, we're gonna arrest them." He didn't notice the misstatement -- if indeed it was one.