Arresting The Future

Editor's Note: Tom Hayden is reporting for AlterNet from the Free Trade Area of the Americas conference in Miami.

MIAMI, Friday 8:21pm EST -- The police force continued operating with the brains and appetite of a carnivorous shark today as city officials kept demonstrating "the Miami model" of suppression even as protestors and trade ministers were leaving the city in droves.

At a Friday afternoon press conference, Thea Lee, the chief international economist of the AFL-CIO, spoke of feeling terrified Thursday as police fired pepper gas and plastic bullets at peaceful marchers. Other labor leaders, including AFL-CIO president John Sweeney expressed "outrage" over the police blocking of a permitted gathering, and cited specific abuses such as a union retiree being denied necessary medication after an arbitrary arrest.

Global Exchange co-founder Medea Benjamin and others were pulled over Thursday night by a dozen officers who pointed guns at them. The Sierra Club's Washington D.C. advocate, Dan Seligman, also described officers holding a weapon to his head and that of another colleague. Mark Rand, coordinator of a group of foundation funders, displayed a large bluish bruise on the back of his leg from a rubber bullet.

When 100 protestors ventured to the Dade County jail today to speak out against yesterday's arrests and detentions of some 145 people, a third on felonies, the same cycle of avoidable suppression they were describing unfolded yet again.

David Solnit, one of the founders of the Seattle movement, attributed the harsh police measures to Miami's character as a center of "vulgar capitalism." Unlike other cities, where authorities may appear to assimilate dissent for political reasons, he said, Miami has attempted to sweep it away as a foreign curse. AFL-CIO leader Ron Judd speculated that the police suppression deflected public attention from working-class trade issues, while Medea Benjamin accused authorities of "trying to get the people of this city and county used to this militaristic model" instead of the relatively benign model of policing used at Cancun only two months ago.

I came to Miami with eight students from Harvard University, where I have been teaching a study group on social movements this semester. They carried with them questionnaires to sample the opinions of this new generation of protestors, and received a first-hand education in police suppression today. After the press conference outside the county jail, about 200 young people marched 100 yards, stopping in a parking lot across a street from several hundred heavily equipped police officers.

Negotiations between a police commander and activist lawyers produced peaceful coexistence for an hour late in the afternoon. There were high spirits, even humor, among the protestors who invented chants like "There ain't no riot here, take off that stupid gear" and songs like "We all live in a failed democracy."

The protest could easily have been contained by a handful of officers, or might have simply faded as the day ended. Instead, at approximately 5:00 p.m. the commanding officer summoned the activist lawyers to announce that those milling, waiting or sitting in the parking lot had become an "unlawful assembly" with three minutes to disperse. In addition, he said with a straight face, there was "intelligence" that some in the crowd had rocks. There was no evidence shared with regard to this secret intelligence and no rocks were seen in the events that followed.

Instead of resisting, the crowd began dispersing along 14th Street, the only egress route available. With the Harvard students, I was among the last to leave, along with camerawoman Ana Nogueria and reporter Jeremy Scahill from Democracy Now! Crossing a driveway I met David Solnit again, who had decided not to take it any more.

"Come on, Tom, here's your historical moment," he said. "We need civil disobedience to say no to all this."

I replied with words to the effect that I was writing about this, not leading it, feeling slight pangs of nostalgia and guilt. But there was no more time for talk. The police were advancing only a few feet behind us. I stayed with my Harvard students, having warned them earlier that they might be caught up or hurt in the unpredictable police sweep.

Solnit and six others sat down suddenly on the sidewalk, holding their hands up in V-signs. A phalanx of 25 police closed in on them as we took photographs and notes from a few feet away. In moments the seven on the sidewalk were handcuffed and led away. More police were swarming everywhere now, overwhelming the remaining protestors by ten to one.

One block away, the dispersing crowd was walking backwards as more police marched on them with helmet visors down and guns and clubs drawn. By now five of my students had joined this retreating witness, all holding their hands over their heads and chanting "We are dispersing" again and again.

How could the police not notice how young they were, how utterly unthreatening, how innocent?

I moved alongside the advancing and retreating lines to take a photograph when I noticed that a policeman was aiming a shotgun straight at my chest. Fear leaped in me, then he pointed the weapon down. But a moment later he was looking down the barrel at me again. I was holding a camera, notebook and pen. Suddenly I found myself asking him, "Are you really pointing that fucking gun at me?"

Nothing happened, and I turned back to look for the students. They were on the public sidewalk, but by now more police had arrived to prevent them from walking any further.

The last I saw of them -- Anne Beckett, Maddy Elfenbein, Jordan Bar Am, Rachel Bloomekatz and Toussaint Losier, all undergraduates -- their hands were still up as they were swallowed up by the black-and-brown uniformed horde. When they were on the ground, one officer added a final squirt of pepper spray. How brave they look, I added to myself.

Two of my other students avoided arrest by happening to turn in another direction and, minutes later, Touissant, a tall African American with dreds and a video camera, magically walked free because the police were too busy with their already downed dissidents. A minute later, I learned that Democracy Now's Ana Nogueira -- and her camera -- had been enveloped and arrested too. It was another experiment in the "Miami model." What I remembered of this imperial aggressiveness at the ballot box from November 2000 now seemed to be repeating itself on the streets.

Police subsequently informed the larger world that a mob of menacing protestors had disobeyed orders to dissolve an unlawful assembly and were treated accordingly.

In truth the police may have radicalized a new generation of America's future leaders.

NEXT: What's in the new trade agreement? Has the train left the station with the boxcars empty?

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