An FTAA Protester Remembers
Many of my friends say they will never go back to Miami, and I never thought I really would either. But something always drew me there, a need for closure, a need to see with my own eyes the city that pushed my anxiety over the edge. So I finally followed my feelings and took myself there, almost exactly seven years after I first went.
I followed the same path that took me there before, stopping in the lovely town of Lake Worth where I went swimming in the same spot that I had in 2003. I played a show this time around at the Night Heron Community Activist Center to a room of mostly younger folks and some of Lake Worth’s older anarchist community organizers who I had met back on my first trip here. I stayed at their place that night and we reflected on old times and caught up on recent ones. They had gone to Miami in 2003 as well.
In the morning I drove down to spend an hour in Miami. The highway reminded me of when we had left the demonstrations, when we had hid underneath the seats of the mini-school bus that folks from Asheville had come down in. We had received reports that the police were pulling over anyone who looked like they had been part of the demonstrations and arresting or attacking them. After seeing what they did to us in the streets and hearing about and seeing some of the aftermath of what they had done to us in jail, this was all too real of a threat.
My exit was quite a contrast to the month before, when I had arrived in town starry eyed and energized by the eight months of discussions and planning that had gone into the demonstrations. Arriving early, I would be part of the crew that would be responsible for facilitating folks arriving in town, telling them how to get around, where resources were, and how the schedule was going to look.
We were also tasked with making some of the most important decisions of all; where to start the un-permitted morning march on November 20th, where to go afterwards, and how to interact with the larger permitted AFL-CIO march.
The headquarters for the protests, the Convergence Center, was an old manufacturing warehouse of sorts in Overtown, a historically African-American community north of downtown that was facing massive gentrification and the displacement, evictions, foreclosures, and police repression that made it possible.
When I got to town there was a small circle of chairs in the Convergence Center and nothing else. I took the big broom and swept the massive amount of dust out of the dirty old place, while a friend from Baltimore who I had rode down with set up a massive tarp above the parking lot to shelter the free kitchens that would soon be organized there. We would eat our meals for free thanks to the wonderful folks from Seeds of Peace and Food Not Bombs, who would cook almost non-stop for the duration of the convergence under this tarp-system.
After cleaning the space it was time to get to work. We held multiple meetings a day in a small room off of the main one, aided by a lovely amount of thick Cuban coffee. There was much to be done, and each of us would basically take a huge project into our hands and add more people to our groups as they arrived in town.
Some would work on the larger logistical questions; setting up the medical space that would soon be rented downtown, finding place to obtain food, making sure everyone had housing, and coordinating media inquiries.
I had read up on the Free Trade Area of the Americas, even reading through the agreement itself, in order to be able to speak to media and to folks in the communities we’d be in as we prepared for the big day. This came in handy when I arrived to find that we had not yet produced any flyers or information sheets to hand out to folks around town. Obsessed with spreading information, I took the project up with a new friend, and we would build the Outreach Committee up to ten or so members.
A few of us would stay for a night in an upscale section of South Beach with one of the committee’s family friends, where we wrote two flyers, one for the community and one for local businesses. The general theme was “we are not here to destroy your city, rather, we are here to defend local businesses and people against the corporations who want to ruin you”, to summarize it bluntly.
I took the master copies out to Liberty City, an impoverished community a few miles from the Convergence Center. The printers were anti-Castro Cubans, the kind that the media and many others had told me would hate our message and presence in their communities. But I like people regardless of their politics, and I calmly told them what I needed and we talked a bit about the statements on the flyers. A bit to my surprise, they were not only supportive of the cause, they gave me a discount on the printing and wished me and the others luck. People always reassure me.
We printed the flyers in both English and Spanish and began setting plans for handing them out. It was a dangerous job; the police were arresting people already, and it was two weeks before the start of the first protest. Our first mission was to establish contact with every local business in the “Red Zone”, the area downtown slated to be the epicenter of the demonstrations. We drew a big map of the Red Zone and assigned groups of people to a street to flyer. The odd man out, I would do my route alone, but of all the folks there I felt like I was the most comfortable downtown, as I had been walking around in disguise there for days scoping things out.
My confidence was soon broken. Having finished most of my route and encountering almost full support and appreciation from local shop owners for coming to them to counter the media lies that we were coming to light their stores on fire, I dipped into a coffeeshop to deliver a flyer to the manager.
As we spoke, I noticed two bike cops outside the doors looking in at me. Nervous, I took a break in the bathroom to see if they would leave. Nope. I walked out the door, which one of the cops politely opened for me, forcing me to walk underneath his massive arms. “What’s in the bag?” he said with a smile, followed by a sarcastic “Welcome to Miami”.
Caught in the act of living up to the democratic processes of the country these men were supposed to be upholding the laws of, I decided right away to be up front with them. “Read the flyer, we are not here to fight you. We’re here to demonstrate and spread a message”. Though we were there to disrupt the meetings, I wanted them to know there was not some personal vendetta. I knew they had been told crazy stories that we had burned down buildings in Seattle, that we were going to shit in bags and throw it at them. This had been written in the papers.
They had already read the flyers, at least I assumed as much, because they held in their hands a stack of them. They had followed me along y route and taken them back from the shop owners! Unbelievable. A wasted effort I suppose, but at least I had the interactions that would build trust with the local community.
I somehow escaped arrest, not without providing my ID, social security number, personal information, and being subject to a full illegal search of my bag and person. I almost got arrested when I refused to tell them where I was staying, which they insisted I would have to tell in order to not be arrested. They pried, but I resisted, and they settled down. I was lucky, around the corner six people from our flyering teams were being arrested for the same infraction. Miami-Dade County had passed a law a month before we came making it illegal to walk in groups of more than five.
Returning to Overtown, we assessed who had been arrested and how many had been detained. It was about half of our group. The stakes had been raised, and we could either retreat or counter it. We decided on the latter, devising a mass outreach day where we would invite dozens of people, television cameras, and lawyers to join us and give every person downtown a flyer. Though six more arrests came from this, the 3,000 flyers we got out and the stance we made was important not just for those we connected with, but for our own morale and dignity.
As November unfolded, edging us closer and closer to the 20th, the reality we were facing began to reveal itself the way a massive hurricane moves across a radar in real time. And like the hurricane, the main day of violence would have an eye of calm. As the signs to come were read a collective feeling of fear enveloped almost everyone on the ground, but we were too far into our plans to make any significant changes. Nor did we want to. We would deal with whatever came at this point, we were there and the police were there too. And though the whole world was not watching, key people in it were, and folks from social movements across the world were depending on our efforts in Miami.
We brought about thirty people with us down from Baltimore, and thankfully only a few of us would be arrested, two on major felony charges that would later be dropped. One of our vans was pulled over a week before the demonstrations, and though no one was arrested, the police stole all of our shoes and many of our other possessions. The two were arrested in the same van the day of the main protests, driving into town from their campground. They were followed at length, then pulled over and charged with possession of a deadly weapon for having Leatherman multi-tools in the van. “Welcome to Miami”.
The “Oh Shit” feeling started to solidify one evening as I rode the elevated train back to where I was staying. Below me, a massive military convoy of armored vehicles and dismounted riot police drove slowly down the main streets of leading into downtown Miami, practicing the maneuvers they may employ in the coming days. Fire hose trucks, armored personal carriers, the “MRAV” sound machine, SWAT trucks, and more crept slowly, flanked by two hundred or so foot soldiers who would be the main front of the operations. Arranged almost artistically congruent, it was hard to tell if they were actually practicing for themselves or if their rehearsal was an intimidation-performance meant for an audience of me and the few dozen others like me who had arrived in town early to help organize the infrastructure. More signs of things to come.
The small home where I stayed belonged to an old Communist couple in Little Havana who were very paranoid about anyone, especially the police, knowing they were housing demonstrators. Our friend had come to Miami months ago to start laying the groundwork for the demonstrations, and had met these nice folks at an art opening. They had agreed to host whomever needed a place, and we joined a dozen others who found safe haven here, at least, for a period of time.
One morning my close friend and I, who were almost inseparable for security reasons throughout the weeks we were there, left the house to head to the Convergence Center. At the end of the block a police car waited the way a cat waits for a mouse to come out from behind the stove. We swallowed slowly and walked into the trap. Expecting arrest, we were lucky to get away with strange intimidation; the car began following us at walking pace. Turning onto the sidewalk to cross through the park, we thought we’d leave them behind, but they jumped the curb and drove through the grass the whole way through the park, right behind us. It only ended when we entered the train station.
This was the atmosphere as we approached the real scary moments. Total intimidation and paranoia was the norm. There was almost nowhere you could go near downtown or in Overtown without disguising yourself as a tourist, and even that didn’t work most of the time. It was just luck if you made it to the train or wherever you were going without detainment or arrest, or worse. After the protests, independent journalists and legal observers would be robbed by undercover cops pretending to be street criminals, their brand new tasers giving away their true identities. Bail money, videotapes, and rolls on film would be taken.
The final days leading up to the protests were the most intense. Huge meetings were convened in the Convergence Center, some complete with arguments between those who had been on the ground and those who had just arrived. Some expected more to be done for them, not understanding the vast amount of work there was to do on the ground. Miami, unlike many cities that have hosted similar demonstrations, did not have the infrastructure to handle it yet, and though a robust coalition of community organizations was active in the area, they were not active in the mass direction action/civil-disobedience portion of the convergence.
Others argued that those like me who had arrived early were making decisions undemocratically, centering around our decision to march from the only park in downtown that wasn’t where the AFL-CIO would march. We had agreed to not bring police heat to their march, where retirees would be joined active workers in opposing the anti-worker neoliberal agenda of the FTAA negotiations. The park was the only option that was near a train station. We couldn’t risk people walking long distances in the morning and getting picked off before we could reach a mass.
This split eventually manifested in two separate marches, one starting almost a mile away from downtown in Overtown and consisting almost entirely of an anarchist Black Bloc, a group of folks in all black wearing masks to conceal their identities from the police and often from each other. This was a last-minute decision that proved to not be the best idea. Their march never reached downtown.
The other march would host a parade of puppets, a marching band, and a more diverse group of folks. This march would also consist of many anarchists, as almost all of those who helped organize the convergence and many who came to participate identified with anarchist or anarchist-like politics. Both marches were un-permitted and anticipated a lot of problems from the police.
The idea was that the two would converge somewhere downtown and join forces. This, of course, never happened. The Black Bloc was stopped almost right away and faced police violence. People were beaten, tased, and arrested. They were generally scattered in all directions to find their way downtown.
The main march downtown started an hour late, at about 8:00 am. We wanted to disrupt the meetings inside the Inter-Continental Hotel and we did not hide our goals. The idea was to get up to the 2-mile “anarchist-proof” fence that had been erected around a section of the Red Zone. Once there, different groups were to try to pull off different attempts at getting through or over it, to create a siege atmosphere that would hopefully cause disruption. A few months earlier, a massive demonstration in Cancun had brought another World Trade Organization summit to a standstill, and groups had collectively pulled the fence there down with massive, hand-woven ropes. We intended to follow up on their success.
But without the Black Bloc and the many militants in it, we did not stand much of a chance at getting through the fence. They were the ones with the plans to do it and our march was not really prepared for that. The fence-plan centered around the Black Bloc and the associated Padded Bloc, a group of anarchists anticipated to be up to 300 strong who had built padding to protest them from police violence. This group never materialized, in fact, I only saw maybe seven people out in padded gear. Some got picked off on their way into Miami and arrested by the FBI, others were too scared to come out into the streets that day, others had their padding taken during detainments in the lead-up to the 20th.
The walk into downtown was like sticking your hand in a bush that you know has an animal in it that is going to bite you. Everyone knew it was going to be bad, but to turn back would be a defeat for the worldwide movement we were a part of. For most of the march, there were no police to be seen. Where were they? I had seen the night exercises and we knew 40 million dollars worth of weapons of equipment was purchased. When would they strike?
We walked rather quickly down towards the FTAA meetings and the fence that protected them from the people’s movement. The marching band got the crowd dancing, while the few of us in the front who were tasked with making the directional decisions freaked out over what to do. But as it turned out, the police would be making all the decisions and we would simply follow the only turns they had planned for us to make.
We ran into our first police line two blocks from the Inter-Continental, on a side street that we had been ushered down by an approaching line of riot cops. Walking peacefully up to the line, the police almost instantly began beating the shit out of us. The people linked their arms and tried to hold their ground, but the thick wooded bats fractured their arms and collarbones, cracked their skulls, and broke their line. The folks behind them would take up the task and the process would repeat until we turned around to find another street to walk down. Many people were badly injured here.
There is something about hearing human bones break and watching people helplessly try to stop it that leaves a mark on you. I watched terrified as friends I knew, some whose names I never even knew but who I had been in numerous intense demonstrations with before, made attempt after attempt to hold their ground. Turning, we were trapped by walls of riot police. The only option to exit the beatings was opened up when a police line faded back allowing us access to Biscayne Boulevard, a street we never anticipated reaching. The way they let us out there freaked us out, because at this point we knew it was all part of a plan for us. But it was the only way to go.
At this point our march had been split by one of the police lines and was stuck back downtown. I got word over my radio that people in that half were being tased and beaten. The taser was perhaps the weapon we were fearing the most, though the fear that live rounds might be used was also in our minds. We had faced stun guns before, but never the high-powered tasers that shoot two-inch barbs into your body and electrocute you at a much higher voltage. A week before, the Miami-Dade Police had killed a man with one of these same tasers, and they had killed far more people with tasers than any other police department in the country. We were fearing similar outcomes at the protests.
The vast Biscayne Boulevard was completely empty of cars and was blocked off completely to the south by the famed security fence. Behind the fence, a few hundred riot-police stood ready for any tricks, and above it cherry-pickers with riot-police armed with various types of munitions pointed guns into the crowd hovered over us.
There was a strange few minutes there were nothing seemed to happen, and me and other organizers huddled up to try to make a plan, but I had given up at this point. We were trapped and there nothing we could do. There were perhaps 300 people with us, and another 300 trapped behind a police wall a few blocks away. Up the road, there were another few hundred in the Black Bloc march. A block north on Biscayne the AFL-CIO marchers and begun to fill the amphitheater where their rally would begin.
Then the violence resumed. The largest wall of riot-police I had ever seen came slowly around the corner, showing no signs of stopping their advance. A group tried to get a rope with a grappling hook attached up on the fence, and they were quickly repelled by tear gas, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, and countless other projectiles. They scattered. There was no hope in approaching the fence anymore.
The massive wall of police resumed the bone-breaking assault on the peaceful crowd, brutally beating people over their heads and shooting them at close range with heavy projectiles. Occasionally, someone would be dragged under the police line and attacked. Usually they would be arrested, but sometimes they would somehow make their way back out.
Every few minutes police snatch squads would appear from behind the police lines and grab someone, or they would appear from within our ranks; undercovers disguised as demonstrators. In one famous incident, a snatch squad was beaten back by anarchists who pulled on their friend while another jump kicked a cop in the chest, and they managed to free their comrade who was facing the abuses of the Miami jail.
This was the extent of the violence used by our sides, and this one incident is probably the height of it. The rest of the time, we peacefully tried to hold our space and were just attacked. After being pushed a block or so up the road, we managed to settle for an hour or so and the police held a line well above the fence.
The whole morning episode lasted no more than an hour or two, and it was still early. We slowly dispersed, some joined the AFL-CIO for their morning march, others retreating to hotels or the few restaurants that were opened. Most of downtown Miami was closed and boarded up. Some went to try to find the remnants of the Black Bloc march and re-group with friends for the afternoon; it had gone out on the radios and in the streets that we would re-group at 4:00 for a second attempt at disrupting the meetings.
I got some food with a hundred or so others who lined the sidewalks and tried to make sense of the day. After checking in with some folks, I was taken by a friend who had rented a hotel room right on Biscayne Boulevard. The hotel lobby was full of police, and we managed to get in the elevator without any interaction. Upstairs we watched the news and saw the absurdity that was the corporate media’s version of the events. “Violent protesters” had attacked police downtown, who had responded with reasonable force in order to “maintain peace”.
Out the windows of our high perch we watched Black Bloc disguised police officers walk through the wall of riot-police below, high-fiving officers and they took their masks off. These undercovers made up the snatch-squads and would later try to perpetuate violence in the streets. Their job was to make sure the protesters came off us violent and that “ringleaders” were arrested, framed, and charged. No one arrested in Miami were found guilty of anything and many later would win major settlements against the police.
As the afternoon gathering approached, we went down to the streets and enjoyed an hour of calm. The union march had begun arriving back at the amphitheater and musicians like Tom Morello, Billy Bragg, Boots Riley, and David Rovics were entertaining the crowd in between speeches. They would soon be driven out of the amphitheater by tear gas canisters fired directly into it from the streets.
I remember clearly the events that unfolded that afternoon. A small group of people had gone up to the police line, jumpstarting the afternoon action. Almost an hour before the gathering was set to really start, this group stood at the line peacefully, just to be present. As they set up this space, me and a hundred or so others came to join them and see what was going on at the police line. Why not?
I was on the east side of the street, about a hundred or so feet from the center of the police line. It was there that something happened, and from what I understand it was a group of either provacateurs or protesters who intentionally “created a situation” that instigated the police. The violence began like a car accident; explosions of concussion grenades were accompanied by the cracks of dozens of guns firing wooden dowels, rubber and plastic bullets, and paint balls to “mark” certain demonstrators.
Me and the people around me immediately turned to flee. We had seen what happened in the morning and no one was about to try to stop the police line from advancing. As I turned, the woman next to me was smacked directly in the mouth with a rubber bullet and the blood the poured from her mouth splashed on the street at my feet. I felt the bullets blow past me and heard them hitting others, some who fell. Medics rushed to their aid helped escort them to some sort of safety, if any could be found.
The police began slowly marching towards us, beating their sticks against the shin-guards to create a terrifying beat. The police line was nearly ten officers deep and stretched hundreds of feet across the wide boulevard and up through the park. I have seen anything like it since. A thousand or more police against a few hundred unarmed demonstrators, nearly off of who were running away terrified.
It was around this time that a journalist who had come to tell the story of the “violent demonstrators” was hit the eye with a plastic bullet, which lodged itself next to his temple. Edging on death, our medics would rush him away from the advancing police line. He would soon lose his eye and go on to become an outspoken critic of police violence. Our brave medics would be scarred by their experience in Miami, but their selflessness in these times would be remember by all present.
One of these medics stayed at the house as me, and that night I saw him removing his shirt in the kitchen to reveal the ten giant rubber bullet welts that had been left on his body. “How the fuck did you get all those”, I asked him. “When everyone was running away, I was running in”, he said. Our medics rushed toward the guns to rescue those who fell or to aid those who were pepper sprayed or injured. The police would fire at them for fun, or to set an example that no one was safe here.
The firing continued and I decided to seek safety in the Amphitheater, which at this point was being guarded by AFL-CIO marshals. They were keeping folks from leaving for their own safety, but some wanted out so they could participate in the events unfolding in the streets. I watched a friend of my punch one of the AFL-CIO guys to get out, because his friends and comrades were out in the streets and he wanted to be there with them. It got a little crazy in the entranceway, but we were all in this together. It was not taken personally… we were all terrified.
I got in with my friend and walked to a safe place. It was not a minute before the first tear gas cans flew into the rows of seats, and we again fled to the entrance way, trapped between the advancing police lines and the tear gas inside.
Unknown to me at the time, on the sidewalk leading up to the amphitheater at this point my friend Mike was being held down and ased by multiple cops. He would later describe thinking that he was going to die, and his terrified screaming would be captured in a photograph published online. He would withdraw from political action for years after this incident, his trauma deeply affecting his outlook on the world.
This happened to many people after that day. Scared, traumatized, defeated, their lives were put in perspective by the fear instilled by mass violence. And justifiably, they reconsidered the costs.
As the police line pushed north we were able to negotiate an exit plan from the amphitheater. The police blocking our path allowed us to walk to the train, and escorted us there. It was terrifying, and most of us were nervous that it was a trap of some sort. But it wasn’t, this time, and we were able to leave. Up the street, demonstrators were running through Overtown from the approaching police, and more injuries were being incurred. Residents of Overtown were letting people into their homes and yards to lend a hand.
I went straight to the Convergence Center to get more information on arrest numbers and who was injured, and to see if anyone had died. It was not a far-fetched thought, and thankfully, no one had.
The Convergence Center was madness. A constant fear prevailed, where every thirty minutes another rumor that the police were preparing a raid caused a state of emergency. These rumors were not bred from paranoid demonstrators as much as they were caused by cops massing up nearby. Strangely, the center was never raided.
I remember one incident at this time well, but I don’t remember if it was the 20th or 21st. I was in the Convergence Center with a friend from the Anarchist People of Color group, APOC, which had been hit pretty heavily both in the lead-up to Miami and on the streets. In New York, a fundraiser to send APOC members to Miami was raided by police and people were beaten and arrested. On the streets of Miami they were disproportionately targeted, and in jail the reports said that they were being tortured.
That night a mutual friend rushed into the center and told my friend she needed to come outside, that an APOC member was out there and needed support. She grabbed me, since I felt comfortable enough outside the gates and since she didn’t want to wander out there alone. We were led around the corner to a man hiding in the boarded front doorway of the building. He was a strong looking guy, probably in his mid-20s, a guy who looked like he could handle a fight. He was broken and crying. He had just gotten out of jail and was clearly really fucked up from it. His head raised to my friend and she embraced him, then turned to me and said I should leave, and I did. I never found out the rest of that story.
This was the scene the next two nights at people tried to make sense of what had happened, find their friend, or figure what they needed to do to get out of the city. A rally outside of the jail on the 21st was attacked by police and many more were arrested and injured. The abuses inside of the jail are awful, and survivors of the arrests have testified to being beaten, forced to be naked, sexually assaulted, tortured, and raped. I was not arrested and cannot speak to the experiences of those who have, but a zine put together a few years ago called “The Miami Model” details some of these stories from first-hand witnesses and survivors.
That’s how my story in Miami ends. We left the evening of the 21st, not interested in staying around any longer. Other friends stayed to do follow-up and see folks out of jail, but having spent weeks there in the lead-up and having a ride out, I took it. I was disillusioned, tried, scared, and confused.
I think in Miami we took the bait. We were given a fence to get over, and we went for it. The decision to do that was not based out a real politically strategic goal; it was more like “well they did it in Quebec in 2001 (I was there), so that’s what we’ll do in Miami”. And our somewhat militant rhetoric and approach did not help us in the end, it gave the police the “evidence” they needed to bust heads and get away with it, which they did. And we were not ready for the trauma, including some folks who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which stemmed from the demonstrations. We left Miami weakened and scarred.
Miami was a nightmare, and I had been a major part of the facilitating it, though I don’t blame myself for anything that happened. It was a violent learning experience in how to approach situations of mass state-violence.
I learned that when the cops have the political and economic capacity to whatever they want, it’s best to utilize that in a way that’s smart and effective, to not just knee-jerk respond. In the future, I learned, we should put more thinking into demonstrations and take seriously the risks involved in facing organized violence. Because it’s for real.
I summarized some of the major lessons I learned in two recent writings of mine. One is Are We Addicted to Rioting, which I wrote last year, the other is the last part of First Hand Account of the DNC/RNC Protests, which I wrote in 2008.