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The Miami Model
W e 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 department.”
We 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.
What 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.
On 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.”
Back 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.
As 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 Miami Herald .
That reporter was one of dozens embedded with the Miami forces. In another incident, we saw a Miami Herald 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.
The photographer 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.
Watching 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.”
So “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.
A fter 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.
The 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.
My 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.
In 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.”
Miami 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.
The 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 demonstrators.
But 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.
The 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 myself.”
Eventually, 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.
The 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.”
Representatives 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.
But 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.
In 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 to embed.”
This 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.
Jeremy Scahill is a producer and correspondent for the nationally syndicated radio and TV program “Democracy Now!” (www.democracynow.org ).
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