Miami Police Violence Draws Criticism

Voices from across the political spectrum and around the globe are calling for investigations into police violence during the November Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) demonstrations in Miami, Florida.

The FTAA talks were aimed at expanding the North America Free Trade Area to include all of Central and South America and the Caribbean. After ending a day early, the agreement fell short of outlining any definitive trade deals. What took the media forefront was the violent tactics used by police against protestors outside of the closed-door meetings.

Thousands of city, county, state, and federal police officers, armored vehicles, and helicopters turned the streets of Miami into a “police state,” said Leo Gerard, President of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). The show of force was partially funded by $8.5 million allocated from the $85 billion Congress granted President Bush for his Iraq and Afghanistan actions.

Amnesty International, the AFL-CIO, and others are demanding that this collusion between the federal government and abusive police in Miami be investigated, and that the right to protest peacefully be guaranteed.

In a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney outlined various abuses committed by the police force, including use of pepper spray and rubber bullets on peaceful demonstrators attempting to disperse, verbal abuse and intimidation including pointing guns at protestors' heads, and denying participants access to a permitted rally and march. “U.S. citizens were treated like a group of terrorists coming to town,” said David Foster, USWA's District 11 director.

Miami Police Chief John Timoney coordinated this massive deployment of police forces, which Miami Mayor Manuel Diaz called a “model for homeland defense.” Timoney was police chief in Philadelphia during the 2000 Republican National Convention, where large numbers of protestors were arrested. Charges were later dropped against 95 percent of them.

Tom Hayden reported in Alternet that in Miami he saw police dressed as anarchists provoke confrontations between police and protestors. The Miami City Council adopted several ordinances hours before the FTAA meetings, including banning groups of seven or more people from stopping on a sidewalk for longer than 29 minutes without a permit. More than 200 demonstrators were arrested. The USWA, AFL-CIO, Public Citizen, and others are requesting that Timoney resign.

As in the Iraq war, journalists were embedded within the police force, leading to coverage that critics claim did not deliver both sides of the story.

Anti-war groups, including United for Peace and Justice, joined the Miami protests, strengthening a growing alliance between diverse activist, labor, environmental, and indigenous groups. Sweeney marked this solidarity by visiting the convergence center where art-making, direct action training, and planning were done for the street protests. Foster noted that these alliances first emerged during the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests, but that recent threats to civil liberties are providing a new rallying point.

Faced with a weakened FTAA, the Bush administration is focusing on smaller bilateral and regional free-trade deals. On December 17, 2003, the Bush administration and Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua created the Central American Free Trade Area (CAFTA), which will allow 80 percent of U.S. consumer and industrial products to be exported to these countries duty-free. Costa Rica initially refused to join, but under U.S. pressure, in January it signed on to CAFTA.

—Rachel Milanez

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