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Miami: Don't just let it go by


They were so calm. A dozen of them--gathered at Internationalist Books in Chapel Hill four days later--were determined to relate only what they'd done and seen first-hand. No need to exaggerate. Just the facts of what they were caught up in last week in Miami, exercising their First Amendment rights, were horrifying.

Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, says Miami "put on a great show." Yeah, a great show of fascism.

A contingent of about 30 activists associated with the bookstore had car-pooled or flown to Miami for the mass demonstration against talks aimed at establishing a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), accurately described as NAFTA on steroids. NAFTA is a trade agreement among the United States, Mexico and Canada. The FTAA's goal is a 34-nation trading bloc.

Whatever you think of "free trade" in the abstract, there's little doubt that if it's not accompanied by progressive national laws, it frees multinational business enterprises to shop across borders for the cheapest labor and the flimsiest environmental and worker safety standards. NAFTA has so accelerated the loss of North Carolina's textile jobs--before the communities that depend on them are prepared for anything else--that even a Republican free-trader like Liddy Dole is going, "Whoa."

But NAFTA's been good for Mexico, right? No, the Mexican economy is in deep recession; even as exports to the U.S. increase, wages and farm prices keep dropping.

Adam Sotak, Jillian Johnson, Mike Hatchey and the rest had good reason to go to Miami, as did 20,000 others. "(FTAA) just symbolizes everything we work for, whether it's environmental issues or labor issues," Sotak, an organizer with Democracy North Carolina, said. "That's why people felt so passionate about it that they wanted to drive 15 hours to be there."

So 20,000 assembled, from all corners of the hemisphere. And 2,500 police, most in riot gear (think Robocop with a plastic shield and police stick) assaulted them.

Did you read something else? Perhaps you read the headline in The News & Observer, "Pact made for free trade as protests turn violent." The wire story is straight from police headquarters. (Just for the record, the talks were called off early with no progress.)

You should read the Miami Herald online. That pro-FTAA paper sent 30 reporters into the street. What they saw: "a muscular task force of police ... a nonviolent march ... apart from several small trash fires set by a few protesters, no significant acts of vandalism or property damage ... The heavy presence by black-uniformed, riot-equipped police apparently had the desired effect."

The heavy presence, and at least 145 arrests and 12 protesters sent to the hospital with serious injuries.

Herald columnist Jim Defede quoted a 71-year old retired airline pilot--his dad was a cop--who was pushed to the ground by the advancing police line, arrested and handcuffed with his hands behind his back for seven hours. "Until Thursday, I respected the badge," he said. "Not in Miami. Not after what I saw."

So where did the N&O get that absurd editorial Sunday that led off: "Thousands of bottle-throwing protestors couldn't stop progress ..."?

"The most important thing," says Jillian Johnson, a Duke grad who was hit in the back as she tried to move away from the police line, "is not to just let it go by."

Right. As much as they despise what happened to them, what really frightens the Chapel Hill bunch is how blithely the media either ignored the violence altogether or else blamed the demonstrators for daring to challenge authority.

Only in Florida?

Here's what really happened. Miami Police Chief John Timony, whose reputation for "preemptive action" is well-earned, ordered his troops to strike fear in the demonstrators by pushing them away, block by block, from the site of the FTAA talks while also cutting off side streets. At the least provocation, the cops fired off tear gas, taser guns and rubber bullets.

Sotak and Johnson were among those trapped between the charging police line and demonstrators trying to hold their ground behind them. "We were almost crushed," Sotak said. "I was waiting at any moment for the police to attack us. I'm still amazed it didn't happen."

No, they didn't attack. But they did assault, butting the demonstrators back with their shields and sticks, hard enough to bruise but not, in most cases, to really injure. And every so often, just to show they could, they arrested somebody. Hatchey, a UNC-Chapel Hill freshman, was arrested. He'd gone to the jail to protest earlier arrests; suddenly, he and 100 others were surrounded by several hundred riot police. The cops let them filter out, then pursued individuals almost at random.

Hatchey stopped to watch from across the street as cops pummeled a small group that had knelt, hands up, in peace-signed frustration. A cop ran him down and cuffed him. He was thrown in a "Guantanamo-style cage" for a while and then put in a cell for 12 hours before he got his one phone call at 3:30 a.m. and was released. Arraigned at noon the next day, he paid court costs of $201 to avoid being convicted of resisting arrest.

The police tab was $10 million, according to Timony. Miami got $8.5 million of it from the $87 billion Congress appropriated for the war on terror.

You read that right. EndBlock

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