Notes from an activist: Welcome to Miami

On my first day in South Florida, here to conduct direct action protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas conference, obstacles loom, but the spirit surges.

Published November 19, 2003 5:24PM (EST)

A couple of weeks ago, this was a nondescript warehouse, squat and invisible in the midst of a working-class Miami neighborhood. Today, as we pull up, the excitement is palpable. I pause outside the chain-link fence to admire the transformation.

"The New Global Currency: Love" reads one sign. "FTAA No Way" reads another. And over the entrance, in colorful, buoyant letters: Welcome Center. Also known as the Convergence Center, this is where direct action activists from all over the country are coming together to organize. I push my way through the narrow entrance (a police raid could happen at any point, and thus access is limited) and here I am, a distracted neophyte in the center of a whirring hive of activity.

I wade through the outdoor section-kitchen, living room, and back porch all rolled into one tarp-covered playground, and into the warehouse. I search the room, the multicolored signs, the massive, marked-up map of downtown Miami, the animated faces. Ah, there's Meddle! I arrived in Miami last night, and have yet to hook up with anyone else from my San Francisco Bay Area-based affinity group. It's good to see someone I know. We hug. Meddle has been here for weeks already, locating housing for the arriving activists (with little success: When the Coral Gables Congregational Church offered space, the Miami police -- the most frequently indicted police force in the nation -- issued notice that they were violating nonresidential zoning laws, despite ample precedent of churches housing activists). Meddle grins at me. "Welcome to Miami."

I am excited to be here. Unlike many of the other activists arriving, I wasn't at Seattle, or Genoa, or Cancun. But I have been active organizing direct action in the peace movement and the anti-globalization movement, and as I've grown more familiar with the potential impacts of the FTAA, I've felt increasingly obliged to travel across the country to voice my dissent.

The Free Trade Area of the Americas, should these agreements go through, will prove a disaster to communities and the environment. The FTAA essentially expands NAFTA to the entire Western hemisphere (with the predictable exception of Cuba, which is not represented among the 34 countries here). NAFTA, contrary to optimistic predictions, has only benefited the wealthiest in the three countries it includes. According to a study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, since NAFTA was passed in 1994, an estimated 765,000 jobs have been lost in the U.S. These jobs have largely moved to maquiladoras, cheap border factories based in Mexico. Meanwhile, the number of Mexicans working for less than Mexican minimum wage has increased by over a million. NAFTA is a race to the bottom, and those who are paying for increased multinational profits are the most destitute.

Like NAFTA's Chapter 11, the FTAA's rules of investment would additionally allow corporations to sue governments for future profits lost (a recent example of this was when Canada's Methanex Corp. sued the state of California for almost a billion dollars for banning the use of MTBE in its gasoline, due to its high toxicity. Should Methanex win, California either has to pay out or significantly lower its environmental standards). A poor nation like Bolivia would have virtually no protection against the might of U.S.-based multinationals in a case like this. And the FTAA would also include services, which means that everything ranging from water to education to hospitals would be up for privatization.

The FTAA is a nightmare for the environment, labor, and human rights. And there is no process for public input: the space for nongovernmental organizations amounts to little more than a suggestion box, while corporate advisors are given privileged advisory roles in these talks. Most of the communities represented in these talks cannot come to voice their dissent. For those who can, for the conscientious and the outraged, nonviolent protest is the last tool left us. That is why I came to Miami.

Next stop: the Root Cause march. I drive with some friends to meet the march, which is a coalition of local groups representing immigrant and workers' rights. This is the third and final day of the march, and the marchers are loud, festive, energized. We stop to protest at the INS, the boarded-up Dade County School Board Administration building (Jeb Bush's policies privatizing education have cut some ugly corners), and at Taco Bell, where appallingly underpaid farm workers call for "uno centavo mas," or one more cent per pound for the tomatoes they pick. These farmers make around $7,500 per year, without any benefits or the right to organize; Yum! Brands Inc., which owns Taco Bell and buys these tomatoes, is the largest restaurant system in the world.

Gradually our motley crew approaches downtown Miami. The street numbers descend in rapid succession, and suddenly the road is lined with police, eyeing us suspiciously from behind their helmets. We turn, and there it is: the fence, 10 to 12 feet high, sturdy, intimidating. Wholly for our benefit: erected specifically to keep us out. The entirety of downtown Miami has been fenced in. Welcome to Miami, indeed. Behind the fence, like a crew of dedicated worker ants, are hundreds of police in bulky black riot gear. And finally, glowing in the distance, the Continental Hotel -- the rarified rooms that will hold these talks.

I pause, aghast at the visceral reality of the separation, of our total and violent exclusion. And then I am caught again in the flow; we are moving onward, chanting and drumming and dancing. This is what I love most, and partly why I came: There is an incredible, enduring energy about these actions. We are creating the world we want to see, replete with art, culture, and cooperative, consensus-based processes. I look around, at the smiling faces, the arms flung up jubilantly. When I feel impotent in the face of all the damage being wreaked on this earth and its peoples, this is the energy that sustains me. This is when I realize, with a familiar-feeling jolt, that change is possible, that yes, we can make a difference; indeed, we are making a difference, we are actively building the alternative. Welcome to Miami.

By Marisa Handler

Marisa Handler is a writer and activist.

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