Notes from an activist: Preparing for the showdown

On Day 2, tension starts to rise as thousands of protesters plan for a collision with thousands of police.

Published November 20, 2003 4:58PM (EST)

Outside the Convergence Center, in a shocking pink gauze dress and oversized sunglasses, a woman is tracking passing vehicles: which ones slow down, which drivers pause to photograph. Security. We exchange smiles as I wend my way in. The Convergence Center is about twice as busy today, Wednesday, as it was Tuesday: Hundreds more activists have arrived, and today is the day to organize. Thursday is the much-heralded "Day Of": the first day of the FTAA meetings, and our scheduled day of mass direct action.

Organize, organize, organize: Everywhere I look, people are gathering to strategize and plan. We meet first in our affinity groups -- small groups, generally no larger than 15; the goal is to build supportive, close community -- and work through what kind of action we want to be part of. My affinity group is Code Orange (for liberation!), birthed out of Direct Action to Stop the War -- yes, we were some of the folks that organized to shut San Francisco down the day after President Bush declared war on Iraq. We want to incorporate lots of art and theater; we have decided to cluster with the FCAA, or Free Carnival Area of the Americas.

We cluster in order to accumulate numbers. The FCAA is comprised of nine affinity groups. Inasmuch as we can, we will travel as a bloc tomorrow. With 100 people, we can shut down intersections, and will be much harder to arrest. However, given the level of chaos intrinsic to mass direct action, we also devise a tactical scheme to stay in touch should we need to split into affinity groups. We go out into the street to practice street tactics.

"Link!" yells David from Code Orange. The circle instantly links arms. This is how we would hold an intersection. "Lock!" We sit down, amid bumping limbs and laughter. "Rise up!" This is our mobility tactic: It serves the dual purpose of raising flagging energy and keeping us moving in the face of looming police. We jump four times, hollering "Liberation!" at each leap. Then we swoop down and up three times to the call of "rise up," and, whooping, sprint together down the street to the next intersection. Tactics over, sweaty and panting, I head back to the Convergence Center to get some water. When I arrive, there is a minor commotion outside. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, is paying us a visit.

The AFL-CIO has a permitted protest march planned for tomorrow, and initially requested that the direct action constituency hold off on organizing for the first day of talks. A lengthy process of discussion and compromise ensued in the following months, and we have scheduled the action early in the morning to avoid compromising their march. Sweeney is here, in a rumpled button-down shirt and suspenders, to thank us. He stands in the center of the hot warehouse, surrounded by a largely young and grimy audience. "We're delighted to be marching together tomorrow," he says. "I stand with you here in solidarity." Wild cheers and applause: We know we are comrades in a shared battle. American labor has much to lose if the FTAA goes through.

The day ends with the spokes-council meeting, where each affinity group has one representative participate in a consensus-based decision-making process. David and Tracey from Code Orange are facilitating tonight. They stand under a large, beautifully decorated sign reading, appropriately, "Hungry for Justice." The room is packed; the usual inner circle of spokespeople (other affinity group members sit behind them) is impossible to delineate from everyone else. Spokespeople rise, and introduce themselves and their groups. There are folks here from all over the country, as well as one group from Canada, and allies from Brazil and Venezuela. We run through the updates: medical, legal, food, media. Then, the organizing team for the mass action comes to the front, and we are updated on maps and strategy.

We've been told that there will be 2,500 cops deployed on the streets tomorrow. We will be anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 strong. I'm nervous. Miami Police Chief John Timoney has earned himself a bad reputation for previous treatment of protesters. There have already been infringements of both First and Fourth Amendment rights by the Miami police. We don't know what to expect. I personally plan to do my best to avoid getting arrested; I don't relish the thought of sitting in jail here. But I trust the people I am going out with, and we will be carrying the tools of our trade: puppets, colorful flags, art. We will surround the fence, and we will strive to embody its antithesis. And the world will witness our dissent. Viva la revolucion!

By Marisa Handler

Marisa Handler is a writer and activist.

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