Notes from an activist: Militant response

In Miami, our exercising of our constitutional rights became an invitation to an indiscriminate crackdown.

Published November 22, 2003 6:30PM (EST)

"Dade County Ordinance: Vendors caught merchandising here are subject to 60 days in jail and/or a $500 fine." On the opposite fence, in large, gaudy lettering: "Welcome to the Really Really Free Market!"

We walk into the narrow strip of park, refreshingly verdant and lush in the middle of downtown Miami. On my right, people are lining up to take a hit at a hefty green pinata, artfully molded into the shape of a dollar sign. "Smash the corporate pinata to find true wealth" reads the banner; when the pinata bursts, a tide of dandelions come wafting out. On my left is the free massage section. I make a mental note to return here. Further down is capoeira, and a circle of activists squinting down at the elaborate folds of their pink origami peace cranes. I pass a woman smiling widely, holding a sign offering free smiles and hugs. As always, Food Not Bombs is here, doling out generous veggie lunches. It's all coming together now. So this is where they went when Jerry died.

The mood is celebratory. This is an action organized by the Green Bloc, which focuses generally on issues involving the environment and sustainability. "Free" trade certainly isn't "free"; the ones who pay are simply often kept out of our sight. It's refreshing to see the terminology reappropriated, and righteously. We mosey through the park, pausing to greet friends old and new. I catch sight of Starhawk, long-time activist, writer and member of the Pagan Bloc. When I ask her how she fared yesterday, she frowns. "I was on the front line of just about every moment of police confrontation. We were remarkably disciplined under enormous provocation. It wasn't the worst I've seen, compared to Genoa, but there was a quality of sheer brute calculated fascism that's hard to equal."

Indeed, in today's Miami Herald, Police Chief Timoney accords himself credit for having successfully repelled the protesters who came here to "terrorize" Miami (considering $8.5 million of Bush's $87 billion Iraq budget came directly to the Miami police department, specifically to ward off us nasty traitors, this is hardly astounding news). What is disturbing is the inclusion of the term "terror," coupled with the increasing militancy with which Miami police have responded to us exercising our constitutional rights. And the television news has consistently portrayed us as violent and irrational: footage of a protester throwing a police projectile back at the riot lines was erroneously reported as evidence of activists provoking the police.

I also run into Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange. When I enquire as to her experience, she expresses outrage at the city's response, as well as the media's rendering. She tells me that last night she was in a car pulled over and surrounded by 12 police, all pointing their guns at the driver. "This is the model by which the citizens of Miami, and of this country, get used to seeing tanks in the street, and fully armed police acting like the military. Viewers get used to a military state."

There is a rally called for this afternoon, to support the 150 who were arrested yesterday and are sitting in jail. I decide to skip this and instead head off to a discussion forum on the FTAA to participate in some workshops. When I leave the forum and call Code Orange to reconnoiter, everyone I speak with is completely shaken. Of a crowd of under 200 holding a peaceful jail support action, 50 were arrested. There were six helicopters and 680 riot police in full gear. Directly after opening negotiations, the police broke their word, issued a three-minute dispersal order, and closed in, arresting both those consciously choosing civil disobedience as well as those inadvertently caught in their circle. Whatever happened to freedom of assembly?

Later tonight, we drive back through downtown Miami, heading to the Convergence Center for a press conference. There are police everywhere, multiple cars on several corners, and predictably we get pulled over. A truck full of puppets simply isn't suitable transport in Miami these days. The Dade County Deputy Sheriff peers in my window, unsmiling. "Having fun?" he asks. "Not really," I respond. "How about you?" "It's been an intense time," he replies. You can say that again. They check the registration and let us go.

When we drive off, we notice them trailing us. Is this psychological warfare? What exactly have these police been told about us? As a white woman, I have never experienced profiling; unlike people of color in this country, I haven't been compelled to shoulder a legacy of fear when it comes to the police. But these days in Miami are rapidly changing my outlook. What does it take to get people off the streets? And then what becomes of democracy?

By Marisa Handler

Marisa Handler is a writer and activist.

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