Notes from an activist: After Miami, what next?

Direct action offers a thrill at once addictive and searing, but this movement needs to grow, or we will only be speaking to ourselves.

Published November 24, 2003 4:34PM (EST)

As usual, mild chaos prevails at the Convergence Center when we arrive this morning. Outside, people are eating or smoking, lounging in small constellations on the cement and animatedly chewing over yesterday's drama. Inside, under the Welcome sign, greeters are answering phones and barking out questions to people milling about. Within the main room, a meeting is slowly coagulating.

"If you can hear me, clap once!" bawls Lisa, the facilitator. A round of scattered claps. "If you can hear me, clap twice!" A rather more coordinated spurt of applause. "If you can hear me, make some noise!" Noise is duly made, and the meeting is officially launched.

The beginning of the meeting is devoted to statements from various allies pledging support in the face of the past two days of police violence: the AFL-CIO, the organizers of the Root Cause march, the National Lawyers' Guild. Many activists are still in jail, practicing jail solidarity in order to ensure that all get equal treatment. The rest of our meeting is spent discussing how to mobilize national support for those in prison, and how to get the word out about the brutal response of Miami's police force. I work on the letter calling people to action: We are asking for monetary support, call-ins to city and county officials, and solidarity actions to take place this coming Monday. Increasingly we are receiving word of prisoners being mistreated in jail, and the usual high energy gives way to a palpable, spreading sense of disquiet. One prisoner, a Mexican man, was beaten so badly during arrest that he is currently in the intensive care unit, suffering from a brain hemorrhage.

We close the meeting with a "tone" circle, in which we sing or hum our emotions together. Then we take a moment to vocally release whatever pent-up anxiety or anger has accumulated. The room is in total uproar; it sounds, I reflect, like the hounds of Hades, unchained, agonized. We breathe together, sending well wishes to our comrades in jail, and break apart into action.

Some are heading back to the jail, to support those being released. Others, like myself, are heading back to our homes, back to "normal" life. There is a measure of relief in this: After six days, I am glad to be returning to regular sleep and regular meals. I also feel slightly guilty, like I am leaving when I'm still needed; and then wistful, for abandoning this quirky and wonderful community, this grubby, abrupt oasis of conscience and action. Direct action holds a thrill that can be addictive: the searing, immediate experience of making a difference, of standing up, through word and deed, for what I believe. This I will miss.

Yet there will be ample occasion for more direct action. On the one hand, I am gladdened by this, by the need for and the experience of direct democracy, visible and outspoken. On the other hand, there is a lot this movement has to offer beyond the streets as well. I want our voices to be heard in other forums, to be constructing these alternatives on a larger scale. This movement needs to grow beyond a radical fringe, or we will only be speaking to each other. And it is too easy when we all agree.

And finally, I am profoundly troubled by the infringements on civil liberties that have been perpetrated over the past few weeks. First, the city of Miami passed ordinances limiting what kinds of signs can be carried, and the numbers of people allowed in the streets (eight people per sign-carrying group). Then, during the talks, the Miami police responded to our protests with the numbers and militancy of a police state. None of the mainstream media has portrayed this inordinate force accurately. What will police response look like in 10 years, 20? The mainstream media is dominated by corporate interests intimately aligned with those of our current administration. If this media continues to portray us as a menace to the state, and the militant response as justified, the U.S. will rapidly become an Orwellian parody of itself. I have seen it on the streets, and I am worried.

En route to the airport, I chat with our cab driver about the FTAA. Marc Armand is a Haitian immigrant, and has been listening to local Haitian radio updates. "I am happy you came to protest," he tells us. "Haiti produces Levi jeans and baseball equipment for this country, but Haitians themselves cannot afford to buy it. The FTAA will make the rich richer and the poor poorer. This is not fair." He eyes me sternly in the rearview mirror. "Human life is important. It must be valued everywhere." I nod, feeling a flush of empathy, of hope. There are many who stand with us but who could not afford to be out protesting. Theirs are voices of dissent, and they are millions strong. There were several diverse strands of activism that swept through the streets of Miami this week, but I know they were only a fraction of those outraged, those profoundly affected by decisions made in rarefied rooms and closed-door meetings. Look at Argentina, at Venezuela, at South Africa. Movements are growing all over the world, movements based in community, in shared principles and collective processes. Ours is but one piece of the puzzle. Now is the time to begin pulling these pieces together.

By Marisa Handler

Marisa Handler is a writer and activist.

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