Miami, Florida - the police meet me at the airport. I've just flown in to conduct workshops at the Free Trade of the Americas meetings. But to get into downtown Miami anywhere close to the perimeter requires a special permit. The cost: $80 U.S. and a background check conducted by state and federal officials. The situation reminds me of the Mastercard commercials, but with a twist. Downtown travel pass in Miami? $80. Freedom to speak your mind? Priceless.
Downtown Miami on November 18 is empty. Businesses are closed and have been for nearly a week. The Miami Herald publishes a telling editorial cartoon that day: a map of the Americas on one side, labelled "Free trade," and alongside that a map of downtown Miami with the words "No trade" scrawled across the buildings.
Instead of the general bustle one typically sees in this diverse city, there are only uniformly dressed paramilitary personnel from 45 different police departments - everywhere. The enormous, heavily armed police and riot squad presence have been recruited to secure the downtown zone.
Juan, an émigré from Cuba and a 20-year veteran policeman, meets and vets me at the airport. He tells me, "These protestors," gesturing toward mysterious places, "are killers - cop killers." In Seattle, he says, "they killed a cop, and also in Cancún." I know this to be blatantly untrue, but attempts to politely correct him won't be heard. In fact, over the next few days I often hear this refrain of protestors-equals-cop-killers. A mindset has been established, and the facts are not necessary.
Juan gestures again. "They piss in balloons and throw them at police. They come here armed and dangerous. But here in Miami they've met their match," he says proudly. "If they try and reach you" (believing I'm onside with him) - he gestures at me with his finger as if it were a dagger - "we will cut them off even before they get close to you." His finger folds like it was sliced off at the knuckle.
The irony of my position inside the perimeter next to Juan makes me smile.
Also boarding the bus are a half- dozen members of Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs, Industry & Trade (DFAIT), and the six-pack of suits are thrilled with the macho police attention. Settling into the luxury bus, they exchange info on Miami's fine golf courses and which private schools they attended, and remark that the different vistas en route to downtown Miami are reminiscent of Nicaragua or El Salvador. They joke disparagingly that Jack Layton will attend their briefing sessions. "He doesn't know the issues at all," one recent graduate from an MBA program sneers.
There's no evidence that this city is preparing to assist the thousands of workers, retirees, environmentalists, faith group members and youth who have publicly announced for weeks their plans to come to Florida to peacefully register their opposition to more negotiations for a trade deal they do not want. In fact, a city ordinance was passed a few weeks before the FTAA ministerial was to begin making it illegal for more than eight persons to gather on the streets.
The training these 8,000 police have undergone has portrayed citizens as thugs. Their deployment cost $8.5 million, allocated from a U.S. federal government appropriation, a line item within the $87 billion requested and granted for the rebuilding of Iraq.
How is the money spent? Picture this. Thursday is the big day for speeches and a legally permitted march. Unions, with the apprioval of the authorities, have rented the amphitheatre at Bayshore Park as the meeting point for thousands of protestors. Tens of thousands come prepared to hear speeches by labour leaders, environmentalists and community activists and then participate in a legally sanctioned, peaceful 2-mile march to register their concerns.
Access is controlled. Thousands of riot police surround the city blocks adjacent to the park. Intersections are shut down, and only a string of three or four people can pass at any one time. One hundred eighty-seven buses carrying workers from around the state not permitted into the city, and others carrying retirees, are stopped 10 blocks from the venue, contrary to the negotiated agreement with the police. Hundreds of elders are forced to walk to the venue in the sun and have to run a gauntlet of riot police to get to the amphitheatre and shade.
After the peaceful and subdued march, a woman lawyer dressed in a skirt and high heels holds up a sign that reads "Fear totalitarianism" in front of a squad of 500 armed riot police.
A crowd of fewer than 100 people is with her. Police don't demand their dispersal; rather, they shoot rubber bullets into the crowd from near point blank range. The woman lawyer lowers her sign to protect her head. The police aim and shoot through the sign, hitting her in the head.
A small band of citizens march to the courthouse to protest these intimidation tactics and the wrongful arrest of more than 250 people. Hundreds of police and squad cars surround this small group, which includes students at Harvard studying trade agreements and social movements and with whom we have spent time. Notice to disperse is given. The crowd raise their hands in the air, indicating they have no rocks or weapons, and walk backwards away from the scene loudly chanting, "We are dispersing."
Armed snipers drop to one knee and begin shooting into the crowd with rubber bullets at citizens who are walking backwards. My friend is hit in the leg; others take repeated hits of rubber bullets and pepper balls.
Surrounded, their attempts to disperse are prevented. More than 50 people are arrested and charged with unlawful assembly, resisting arrest or assault. One trooper remarks, "You may beat the charge, but you can't beat the ride."
Protestors are now being released or are calling from jail with reports of excessive brutality, sexual assaults and torture. People are denied access to attorneys, visitation rights and essential medication and medical attention. Over 100 protestors are treated for injuries, and 12 are hospitalized
Military tanks patrol the streets after dark on Thursday night. Canada's trade minister, Pierre Pettigrew, remarks that he was unfazed by the citizens he does not agree with because he couldn't see or hear them from inside the heavily fortified Intercontinental Hotel, where the talks were taking place. "We don't sense their presence at all," Mr. Pettigrew said of those on the street.
Back to the Mastercard commercial. Politicians' disconnect from reality? $8.5 million. Civil liberties? Priceless.
Karl Flecker is education coordinator at the Ottawa-based Polaris Institute.