Thursday, November 03, 2005

Miami

Why not just go I thought to myself. I had been reading about the issues surrounding the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement, including a passionate plea from an activist named Starhawk, describing this as an historical moment, one surpassing in importance the mundane tasks of daily life, like going to a job etc.. That certainly made sense. Looking back these many years later, I’m glad and proud to have participated in protests against the Viet Nam war and to have been involved in the “movement”, as we lefties like to call it. In those days I didn’t mind missing a little school either. For the last year I had been going to all the major anti-war demonstrations in D.C. and elsewhere and always returned energized. Then the other night at a conference on something or other I heard a gal say she was going to feed the protesters in Miami with the group Food Not Bombs and I thought “right on”. Then the final convergence occurred when a friend had contact with some students who were going who had a seat in a free van and I was at a gathering and met one of the people going with the students! Why not indeed. They had a place set up to camp, keeping expenses at a minimum, and they were eager to have someone over 21 to drive (insurance reasons) and I am definitely over 21.
So three o’clock Tuesday rolls around and I’m standing around with a bunch of young Quaker college students ready to pile in for a fifteen hour drive, through the night, to Miami. There is a palpitating sense of excitement on board; knowing we are about to confront Empire and injustice as currently manifested in the FTAA negotiations. For many of these young radicals it is their first action, others are seasoned veterans but they all seem intelligent and aware, a good thing because these “globalization” type demonstrations tend not to be as benign as your garden variety peace march and as it will turn out, this one is no exception. The conversation is lively as the southern night flies by and a sense of comradeship is building, this is the part of the struggle I’ve always enjoyed and often miss in my working class existence, the theory and ideology and passionate intellectual discussion. I am the only one aboard who is a stranger so I mostly listen and analyze then take my turn at the wheel to get us through the deep, sultry night and flat, monotonous landscape.
Around seven in the morning we hit town, cramped and spaced out and a little giddy. We find the house where we will camp, nestled in the jungle landscape of some posh south Miami neighborhood and pile out only to find the place already swarmed with tents and bodies and bikes of young student types decked out in dreads and tattoos and piercing galore. Word had apparently gotten out, the homeowners were unhappy with the unintended crowd and it was up to us to get them removed. This is when I found out we operated in a non-hierarchical structural format, anti-authority and all that and yet in some fashion the bad news had to be delivered. Circles were formed. Feelings and proposals were addressed. Meetings ensued. And ensued and ensued. Finally the squatters were found new homes and sent on their way. Anarchy takes patience and I badly needed some sleep.
After a bit of rest we head for town and some organizational meetings. We are told to walk in small groups as the cops are “pre-emptivly “ picking up people for trivial infractions such as jay walking, loitering, unlawful assembly or for no reason at all. Coming into town on the Metro we see the police definitely have a presence, at all the train stops, overhead in helicopters and back and forth on the streets in cruisers they are everywhere you look. Our destination is “The Convergence Center”, stuck twenty-five blocks from downtown solidly between the ghetto and an industrial hell of chain link fences and pre-stressed concrete warehouses. The center is instantly recognizable both by the assembly of motley anarchists / punks and the helicopters roaring overhead. Our people! World Trade Warriors, Globalistas! Task one is to divide into affinity groups so we sit in a circle and yell through the din just how much risk we are willing to accept, whether we plan to get arrested, what emotions we are experiencing at the moment etc.. It is halfway between a sixties encounter group and a Skinny Puppy concert.
If I was to be perfectly honest, I would have to tell them I was there as a tourist, as much for the theatrical aspects as for the political but the show I wanted to see did not include the inside of a jail. I was hoping to find out what the actual goals and purpose of this action was. Were we intending to stop the meeting of the trade ministers? To support and somehow influence a particular position within the negotiations? To draw attention to the issues, such as the lack of environmental or social justice considerations inherent in these trade deals? As a socialist I was not so much for “stopping FTAA” as I was for ending capitalism altogether but I was unsure how deep that sentiment ran through this crowd. I managed none the less to end up in a three person affinity group that was going to document, with digital camera, the events of the next couple of days and that was considering itself “medium” risk, getting close enough to the action to get pictures but not so close as to get arrested.As I looked around I realized that at fifty years of age, I was easily twenty years older than anybody else here. Deep down I figured despite my age I was still very fast and had good instincts for danger, I would cover my own ass.What we had were two very separate events the next day, the permitted rally and march and a series of very un-permitted “direct actions” including a covert drive to “the fence” and a march to the government center, complete with drum corp,cheerleaders, puppets etc.. Now we were asked to assume code names and learn each others code names, receive telephone numbers for legal aid and a voicemail service we would use to keep in contact, and to show up at five AM the following morning ready for action. None of this dissembling of information was made any easier by the hundreds of other affinity groups planning nearby, the Food Not Bombs generators roaring away or the copters circling overhead. The atmosphere was somewhere between A Clockwork Orange and Oliver Stone. With a dash of Fellini for good measure.
Dark thirty the next morning, gathered on the pavement outside the convergence center, I am asked whether I would be willing to drive a van behind the puppet truck, owing to the fact that I am one of the only ones with a drivers license This is a high, high risk assignment but I figure what the hell. They had planned to minimize some of the risk by “embedding” media people in the van and truck but there was one minor problem, no media had shown up at this ungodly hour or else they weren’t thrilled with our plan. Either way, there was no backing down and my documentary team of “Zeke and Pooh” jumped in along with a couple other guerrillas and we were off, following the UHaul van full of illegal puppets down the darkened side streets of Miami. Suddenly six cop cars burst out of nowhere and the jig is up. There intelligence gathering had obviously been a little more effective than our security arrangements. I whip the van around and split off uptown as dozens more police cars, vans, trucks filled with swat units converge on the hapless UHaul. Disoriented and a bit depressed we park the van and start hiking towards the direct action site, mingling with other protesters in small groups or traveling alone, exchanging what little information we had and staring in wonder and horror at the phalanxes of para-military forces waiting to greet us. Dressed in Darth Vader black with Kevlar pads and shiny boots, gas masks and visored helmets they stood in lines three deep carrying automatic weapons, tear gas launchers, tazers, batons and shields. On their belts hung pepper spray and mace canisters. They stood atop armored vehicles or sat on high tech mountain bikes and they said we are the State and you in deep do do. They numbered in the thousands and they blocked off all the streets, video taping us as we gawked at them. The concept of a “measured” show of force had obviously been discarded in favor of the newly popularized shock and awe. As in some post- apocalyptic nightmare, the streets were deserted, the citizenry hiding behind windows, there were no cars to be seen . I continually checked for clear exits in case we had to run. We watched protesters get picked off from the edge of the group, get beaten to the ground and drug inside waiting paddy wagons.
We finally caught up with the rest of our group near the entrance to the amphitheatre, the place the rally was to take place and march to begin. Security would not let us enter the rally with our plastic container drums so we waited in the hot, southern sun, surrounded on all sides by troops in tight formation, feeling a deep empathy with the Palestinians or the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, the Iraqis occupied by an invading force.
After a while the steelworkers started pouring out of the amphitheatre, closely followed by other union brothers and sisters, workers from the factories and construction sites and fields from as far south as Peru and we marched in solidarity, housewives, students, teamsters and teachers, ending back at the rally site tired but infused with the spirit that comes from shared struggle. At the south end of the gathering there was a sudden surge of bodies coming towards us and I could see the tear gas canisters suddenly flying through the air. People cried out “walk!” in order to avoid a stampede and others cried out for medics to help the blinded. I began to look for a way out but my fellow documentarians, adrenaline coursing through their veins, wanted close up pictures. We danced along the edge of the skirmish, retreating each time the gas canisters and rubber bullets flew but when I saw the cops begin a large sweep in our direction I urged my comrades to head for the entrance of the amphitheatre, thinking surely the cops would not attack the thousands of union people, many of them elderly, still inside. I was mostly right as they swept past the entrance and kept advancing on the group trapped below, but one cop pointed his pepper spray at an old man sitting in a chair and sprayed him directly in the face. The terrified crowd eventually began to chant “shame, shame, shame” as from our knoll we watched the black horde attack and send fleeing the trapped protesters. They were driven up the one street left open, cops firing at their backs as they ran, till they were beyond our sight. We stood in stunned silence.
A member of our group had a video camera that day and was down in the street as the attack began. His footage shows protesters, direct action people as well as those who had come to take part in a legal march, running nearly twenty blocks while being fired on and clubbed from behind. They were driven into Overtown, Miami’s notoriously dangerous ghetto where many were arrested. That’s how Miami deals with dissent.
Zeke, Pooh and I wandered back towards the convergence center, hoping to reunite with or at least find out what happened to, our group. We checked for messages and left our own on the voice mail, affirming that we were safe (so far, of course we were still walking, in the dark, through Overtown) and stopping to talk to residents out on their porches who were wondering what had gone down. Some were upset we had brought even more than the usual police presence into their neighborhood, others high fived us and asked for more information on the main issues. I wondered what we had really accomplished.
Fascism is not a word I use lightly. One needs to gather empirical data, follow a rigorous intellectual process in order to gain enough knowledge to back up such a weighted charge and yet one also must not shirk from such an accusation due to a lack of courage or fear of the charge of political un- correctness. Modern power structures are always in a state of flux and therefore not so easily pinned down by any one label but trends can be identified, quantified and qualified and for me this ugly name does not present itself based solely on my recent experience, traumatic as that was. History tells us to look for cultural as well as political trends, trends of style, trends within the lexicon of current discourse, trends in art, music, mass media and fashion. Trends within the relations of power. A good place to start looking is Miami.
The all night drive back to North Carolina left me and my fifteen young co-horts plenty of time for reflection and discussion on the methods and goals of this equally young movement. Some of us questioned the uneasy alliance that had been formed with the so called “Black Block” the young anarchists who seemed to be more about style than substance, some of whom just seemed to be delinquents out to vandalize for fun and self glory. The press used this group to present a negative image of all demonstrators and the cops used their presence as a way to justify their abusive use of overwhelming force to stifle dissent. We had to admit that often times their behavior, taunting police, throwing objects or starting trash fires put everyone in danger. Stopping for gas or coffee on the way north we saw how the press coverage diminished the further from Miami we got. Michael Jackson got the headlines while our efforts were reduced to a few condescending paragraphs on page seventeen. It was obvious we would need to evolve and react as our opposition adapted and hardened. I wondered how many here were in it for the long haul and how many would just find it easier to become another cog in the machine, as so many of my own once idealistic generation had done. I shared my own analysis that globalization was the logical, historically determined result of capitalism on steroids, a gentler name for imperialism. I explained my belief that all the reforms and protections inserted into trade deals wouldn’t stop the relentless profit driven destruction of our natural systems, our few remaining unique cultures or the few remaining freedoms, liberties and democratic institutions left on the planet, that only revolutionary struggle could achieve that end. There was a feeling we had underestimated the beast, our euphoric exuberance replaced by a sobering realization of the entrenchment, the shear immensity and inertia of this force that sought to oppress us. We realized we would have to get smarter. There was also a strengthening of resolve, a feeling we had been tempered in the fire. This is what democracy looks like! Aint no power like the power of the people! Next time will be different.

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